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

Kazakstan: Press Freedom in Dispute

The Kazak government makes a show of allowing a free press to flourish but media representatives call this year the most difficult in their history.
By Leila Mukhamedova

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has proclaimed to a disbelieving press that 90 per cent of the country's mass media was independent and free to criticise the government without fear of repression.

He told a press conference in Astana on July 5 that criticism was "normal" and denied that foreign journalists were curbed.

The president's assurances were greeted with scorn by the press who have seen colleagues arrested and their offices closed or even burnt down since the beginning of the year.

"At open forums, government representatives boast to westerners that our mass media here is just like it is in Europe. In fact the mass media is repressed in the same way as it is in Iran and Iraq," said opposition journalist Andrei Sviridov.

The last day of June marked Journalists' Day on which there was an official assessment of the media over the 10 years of Kazakstan's independence from the Soviet Union.

The day was celebrated with a new international forum in the city of Ridder. Although attended by media representatives from seven countries in Eurasia, there was a marked absence of most leading figures associated with contemporary journalism in Kazakstan.

Analysts pointed to a recent tendency for the national leadership to celebrate mass media events with pompous gatherings aimed at coverage in the foreign press.

The head of the Central Asian agency for political research, Erlan Karin, said in an interview with IWPR, "This year was the most difficult yet for national journalism. The media events held by the government are essentially just one side of a 'carrot and stick' policy towards the press."

Seitkazy Mataev, chairman of the Kazakstan Journalist Union, felt the media had suffered over the last 12 months but suggested that the situation in other countries in the region was worse. " (Although) this year was the darkest for journalism in 10 years," he said, " the level of freedom of speech is encouraging by comparison with our neighbours in Central Asia."

Karin agreed that the position of Kazak media compared favourably with that of some CIS countries. "However, over the last six months the government has contrived to destroy what it created itself in 10 years of independence," he said. "On the whole, though, the government has not managed to bring journalism to its knees."

The director of Internews Kazakstan, Oleg Katsiev, said in an interview with IWPR, "Kazak journalism is going through difficult times. The cynical dictate of the government that leads to self-censorship and suppression of free and critical thought is clear to see. Media the government does not like are closed down, while dissident journalists are persecuted, beaten or fired.

"The government's abuse of power and outright persecution of independent media has been given serious attention in foreign media and damaged the image of Kazakstan. If this is what the government wanted, they have got what they deserve."

Since the beginning of 2002, journalists, editors, newspapers and broadcasters have all been targeted.

Some shots were fired at the transmitter of the private television channel Tan, which is associated with opposition leader Mukhtar Abliazov. The station was subsequently closed.

The office of the newspaper Delovoye obozrenie Respublika was burned down, as was the Ak Jaiyk publishing house. The editorial office of SolDat was burgled. A number of television channels - Irbis, TV 6x6, Era and Teletek - have had their licenses removed. Criminal cases have been brought against managers and employees of independent publications, including Irina Petrushova, Askar Darimbet and Sergei Duvanov.

In 2001, the Adil soz foundation, an NGO supporting journalists, recorded 12 criminal cases against the media: four for insulting the president, one for insulting a government representative, six for libel and abuse and one for illegally receiving and divulging information containing a commercial or bank secret.

In 2002 so far, Adil soz has recorded 97 cases: 91 for humiliation of honour and disparagement and six for misrepresentation. Forty-four of the plaintiffs were officials, seven of them businessmen, 30 were ordinary citizens and 16 members of juidical bodies.

The European Union expressed deep concern over the persecution of the Kazak media and distributed a statement in Madrid and Brussels on May 28 concerning recent developments. The statement signed by 15 EU countries noted that curbs on press freedom raised concerns over the safety of independent journalists here.

Local media experts say that at present the president and his media supporters are trying to shape press coverage in a fashion that suits them. For example, at a congress of Kazak reporters in the middle of March, Nazarbaev expressed his own vision of the value of journalism. "Personally, I favour the sort of journalism that gives the maximum amount of information but does not impose the opinion of individual commentators," he said.

Leading press representatives were sceptical, pointing out that when Nazarbaev spoke of "opinion of individual commentators" he meant critical views. "It's silly to listen to his comments, especially as the government thinks that even raw information should be favourable to it," said Katsiev.

Amirjan Kosanov, press secretary for the exiled opposition leader Akezhan Kazhegeldin, said, "In 10 years of independence, the government has been unable to create the conditions required for a free press. All the announcements about press freedom in Kazakstan are just a bluff. The fourth estate exists only in the sense that it is subordinated to the executive."

Nazarbaev, he said, thinks the media "is a split by affiliation to one oligarch group or another while journalists stray far from their main goals - to inform society objectively".

Martin Michan, a member of the US Congress, said in a May 24 speech to congressmen about the press situation in Kazakstan, "The main media bodies, including television, radio and newspapers are owned and controlled by the family of President Nazarbaev. Independent media bodies are persecuted in various ways or simply destroyed.

"Only a few independent publications have remained where people can express independent or opposition points of view. In this way, there is a reduced possibility to make critical statements in the press about the efforts of Nazarbaev to hold on to his post forever or about corruption in the higher echelons of power."

At a discussion of the political situation in Kazakstan during a session of the European parliament on June 12, Pyotr Zalmaev, a representative of the International League for Human Rights, said, "An active campaign to persecute independent and opposition press began in 1996-1997 and continues to this day. At present, the majority of media in Kazakstan is under the control of the president's family, including his daughter Dariga and his son-in-law Timur Kulibaev."

Katsiev said another problem was that media controlled by Nazarbaev's family lure good journalists with attractive salaries. He said the independent sector can't afford to pay such generous pay because of the former's monopoly over the advertising market.

Leila Mukhamedova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan