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Kazakstan: Press Face Renewed Threat

Independent journalists wary of new body allegedly aimed at protecting their interests.
By Maria Gordeeva
Kazakstan's president Nursultan Nazarbaev appears set for a new media purge under the guise of protecting journalists from newspaper and television owners who supposedly bully them into anti-government attitudes.



He signalled the move at a congress of journalists last month in Astana where he called for establishment of a council to keep an eye on how the press was performing.



Such a council, the president said, would be charged with protecting the rights and interests of both media owners and their employees, and shielding individuals from "prejudiced and subjective" reporting.



The Minister for Culture, Information and Public Agreement, Mukhtar Kul-Muhammed, said the council was also needed to check whether the press was observing the rule that at least 50 per cent of its output should be in the Kazak language. He said he believes more than half of newspapers and broadcasters are breaching this quota and carrying too much material in Russian or other languages.



The president denounced recent press coverage in which he said industrial oligarchs used the media they owned to fight each other and compelled journalists to support their case.



A number of journalists at the congress supported the president's proposal, some shrugged it off and others expressed alarm. Lira Baiseitova, the editor-in-chief of the Republic-2000 newspaper, commented, "I'm not surprised by this, it was to be expected. I think that the plight of the independent mass media will get worse."



Representatives of the Kazak opposition gave a cautious reaction to the watchdog initiative. Serikbolsyn Abdildin, leader of the Kazak Communist Party, said the press would not be helped by such a body. Irina Savostina, leader of the Generation movement, said it would be yet obstacle to freedom of speech.



Among independent experts, the political analyst Ayazbai Gabitov warned, "This council could develop into a controlling body for journalists who already have enough problems as it is. I think that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Some of the latest official initiatives towards the media have been pointing in this direction."



Gabitov was referring to a plan by authorities to put out a tender for the sale of television and radio frequencies. Many analysts and journalists believe this was aimed at destroying the independent news sector.



Culture Minister Kul-Muhammed, insisted there was nothing suspicious about the tender. He brushed aside fears that it would end up with a series of frequencies transferred to channels supporting the president.



Critics, however, recalled that a similar tender launched in 1996 resulted in the closure of six independent television and radio companies. Among them was the popular broadcaster Totem whose output was not always to the government's liking. The measure inflicted severe damage on the country's independent media.



The new government initiative comes as other forms of pressure are being directed at opposition media, particularly those backing the Democratic Choice for Kazakstan, DCK, movement which appeared at the end of last year. The targets are invariably the business tycoons who own the media rather than the media themselves.



The DCK is backed by a number of high-profile businessmen including the ex-minister for energy, industry and trade, Mukhtar Ablyazov. He owns the Vremya PO, Delovoye obozrenie and the Tan television channel.



Government officials claim these tycoons, especially those backing the DCK, are "dragging journalists into their battles, holding them hostage and forcing them to submit to their will".



President Nazarbaev recently declared, "The non-state mass media have fallen under the frightening weight of their owners...People say that the state dictates, but dictatorial tendencies in the independent sector are a hundred times more worrying."



The president overlooked the fact that financial-industrial and political groups loyal to the government control the state media. His remarks seemed solely aimed at the opposition.



Rashid Dyusembaev, the deputy editor-in-chief of Vremya PO, told IWPR that his main problem was that "not a single printing house in Kazakstan will produce our newspaper. When our managers talk to the printing directors they tell us about technical problems and sometimes even admit they have been ordered from above not to deal with us.



"This all relates to our publication on January 22 of an article which contained a critical analysis of the internal political situation. Now, media that favour the authorities are being protected."



Maria Gordeeva and Timur Jagiparov are IWPR contributors.

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