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

Kazakstan's Beleaguered Media Minister

Journalists turn the tables on a minister they say is behind repressive broadcasting and press laws.
By Gaziza Baituova
A feud between the Kazak media and a government official they accuse of restricting their liberty has led to the minister in question, Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, apologising live on television.



It is unusual for a cabinet minister in Kazakstan to come off worst in an encounter with journalists and non-government groups. It is usually the other way round - the government has often come under fire from international watchdogs for curbing media freedom. However, the lines are less clear-cut in this latest dispute,



The culture and information minister – whose portfolio includes wide-ranging controls over the press and broadcasters - had been under mounting pressure from media associations in Kazakstan, culminating in a letter they sent to President Nursultan Nazarbaev on March 13 seeking Yertysbaev’s resignation. The letter was signed by the free-speech group Adil Soz, the Union of Journalists and the National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters.



The move came a week after media groups wrote to Yertysbaev himself asking him to step down.



The immediate cause of the dispute was an incident in which Yertysbaev apparently stopped Yulia Isakova, a reporter with Era-TV, from attending a government meeting on March 2.



Five days later, Isakova sued the minister on the grounds that her rights as a journalist had been violated.



She is asking for symbolic damages of one tenge. “Money is immaterial - what is important is that my professional honour was slighted,” she said.



Sholpan Jaksybaeva, executive director of the National Association of Broadcasters, says the minister’s treatment of the Era-TV journalist is “a slap in the face for the entire journalist profession”.



She continued, “The fact that Yertysbaev behaved like this in front of the cameras looks like a public act of intimidation. Perhaps the minister was hinting to all media – if you criticise me, this will happen to you too!”



Yertysbaev denied that he stopped Isakova coming to the meeting, saying he had merely refused her an interview because Era-TV had lodged a formal complaint against him.



“This is just another campaign against me,” Yertysbaev told the Liter newspaper. “Our ministry gave access [to the government meeting] to everyone who wanted it, and at least ten 10 TV channels were present, including journalists from Era-TV.”



However, this argument seems merely the tip of the iceberg of a much broader conflict between the media and their minister, in which all sorts of grievances are being aired.



Era-TV’s official complaint against the minister centres on the distribution of a new set of broadcast frequencies for provincially-based media in January, which was decided at a meeting of a special government commission on broadcasting rights, chaired by Yertysbaev.



As a result, Era-TV lost its old frequency because it failed to fulfill a statutory requirement governing the proportion of programmes that should be in Kazak rather than Russian. The frequency it got instead does not reach as many viewers.



In late January, the heads of Era-TV and Channel 31, another station which lost out, wrote to President Nazarbaev’s office alleging that the commission had broken or altered a number of its own rules and displayed bias in its final choices.



Yertysbaev disputed the allegation, saying the meeting was perfectly in order.



“We committed no violations….We discussed each application thoroughly. From the start, a consistent decision was made not to give preference to television channels which disregarded the [official] language policy in their broadcasting,” he told the Respublika newspaper.



Apart from the frequency issue, journalists in Kazakstan have other bones to pick with Yertysbaev. The minister contributed many of the controversial clauses to a media law passed by parliament in July 2006 which caused an outcry among journalists, media managers, and free speech organisations. The amendments they felt were retrograde include large fees to register a new media outlet, mandatory re-registration if the organisation makes minor changes to its business, and a ban on editors setting up new publications or broadcast channels if their last one was shut down by the courts.



Yertysbaev has taken a tough stance on the media since he was appointed in December 2005. He is seen as a loyal supporter of President Nazarbaev, and many would argue that in pushing through the media law he was simply pursuing his boss’s wishes.



“This case gives us an indication of the prevailing culture of this regime,” said independent journalist Sergei Duvanov.



As Yertysbaev became the focus of the media’s anger, the question arose as to whether colleagues will stick by him and face down their critics, or leave him to his fate.



As Duvanov noted, this is one of the first disputes of its kind to be so widely known about.“It has already drawn a wide public response, and is a very serious matter,” he said.



Nikolai Kuzmin, political editor of the Expert-Kazakstan journal, says this dispute is not really between the government and the media, and is more about personalities.



“In this case, the journalists are not unhappy with the minister’s policies, they are fed up with the minister himself. The conflict… shows no signs of being a war between the media-community and the state authorities,” he said.



In a first sign that Yertysbaev would be left to face the music, Prime Minister Karim Masimov used a March 11 cabinet meeting to tell the minister to explain himself.



“I began to receive enquiries yesterday and today from various media outlets about relations between you and them,” he told Yertysbaev. “I want to investigate this issue and make my own assessment,” said Masimov. “I’m instructing you to draft a memorandum to me in the next two days, providing explanations to all the questions that I am being asked.”



Then, on March 15, Masimov was appearing in a live phone-in on TV when a viewer asked about the incident involving Yertysbaev and Era-TV’s Isakova. Instead of deflecting the question, Masimov rang up the minister and suggested he apologise to the reporter.



On the other end of the line, Yertysbaev replied that he felt he had done nothing wrong as a minister, but that he apologised to Isakova and all other journalists in a personal capacity for anything he might have done.



Speaking before the phone-in took place, Dosym Satpaev, the director of the Kazakstan-based Risk Assessment Group, predicted that President Nazarbaev will follow the line taken by his prime minister when the matter comes to him for review.



“On this matter, the head of state will be guided not by statements from journalistic NGOs, but by how this information is presented by Prime Minister Masimov,” said Satpaev.



Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Taraz. Staff at IWPR’s news agency project NBCentralAsia contributed additional reporting.