Kazakstan's Disunited Journalists

No space for trade unions in a profession where staff are deterred from any kind of collective action.

Kazakstan's Disunited Journalists

No space for trade unions in a profession where staff are deterred from any kind of collective action.

Journalists in Kazakstan face obstacles created by their employers to discourage them from joining professional associations, and to stop them criticising the authorities, media professionals say.

Eighty per cent of the newspapers and broadcasters in Kazakstan are in private hands, but this does not mean they are truly independent.

Their owners regard maintaining good relations with the authorities as essential for their businesses to survive, and go to great lengths to keep them happy. They discourage critical reporting, and ban journalists from covering the political opposition.

A journalist in the southern town of Taraz who gave his first name as Yerjan explained that it was important for media owners – who generally have other business interests as well – to cultivate contacts in local or national government if they want their businesses to remain trouble-free.

“I can understand our founder – he has his own business, and he also has his own contact at the top who protects him,” he said. “Who is going to bite the hand that feeds him?” said Yerjan.

Like other journalists around the country, this man told IWPR of being warned away from getting involved in professional associations.

“Our contracts do not allow us to join any public organisation,” he said.

Tamara Kaleeva, who heads the media support group Adil Soz, says that to stop people joining unions and other organisations, employers misuse a contractual clause designed to stop their staff freelancing for rival media outlets.

“It’s universal, and people agree to it,” she said.

Seitkazy Mataev, who heads the Union of Journalists, confirmed that job applicants had little choice but to sign away their rights to join professional associations.

Although his group is called the Union of Journalists, he says Kazakstan’s media still lack a fully-functioning, recognised trade union.

“Trade unions are needed to protect [journalists’] rights but they don’t exist. All attempts to set up such an organisation have met with resistance from employers,” he said.

Mataev said that in the absence of recognised trade unions, his organisation tries to support journalists who turn to it for help.

Rozlana Taukina, head of the Journalists in Trouble group, says the idea of a national union of journalists has proved a non-starter, because “the owners and founders of media outlets have banned their journalists from participating in organisations of this kind”.

Taukina said reporters working for a range of outlets including the Vremya and Novoye Pokoleniye newspapers and the KTK, Rakhat and NTK television stations were banned even from attending events run by her own organisation.

Apart from keeping their journalist from organising themselves, media organisations impose an informal but thorough form of censorship.

Owners fear causing offence to officials and seeing their businesses suffer as a result. Their concern stems in part from Kazakstan’s media legislation, which is among the most restrictive in the former Soviet Union.

Journalists can be prosecuted for insulting the president and other officials. Details of the president’s private life, health and financial affairs are classified under state secrecy regulations.

Media legislation passed in 1999 has undergone numerous changes, each time strengthening the authorities’ hand. The most recent initiative is a bill to control the internet more tightly, which was discussed in parliament last month. (For more on this bill, see Kazak Rights Groups Denounce “Internet Censorship” Bill, RCA No. 569, 12-Mar-09.)

Apart from the law, the government can also exert pressure through its control of most of the country’s printing presses and the bulk of radio and TV broadcasting facilities.

Journalists say that in practice, their work is restricted less by the law than by internal rules made up by media owners. Merely asking the wrong question of an official can put their jobs at risk.

One example of this is the recent case of Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a journalist in the northwestern city of Uralsk who lost his job because his superiors were unhappy with a question he put to the regional governor.

At a press conference in January, Akhmedyarov, a news editor with the private TV station TDK-42, asked Baktykozha Izmukhambetov, governor of West Kazakhstan region, about whether a firm belonging to one of his relatives was going to bid for a state-funded construction project.

Governor Izmukhambetov described the question as “unethical and underhand” and said his relatives had as much right as anyone else to take part in public tenders.

Interviewed by IWPR, Akhmedyarov said that following the incident, the founder of the TV station, Serik Mergaliev, reprimanded him for behaviour “damaging to the interests of the TV company”.

“I was asked to resign of my own free will, but I refused to do so,” said the journalist.

Akhmedyarov says he has since been demoted from editor to reporter. He has refused to sign his name in agreement to this decision and has stopped going in to work. He is working freelance at the moment, but has not been formally dismissed.

A number of media NGOs including Journalists in Danger and the Union of Journalists wrote to the culture and education minister expressing concern over the case, but have heard nothing back so far.

The Adil Soz group’s Kaleeva said most journalists are constrained by unwritten rules which amount to self-censorship works. Managers make it clear what subjects are off-limits at editorial meetings and one-to-one chats, and issue warnings when people overstep the mark.

“I have a contract with my employer which does not contain any prohibitive clauses, but despite this every journalist working at our newspaper knows what he can and cannot write,” said a journalist from Oskemen (also known as Ust-Kamenogorsk) in northeastern Kazakstan, who gave his name as Talgat.

“We don’t criticise the president and his circle. That would be pointless, and it wouldn’t get published anyway. If we do criticise the local authorities we have to do so carefully. There are unwritten taboos and if you break the rules, they’ll find a reason to sack you. And no one wants to lose their job.”

In Taraz, Yerjan said “our founder likes to reiterate that we are not the opposition, we are law-abiding citizens”.

He said journalists were given clear guidelines as to how far they could go with criticism. “In the rare cases when we do publish critical reports, it is directed at school directors, the heads of hospitals, and lower-ranking officials.”

As an example of owners’ great reluctance to rock the boat, he cited the case of opposition newspaper editor Ramazan Yesergepov, detained in January after he published a leaked letter ostensibly written by security service officers. (IWPR reported on this in Kazakstan: Growing Calls for Editor’s Release, RCA No. 563, 23-Jan-09.)

Although Yesergepov was arrested in Taraz, the local media were the last to report the story, said Yerjan.

A journalist in Shymkent, also in southern Kazakstan, said he was under instructions from his editor not to criticise officials or publish material that portrays them negatively.

He recalled how he recently uncovered evidence of possible wrongdoing by a particular official but was told to “leave it be”.

This journalist said he was allowed to criticise dirty streets and markets, and the behaviour of traffic police. Anything above that level was “not to be touched if you want to hold onto your job”.

As a result, he said private media now resemble the state-run press and broadcast outlets in almost every respect.

“Over the last five or six years, we [his newspaper] have changed so much that our coverage is no different from that in the state media,” he said. “The only thing that sets us apart is that our coverage is more reserved in tone compared with their [state] output, which exudes of excitement about the president, the [ruling] Nur Otan party and the local government.”

Taukina says her Journalists in Danger group is encountering more and more cases all across Kazakstan where journalists request help after coming under pressure from the authorities.

“To escape this trend, we need a media law that is not subject to [repeated] amendment,” said Taukina. “We need unbreakable regulations that protect the professional work of journalists.”

The restrictive legislation now in force makes the need for trade unions even more pressing, she added.

Natalya Napolskaya is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

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