Comment

Kazak Media Freedom in Reverse Gear

Continuing persecution backed by raft of retrograde laws.
  • Gulmira Birjanova. (Photo courtesy of G Birjanova)

Developments over the last 12 months in Kazakstan leave one in no doubt that the authorities are methodically and systematically destroying media freedom.

It is hard not to feel depressed by the continuing crackdown on opposition media outlets, which has been compounded by new legislation that further erodes freedom of expression.

In December, the authorities banned the K+ satellite TV channel, Stan TV, the Vzglyad newspaper, and eight papers and 23 websites affiliated to the Respublika newspaper.

Some of these media outlets are connected to Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former banker and a staunch Nazarbaev opponent now living in exile. The legal action followed the trial of Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the Alga party, which is also associated with Ablyazov. After of Kozlov was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in October, the authorities turned on Respublika and other media outlets, accusing them of purveying extremist views and presenting a threat to national security.

At the beginning of January, President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed off on changes to the counter-terrorism law which rights activists say could be used to persecute political opponents and critical media.

Also last month, the text of a new criminal code due to be submitted to parliament in August was made public. Its stated aim is to provide better protections for of human rights. But when it comes to freedom of expression, at least, it will have the opposite effect.

In a letter expressing concern at the bill, Article 20, a coalition of media rights groups including Adil Soz, Internews Kazakstan and MediaNet warned that it would make the already draconian libel law even worse by providing for longer sentences and bigger fines, and noted that it created legal justification for blocking websites – already a common censorship method.

The coalition called for defamation to be decriminalised altogether, for special libel protections for officials to be dropped, and for clarification on the vaguely-worded offence of “inciting social strife”.

A law on national security passed in January 2012 includes wording on “information that prompts a negative public reaction” that is so general as to allow almost any interpretation by officials. The law also granted the authorities extensive rights to intervene and block telecommunications – another example of legislation catching up with existing practice.

A broadcasting law passed in March last year has effectively legalised the state monopoly of the sector. As the head of the national association of TV broadcasters, Sholpan Jaksybaeva, put it, “enforcing this law will lead to yet another carve-up of the market, undoubtedly to the detriment of regional broadcasters”.

She predicted that the law would put these regional broadcast companies, which tend to be more independent than nationwide outlets, at risk of closure, she said.

Meanwhile, an access-to-information bill hailed as progressive and expected to go through in January has stalled.

Numerous journalists have fallen foul of the law over the last year. Adil Soz has recorded 19 assaults on journalists and 17 criminal cases including 11 libel suits, one allegation of inciting social unrest and one of encouraging ethnic hate. Aside from criminal prosecutions, over 100 journalists faced civil libel suits. Adil Soz also counted 180 cases where access to websites, online forums and blogs was denied.

The media sector as a whole is becoming more biddable as a result of heavy state funding – almost 90 per cent of media outlets are recipients of public money to varying extents. That makes it easy to demand that they toe the line, killing competition, encouraging self-censorship and resulting in a situation where it is hard to tell commercial and state-run media content apart.

All this leaves little hope for activists who have been campaigning for greater access to information, fairer media registration rules, and curbs on libel actions and damage sums.

It used to be that supporters of the government would counter criticism of the media situation in Kazakstan by arguing that at least things were not as bad as in neighbouring Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Now, Kazakstan is beginning to catch up, and very fast.

Gulmira Birjanova is a media lawyer with the Legal Media Centre in Astana.

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