Sanat Urnaliev

Sanat Urnaliev

I was born in 1984 in the Kazak village of Aktau, in western Kazakstan. My mother is a teacher and my father has worked all his life as a driver. I live in the city of Uralsk, the regional centre, with my wife and two-year-old son. I trained as a teacher of Russian language and literature. My interest in Russian philology comes from my childhood. I still remember the joy I felt when I first learned to read - I used to have favourite letters and learned to put them together to make words. In 2005, I graduated from the West Kazakstan Humanitarian University in Uralsk and went into teaching. But this is not the period of my life I recall with fondness. There was a lot of bureaucratic paperwork and activities a teacher was expected to take on, such as preparing groups of schoolchildren to appear as part of cheering crowds at public events. Teachers, like other public sector workers, are obliged to carry out such tasks whenever the authorities need free labour. The first thing I did when I left my teaching job six years ago was buy all the local newspapers. I chose one which seemed to me the most objective - a weekly called Uralskaya Nedelya - phoned them up and asked to see the editor-in-chief. This was how I got into journalism. In the first six months at Uralskaya Nedelya, I covered crime stories and dealt with readers’ letters. Since then, I have worked for several national newspapers, three regional newspapers and have written for a variety of websites. Currently, I work as a reporter for the city newspaper Nadezhda. For me, the most interesting aspect of journalism is reporting about things that I have witnessed – telling readers what you have seen with your own eyes. But telling the truth is not always easy in a country like Kazakstan. On the one hand, the country’s leadership proclaims its adherence to principles of democracy. But, at the same time, it has been ruled by the same person – president Nursultan Nazarbaev - since 1991 when the country became independent from the Soviet Union. Journalists in Kazakstan can write critical reports but everyone knows about taboo topics. Criticising the president is a no-go area. As a result of self-censorship, which is widespread in the Kazak media, many journalists stick to an unwritten rule – you either write good things about the president or you don’t write anything at all. For journalists in the regions, the list expands to include regional governors appointed by the president himself. Therefore, as a reporter, you can safely write critical articles about the government, local authorities and unscrupulous businesses. But if a journalist breaks the taboo, he or she can be sacked, beaten up, intimidated and even killed. For me, IWPR turned out to be that rare platform where it was possible to express my view about the latest political developments in Kazakstan.

I wrote about what I think regarding the idea of a referendum proposed December 2010 by the president’s supporters to extend his current term in office until 2020 without holding elections (See: Taking a Stand in Kazakstan).

After my comment was published, I sent out a link of my report to friends and colleagues, and they emailed it to others. I received so much positive feedback. Some said such reports will help to change people’ attitude and we need more articles like that. There were also others who gave me a friendly warning that I should be wary of the authorities’ reaction to it. Other things I learned while writing for IWPR is the need to have good sources for stories and talking to all sides. The latter does not come easy in Kazakstan where officials are reluctant to talk to the press. I think there are many journalists who dream of writing a book one day. I am one of those. I am working on practical manual for provincial journalists. Unlike colleagues working for national newspapers based in Kazakstan’ biggest cities – the capital Astana and the financial centre Almaty - journalists in the regions are subjected to much more intense censorship, provided with less opportunities to improve their skills and face more obstacles when it comes to access to information. I would like to share with them things that as a reporter I have experienced and learned myself.

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