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

Kazakstan: Newspaper Games

The strange case of a newspaper which looks like the real thing, but in reality is a clever fake designed to sow confusion.
By Tumar Galymov

First page of the real Assandi TImes carrying a report about the bogus issue.
Second page of the real Assandi Times.
First page of the fake weekly Assandi TImes, presented as a special issue.
Second page of the fake newspaper.

Opposition activists in Kazakstan have accused the authorities of faking a leading newspaper in a bid to cause divisions between opposition parties and discredit their leaders as a parliamentary election approaches.

On June 2, what purported to be a special edition of the Assandi Times weekly appeared on newsstands across Almaty, Kazakstan’s second city. The paper, which appeared three days ahead of the normal publishing day, Friday, contained articles apparently signed by opposition leaders, in which they attacked one another.

It also carried a report alleging that a trial of a former consultant to the Kazak authorities, James Giffen, now under way in the United States, was based on false information provided by opponents of the regime. Giffen is accused of arranging bribes for senior Kazak officials in exchange for oil contracts granted to western firms. He denies the charges.

But the paper was not the work of Assandi Times staff. Instead, it was a complete fake that was mocked up to look like the real thing.

The Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, which is linked with the real Assandi Times, swiftly issued a statement saying the articles were a complete fabrication and none had been penned by the politicians or newspaper staff to whom they were attributed.

The article on the “Kazakgate” scandal suggests that the case against Giffen in the United States was somehow the creation of former Kazak prime minister (1994-1997) Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who has been in self-imposed exile since he became a leading opposition figure.

The irony is that the real Assandi Times was one of the few media outlets to report openly on the case, which the Kazak authorities are extremely sensitive about.

The DCK statement said the Wednesday edition was a “provocation aimed at discrediting the party and its leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, as well as other well-known politicians who are in opposition to the current regime”.

Zauresh Batalova, a DCK activist who sits in parliament, says the main aim of whoever was behind the fraudulent Assandi Times was to create a rift between her party and another group, Ak Jol.

The newspaper leads with a letter allegedly written by Zhakyanov from his prison cell. The politician was jailed in 2002 after being convicted of financial crimes – charges which his supporters say were trumped up to stop him working against the government. His fellow DCK leader Mukhtar Ablyazov was jailed on similar charges the same year, but has since been released.

“Mukhtar Ablyazov is abroad, I am in Kushmurun [prison] and the real organisers of this game have come to the forefront of the political struggle, dressed up in the costumes of democrats and liberals,” the article said, proceeding to attack other DCK members and the Ak Jol party.

The DCK was set up in 2001 by a group of young businessmen. It acquired official registration as a political party only in May this year, and plans to field candidates in the general election this autumn alongside other opposition groups such as Ak Jol and the Communist Party. Ak Jol was formed after a number of DCK members split from the group to form a more moderate group.

Although all the politicians named – and slandered – in the false Assandi Times are aware that the whole thing is a fabrication, Batalova believes the affair still leaves a nasty taste. “What those who orchestrated this fake newspaper were aiming to achieve was unpleasant for Ak Jol,” she said.

Like many government critics, Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, is in no doubt that the authorities were behind the fake newspaper. “This is how the authorities respond to opposition’s political activities. It is pro-presidential parties, the secret service or other agencies affiliated with it that are behind the publication,” he said. “It was published in order to confuse voters in the pre-election period.”

Ermukhamet Ertysbaev, an advisor to President Nursultan Nazarbaev, told IWPR that the authorities – and specifically the president’s office – had nothing to do with it.

In an earlier media interview, Ertysbaev referred to it as a “dirty fake newspaper”, and promised to inform the president. “I will call the head of the national security committee and other law enforcement agencies to find out who organised and carried out this act.”

Some journalists point that it is not the first time the opposition media have been targeted by this kind of attempt to damage credibility, known as grey propaganda.

Askhat Sharipjanov, who writes for the independent internet newspaper Navigator, recalled the case of 451 Degrees Fahrenheit, an opposition newspaper from the early Nineties, which suddenly reappeared in web form last year, ahead of local council elections. Once again, it was a fake.

Nikolai Kuzmin of the Reputatsia think-tank, believes that even if the fake newspaper fails to sow dissent in the opposition ranks, it will certainly widen the gulf between government and opposition.

“Such actions by anonymous persons kill trust, and sow suspicion and blame,” he said.

Tumar Galymov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Almaty.