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

Kazakstan: New Press Minister Promises Change

New minister promises a more liberal approach to the media, but some doubt he will be allowed to succeed.
By Inna Lyudva

The appointment of a leading opposition figure as Kazakstan’s minister responsible for regulating the media has had a mixed reception from policy analysts.


Some believe the July 12 appointment of Ak Jol party leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev as minister of information is no more than a plot to co-opt the opposition ahead of an autumn general election. But others point to Sarsenbaev’s promise to reduce the government’s tight hold over the media.


Sarsenbaev, 42, is no newcomer to the job, since he was information minister between 1993 and 2001. After that he served as head of Kazakstan’s security council and then ambassador to Russia, before resigning in December 2003 to join Ak Jol.


The new minister is confident that he can make a difference. “I agreed to take up the post of minister with the aim of taking political reforms forwards,” he told IWPR.


In a statement following his appointment, Sarsenbaev said his presence in the government would help the opposition become engaged in the reform process, and contribute to a fair election on September 19.


“I sincerely believe that my experience as a leader of a democratic party and my efforts as a minister will be used to conduct fair, open and honest elections,” he said.


If the parliamentary election falls short of standards, Sarsenbaev said he will step down, “If the election is unfair and the public is not satisfied, not only the minister but all officials [involved] will have to resign.”


Sarsenbaev’s Ak Jol is the most moderate of three opposition parties standing in the election, the others being the Communists and Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK. It was set up in 2002 when a group of young technocrats holding senior positions in the administration split off from the DCK to form a group that was less openly critical of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.


For some, the recruitment of Sarsenbaev is a coup for the government in its attempt to weaken and divide the opposition.


“The fact that Sarsenbaev was invited to take up this post means that a potential candidate has been taken out of the election campaign,” said Andrey Chebotaryov, a political analyst with the National Research Centre in Almaty. “It is more beneficial for the president to have Sarsenbaev on his team than in the ranks of the opposition.”


Another leading analyst, Nurbulat Masanov – whose views are close to those of the opposition - thinks President Nazarbaev is successfully pursuing a policy of divide and rule.


“This step by the president is an attempt to control Ak Jol,” said Masanov. “It is a growing party, very influential and interesting. Attempts to take Ak Jol by force have proved unsuccessful.”


While some say that the net result is that Ak Jol loses any chance of getting its leader into parliament, others believe the party knows exactly what it is doing: calculating that Sarsenbaev’s ministerial position will give him – and Ak Jol – more leverage in the election campaign than if he were standing as a candidate.


“They will have their own lobbyist. With his ministerial status he will be able to endorse his party’s interests and support them,” said Dosym Satpaev, a political analyst who heads the Risk Assessment Group. He added that although Sarsenbaev has said he will not involve himself in party politics ahead of the election, he is likely to do so anyway.


There are also areas of compromise where both Ak Jol and the government could benefit. Chebotaryov thinks that “Sarsenbaev will probably be given an opportunity to implement some of ideas that Ak Jol has proposed recently.”


One such area is the crucial question of media freedom. One of his first jobs will be to review the status of legislation governing broadcasters and the press.


A new law, drafted by the information ministry and passed by parliament, was rejected by President Nazarbaev in April following substantial criticism from media watchdogs and civil rights groups both at home and abroad. That draft was criticised for placing further curbs on journalistic freedom and giving too much power to the information ministry.


With no new bill yet on the table, Sarsenbaev has signalled his intent to adopt a less restrictive approach and draft a law that is less stifling for journalists. “It is very important that we now lay the foundations for a mutually respectful and responsible relationship between the media and the authorities,” he said.


Sarsenbaev has already taken practical steps to reverse his ministry’s previously aggressive stance towards independent or opposition-minded media outlets. Last week, he ordered officials to drop lawsuits the ministry was bringing against three private newspapers, Nachnyom s Ponedelnika, Delovaya Nedelya and Turkestan. In one case – that of Nachnyom s Ponedelnika – a deputy minister has issued an apology.


He has also banned regional offices of the ministry from starting law cases against the media outlets on their own initiative.


In a move that could prove even more controversial, Sarsenbaev has pledged to open up the media market to allow more players in. The current distribution of radio and television frequencies will be reviewed and some new ones may be offered to other companies. At the moment, much of the media – particularly broadcasters - is owned by powerful figures close to Nazarbaev and his entourage.


Despite what looks like a promising start, some local observers are sceptical about Sarsenbaev’s chances of success.


According to Satpaev, the minister faces a backlash from existing media groups if he steps on their toes. “Sarsenbaev is a lone fighter in the current political system,” he said. “He is trying to take it on by himself, and is proposing initiatives to demonopolise the media which could alienate many influential politicians and those linked to the media business.”


Gani Kasymov, who heads the Patriots’ Party, does not believe that Sarsenbaev will be able to push through a more democratic law. “He will be dismissed as soon as he starts writing the first article of the new media law. He will be gone after the election,” said Kasymov.


Eduard Poletaev, IWPR country director in Kazakstan, Inna Lyudva is IWPR project assistant and Asan Kuanov is an independent journalist in Almaty.


More IWPR's Global Voices