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

Kazak Media in No-Win Situation

A cash offer from the government could save broadcasters from closure - but it may come at the price of editorial independence.
By Medet Ibragimov

Independent media companies are facing a dilemma over whether to accept state funding amid fears it may lead to further censorship.


Tough legislation forces broadcasters to transmit at least half their output in the Kazak language, and the government has offered around a million US dollars to help them meet its target.


While the initiative could help independent stations produce quality Kazak language programmes, many journalists and opposition activists believe media that accept the cash will be expected to toe the official line.


The concerns appear to be justified as an IWPR source in the Almaty city administration said the financial handouts are part of an ongoing campaign to control the media.


In recent months, there's been a concerted effort to muzzle opposition press allied to the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, movement, with newspapers and broadcasters linked to its leaders coming under increasing pressure. Licences have been revoked, offices hit by mysterious arson attacks and a number of journalists have been assaulted.


Oleg Katsiev, director of Internews Kazakstan, told IWPR that having wielded a "stick" against the most outspoken media, the Astana authorities are now using the lure of money as a "carrot" to ensure the more moderate ones do not step out of line.


Rozlana Taukina, president of the Association of Independent Electronic Media, echoed his views. "The government is attempting to introduce total ideological control over free programme-making," she warned.


The 50 per cent Kazak language rule was passed in May of last year, and is designed to counter the dominance of Russian across the media. While ethnic Kazaks now constitute just over half of the population, many do not speak their own language fluently.


But Tamara Kaleeva, president of the media NGO, Adil Soz, told IWPR that the language directive ignores the bottom line of broadcasting - the need to attract the largest number of listeners and viewers as possible.


"It is impossible to get advertising for Kazak language programmes, and the majority of stations rely on that revenue," she said.


Following criticism of the new law, the government last month discussed plans to allocate some 150 million Tenge - around one million dollars - to enable independent broadcast media to create Kazak language programmes for the year 2003.


Earlier this year, at a meeting with print and broadcast media journalists, Kazak information minister Mukhtar Kulmukhammed said that the government would take a tough stand over the language rule - even though many companies may go out of business as a result.


"Out of 76 TV and radio stations in this country, only strong and law-abiding ones will be left," he warned.


Independent radio station Rifma (Rhyme), in the western Kazak city of Aktiubinsk, has already fallen foul of the legislation and was closed down in June this year.


Editor Marina Vasilieva and her journalists, who insist Rifma met the 50 per cent language requirement in its current affairs programming, are now going to the supreme court in an attempt to win back its licence after appeals at local and regional levels were unsuccessful.


Other independent television and radio stations face a similar fate to Rifma. Unless they take the government money, they may struggle to increase their Kazak output. But in accepting the handout, the authorities may feel they have the right to meddle in their editorial output.


"Even if we accept the funding, we can't rule out stories that criticise the government. If our news programmes aren't honest and hard-hitting, they will be of no use to anyone," warned Alexei Burenkov, Russian-language editor-in-chief of radio and television company Shakhar.


Medet Ibragimov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan