Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Media Bias Mars Leadership Contest

Nazarbaev promised freedom of speech in run-up to presidential election, but his pledge is sounding very empty.
By Olga Dosybieva
The authorities and the official media appear to be trying to sabotage the campaigns of opposition candidates contesting December 4 presidential elections.



Several opposition candidates have claimed that state media are effectively boycotting them, and there have been reports of the authorities harassing independent and oppositional newspapers.



Observers say this flies in the face of assurances President Nursultan Nazarbaev made to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the beginning of the electoral campaign that the country upheld all democratic principles, including freedom of speech.



Commentators say that the state's tactics in these elections are little different from those employed in previous ballots, making fair media coverage almost impossible.



Two opposition candidates, Jarmakhan Tuyakbay and Alikhan Baimenov, have in the last few days issued statements deploring the "extreme one-sidedness" and "censorship" of the official media, which they say discredits the election.



Representatives of Tuyakbay, the main opposition candidate, say that the newspapers Egemen Kazakstan and Kazakhstanskaya Pravda refused to publish his campaign literature because it was deemed to violate electoral legislation and defame the president. The national television channel, Kazakstan, is said to have refused to broadcast a 15-minute speech by the candidate for the same reasons.



At the same time, there have been reports of state-owned printing houses refusing to publish opposition and independent newspapers, and police trying to confiscate the print runs of those who have been able to operate.



In October, staff at the newspapers Epokha, Svoboda Slova and Juma Times went on hunger strike after a printing house refuse to publish the titles.



Last week, law enforcement officers detained for eight hours a newspaper delivery vehicle travelling between Almaty and Astana with issues of Epokha, Svoboda Slova, Pravda Kazakhstana and Juma Times together with Tuyakbay campaign literature.



Police attempted to inspect the newspapers, but were prevented by Tuyakbay representatives who insisted that they produce a search warrant.



In another incident, officers seized opposition newspapers from a car belonging to a senior member of the candidate's campaign team. After an official complaint was made, the titles were returned, but the police involved escaped prosecution.



Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Kazakstan branch of the media protection group Journalists in Trouble says opposition newspapers consistently come under pressure during elections because of the increased demand for them," The greater interest in alternative information triggers a negative reaction from the authorities, so entire print runs of newspapers are confiscated and destroyed."



Tatyana Pak, president of another media rights group based in Taraz, the Forpost Foundation says individual journalists also face intimidation during the run-up to elections, with editorial offices around the country receiving frequent visits from officials and police.



"They are interested in the personal details of journalists... their pseudonyms… they ask for their home phone numbers and even try to determine their political leanings.



"Demands this sort of information is illegal. Just as it is illegal for [them] to 'ask' journalists not to publish 'negative' information before elections, allegedly so as not to aggravate the situation in the country."



Under such conditions, many commentators say that it's virtually impossible to achieve any degree of balanced and impartial media coverage of elections in Kazakstan.



Sholan Akkazina, an observer from the Republican Network of Independent Observers in the Pavlodar region, says that local newspapers carry numerous appeals by various public organisations supporting the president, but none backing any other candidate,



"When the head of the Pavlodar branch of the movement Pokolenie, Vasily Zavizenov, asked the newspaper Zvezda Priirtyshya to print an appeal in support of Tuyakbay, he was rejected out of hand and advised not to waste his time coming to their editorial offices."



Diana Okremova, the president of the North Kazakstan Legal Media Centre, says it wasn't so long ago that in the weeks before an election the media would reflect a range of views and arguments, but now there's a clear bias to one candidate or another.



"Naturally, it is quite difficult to talk about objectivity in this situation," she said.



Summing up the level of press bias, Viktoria Li, an Atyrau-based representative of the Adil Soz Foundation, a free speech group, said she'd just bought same-day copies of nine local newspapers with the same pro-Nazarbaev article and the same photograph of the president on their front pages.



Olga Dosybieva is an IWPR contributor in Shymkent. Askar Shomshekov is an independent journalism in Pavlodar.