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Kazak Media Law Shot Down

President uses international media event to rule that a controversial law is unconstitutional.
By Eduard Poletaev

The decision by Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev to reject a controversial media bill before it becomes law has drawn a cautious welcome – mixed with scepticism – from human rights and media observers.


While some welcomed Nazarbaev’s move to block a law which both local and international media watchdog organisations described as draconian, others reserved judgement about whether the legislation that is eventually approved will be substantially better.


The president made the announcement at the Eurasia Media Forum, an international conference organised on April 22-24 by his daughter Dariga, herself an important player in the media business.


President Nazarbaev explained that he had rejected the law on the basis of legal advice, saying,“I received a ruling from the Constitutional Council that certain provisions of the draft law are not in accordance with the constitution.”


At a press conference which followed the announcement, Dariga Nazarbaeva said, “today the president of Kazakstan has defended the rights and interests of journalists”.


The decision won praise from Jan Kubis, secretary-general of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had previously criticised the draft law.


Oleg Katsiev, director of Internews Kazakstan, also expressed pleasure at the outcome. He felt international pressure had been instrumental in getting Nazarbaev to change his mind, but said the president had also benefited. “The leadership is not losing out, but gaining from this situation,” he said.


Others believe this was a calculated decision which allowed Nazarbaev to score a few political points in the face of a concerted campaign to get the law changed.


“This is a public relations exercise on the president’s part,” said Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. “There has been a lot of criticism from all sides. Adopting the law under these circumstances would have meant the president completely disregarding public opinion.”


The media law was passed last month by Kazakstan’s parliament, not normally noted for supporting legislation to which the president has not consented in advance.


In draft form, the law was widely criticised by local journalists and international media organisations for strengthening the hold which the information minister would have over the media. The European Union, OSCE and other organisations expressed significant concerns, and the London-based advocacy group Article 19 noted that some provisions in the law would significantly restrict media freedoms, while others were worded too vaguely. The Kazakh Congress of Journalists voiced concerns that officials would be granted rights to refuse or withdraw a journalist’s accreditation.


Dariga Nazarbaeva sided with those who opposed to the law, and some believe she played a key role in securing her father’s volte face. The Asar party which she leads as well as the Congress of Journalists – chaired by her – campaigned against the legislation.


Nazarbaeva had practical reasons for opposing the law.


Apart from effectively controlling state-owned national TV and radio she owns the Khabar company, Kazakstan’s biggest media group which includes television, radio and newspapers. Khabar’s position has enabled it to dominate the advertising market, a position which could have been damaged by legal restrictions requiring advertisements to make up no more of 15 per cent of broadcast time. Further commercial damage would have been done by regulation of the sexual content of programmes – a provision whose primary impact would be on re-broadcasts of TV programmes made in Russia.


But some observers believe that Dariga Nazarbaeva understands that the whole of the media stands to gain from a more liberal economic and political environment. At a recent meeting of the Congress of Journalists, she said, “a lack of professional solidarity when it comes to issues of how the media operates – regardless of whether they are state-owned or private, and irrespective of their economic situation – will lead to a position where everyone, large or small, loses out.”


It’s not clear what happens next. Some commentators think the drafting process will start all over again after parliamentary elections in autumn this year are over. “There will be a new parliament by the end of this year, and media organisations will restart the process of proposing amendments to the bill,” said Seitkazi Mataev, chairman of the journalists’ union.


Zhovtis believes that while this bill is dead in the water, the struggle for fair legal oversight of the media is far from over.


“It is quite possible that there will be attempts to produce another new draft,” he said. “But this initiative should be discussed with the public, and not put forward by the government, otherwise it will remain the case that the information ministry is trying to impose its own vision of media freedom on Kazakstan."


Eduard Poletaev is IWPR’s project director in Kazakstan.


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