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Kazakstan: Nazarbaev Turns Screws on Media

President Nazarbaev is hoping new media legislation will silence his opponents.
By Gaukhar Beketova

Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev, incensed by an increasingly vocal opposition, has lashed out against independent media in the country.


At a meeting of government ministers and provincial governors held earlier this week, Nazarbaev warned that he would be taking "strict measures" to put an end to what he called unacceptable criticism of his administration over the last few months.


Kazakstan has seen a growing momentum behind groups who want to curb the president's excessive powers and push forward the democratic reform of the country's parliament, judiciary and media.


Earlier this month, several thousand people demonstrated on the streets of Almaty demanding change. Staged by a movement calling itself Democratic Choice, this was the first such sign of dissent the country has seen in years and Nazarbaev wants to put a stop to it.


Cracking down on the media is one way of going about crushing criticism.


Kazakstan already has a fairly shaky grasp of the concept of free speech and the thought of even more restrictions is causing concern among independent media and human rights organisations.


A new draft law will be debated by parliament in the very near future with the aim of changing the status of national television and radio stations. The legislation will give them greater powers at the expense of local broadcasters.


Although, on the surface, this seems innocuous enough, the legislation actually gives more of a voice to Nazarbaev's own views as substantial sections of the national media are in the hands of family members.


For example, the president's daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva, controls the Khabar media group, which has several television and radio companies as well as a number of printed publications. This group has enormous financial resources and covers the entire republic.


Ardak Dosjan, Kazak deputy minister of culture, claimed that the new law was being proposed "to strengthen the country's television and radio stations" but it is hard to see how anyone other than national broadcasters will benefit.


Some parliamentary deputies are themselves suspicious about the new laws. Valentin Makalkin, one of the few independents in the assembly, told IWPR that he feared the legislation could be used as a means of "applying pressure" on the media.


The authorities have tried to keep the legislation under wraps, attempting to slip it through parliament without provoking opposition criticism. They have been largely successful.


When IWPR asked leading commercial TV station journalist Inna Rudakova about her reaction to the draft law, she replied that she had no idea about its existence.


This is worrying as ignorance of repressive measures eases the way for the authorities to crack down once and for all on media it perceives as a threat.


Nazarbaev will be hoping that his new press law will have more immediate and successful effect than legislation which came into effect at the beginning of this year. Also designed to cripple independent, regional media, the latter aimed to cut down on the broadcasting of foreign output.


While the official reason given was to encourage the production of domestic programming, it was done also in the knowledge that the smaller stations who do not have the funds to replace overseas programmes with original material would likely be forced out of business.


Kazak television and radio stations are now obliged under the law to reduce the amount of foreign transmissions to 50 per cent of total broadcasting time.


However, to the annoyance of the authorities, many stations are turning a blind eye to the laws. "At the moment there isn't a single nationwide or regional broadcaster complying with the law on relaying foreign material," said Raushan Akpenova, chief of the information ministry's mass media department.


Doubtless, efforts will be made via the courts or by other means to ensure compliance. Next year, the law becomes even more draconian and demands foreign material is cut to just 20 per cent of output.


Not only do the stations lack funds to fill in the gaps with their own material, they will lose revenue from advertisers as audiences dwindle and, inevitably, face closure.


Gaukhar Beketova is a journalist in Kazakstan


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