Kazakstan: Consternation at Media Law

Journalists say their objections to draft legislation they see as media-unfriendly are being ignored.

Kazakstan: Consternation at Media Law

Journalists say their objections to draft legislation they see as media-unfriendly are being ignored.

Few expect any changes when the Kazak parliament starts debating a controversial new law on the media later in December, even though independent journalists have complained that it will curb freedom of expression.

The legislation contains a number of provisions that international and local media rights groups say will give the state excessive powers to regulate and control the press and broadcasters, and make it easy to close them down for the slightest offence.

The London-based media watch group Article 19 said in September that "a number of its provisions impose significant restrictions on freedom of expression", and that the proposed licensing and accreditation system "spells total state control of the press, in direct violation of international guarantees of freedom of expression".

Critics say that despite proclaiming the importance of freedom of expression, the law will make life harder for both media companies and individual journalists. The owners of media outlets will become responsible - and legally answerable - for their editorial output.

And because the wording of the law is simultaneously punitive and vague, there are many areas where journalists could find they have strayed into off-limit territory, such as writing about matters of national security or making comments deemed offensive to government officials. There will also be more scope for forcing them to reveal sources.

Local journalists have sought to make their objections heard by the ministry of information which drafted the legislation. "The ministry received numerous submissions from non-governmental organisations, but did not incorporate any of them," said Rozlana Taukina, who heads the non-government Journalists in Trouble foundation. "So the draft law is full of restrictive articles which limit the rights of the press."

Kazak media organisations had little more success when they met members of parliament on November 24 to encourage them to include some changes. Tamara Kaleeva, director of the Adil Soz foundation, which works to promote free speech, told IWPR that the deputies were intransigent.

"These people, who wield enormous power, appear to imagine themselves the last bastion of statehood, in a hostile environment inhabited entirely by public [non-government] organisations," she said, noting that not a single suggestion has been accepted.

Abdikalel Bakir, who heads the parliamentary group now working on the legislation, insists that it will not simply be rubber-stamped in its existing form. "The draft submitted by the government is changing considerably in the course of our work, and those who criticise us are seriously mistaken," he said.

Oleg Katsiev, director of Internews-Kazakstan, is not convinced. "I don't think we should count on parliament. The one we have is no more than a puppet in the hands of those who wield the real power," he said. "Our only hope is that the public council on the media, which works for the Kazak president, will appeal to him directly and will be able to influence him."

How much they will be able to change President Nursultan Nazarbaev's mind is debateable, since he is the driving force behind the new law. He first suggested it in January 2002, but the current legislative process only got going after a speech he made in August 2003. His remark that "Society needs freedom of speech, but not freedom of slander and misinformation" seems to have set the tone for the legislation - which was produced five days later.

Independent journalists in Kazakstan say that even without the restrictions envisaged in the new law, they already face harassment, intimidation and assault if they grow too critical of less-than-spotless aspects of the regime. Officials are particularly sensitive to allegations of corruption in the president's closest circle. Sergei Duvanov, who wrote on this theme, is in jail after a rape conviction widely seen as politically motivated.

Iliodor Kalsin, a lawyer with the Adil Soz foundation, explains how things have gradually got worse, "The tightening of screws on the mass media started with a media law in 1999. That law was amended in 2001 and now we are confronted with this new draft law, which puts journalists in an even worse position."

Not surprisingly, Kazakstan has slipped further down in the annual ranking of press freedom compiled by the international watchdog Reporters without Borders, from 116 in 2002 to 138 this year.

According to Katsiev, many journalists in the independent sector are so disillusioned that they have not bothered to read the draft. "Sadly, most journalists take little interests in the laws which control them, now or in the future, probably because they no longer have any faith in the rule of law," he said.

Efforts are continuing to try to influence the legislation before it is passed by parliament. Together with Adil Soz and the Kazakstan Press Club, the IWPR office in Kazakstan has invited deputies to a series of public meetings in Almaty, which will be attended by prominent journalists and lawyers.

These hearings will discuss how the law relates to free speech guarantees in the Kazak constitution as well as international standards, with a view to making recommendations to the parliamentary working group.

Eduard Poletaev is director of IWPR's Kazakstan office.

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