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Media Freedom Worse in Kazakstan's OSCE Year

Local and international watchdogs report backsliding in a year when major improvements were promised.
By Irina Mednikova
  • Kazak Newsstand (Photo: Irina Mednikova)
    Kazak Newsstand (Photo: Irina Mednikova)

Media rights groups say Kazakstan’s government has ignored earlier pledges of reforms that it made to secure the 2010 chairmanship of the OSCE, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

As Kazakstan comes to the end of its turn in the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE, a bloc that promotes security and democracy among its 56 member states, media activists and journalists say that apart from a few welcome developments like discussions on a bill on access to information, the general trend this year was towards curtailing media.

Ahead of an OSCE summit held in Astana on December 1-2, the crowning event of Kazakstan’s year in the chair, the press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders, RSF, issued a statement criticising the country’s performance. RSF said Kazakstan had made no move to pass legislation that met international standards with regard to criminal and civil libel, access to information and the penalties that could be imposed on the media.

Back in 2007, when it was lobbying hard to secure the OSCE chairmanship, the Kazak government promised numerous democratic reforms which, in terms of the media, were to include abolishing libel as a criminal offence, allowing journalists the preserve anonymity of sources, and ending the requirement that all electronic media register with the justice ministry.

RSF recalled that its annual Press Freedom Index published in April 2010 ranked Kazakstan 162nd out of the 178 countries surveyed – and said things had got worse since then. “Media freedom declined markedly in 2010, the year that Kazakstan has been holding the OSCE presidency,” the statement said.

“As a result of arrests of journalists, cases of censorship (of traditional and online media), journalists serving prison sentences, physical attacks on journalists and lawsuits against news media, Kazakstan fell 20 places in this year’s Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and now ranks alongside its authoritarian neighbour, Uzbekistan.”

RSF was not alone in judging Kazakstan’s OSCE year a disappointment. In a report in mid-September, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, said the country’s performance had been so bad as to discredit the OSCE itself.

“By disregarding human rights and press freedom at home, Kazakstan has compromised the organisation’s international reputation as a guardian of these rights, undermined the OSCE’s relevance and effectiveness, and thus devalued human rights in all OSCE states,” CPJ said.

Many of the criticisms made by international watchdogs were echoed by media representatives in Kazakstan itself. Igor Vinyavsky, editor-in-chief of Vzglyad, a newspaper faced legal action this year, said 2010 was worse than 2009 for the media. “The authorities are steadily and methodically destroying those media that are not under their control, and nothing is deterring them from doing so,” he said.

The director of media development organisation Internews-Kazakstan, Marjan Elshibaeva, said, “I think there have been no significant changes to the media in the OSCE chairmanship year,” adding that in her view, those amendments to media legislation that were passed were largely cosmetic.

The media rights group Adil Soz said more violations of journalists’ rights were recorded this year than last, while developments that caused particular concern included an attempt to ban any publication of material critical of President Nursultan Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev.

Following legal action against a number of newspapers that had reported allegations of corruption made against Kulibaev, a court in Almaty seized their print-runs and banned further publication in January. The court ruling was subsequently overturned following criticism by the then OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, who called it a “dangerous attempt at censorship”.

A law passed in 2010 expands the list of prosecutable offences against the president, including defacing pictures of him and presenting a distorted version of his biography. The law will also grant Nazarbaev immunity from prosecution after he leaves office. Several other newspapers critical of the authorities have run into trouble.

One was closed down following a libel case, while others found themselves unexpectedly subjected to tax inspections. When asked about the allegations that the government had fallen down on its promises, presidential advisor Yermuhamet Yertysbaev said reform-minded bills had been drafted, but were currently held up in the normal process of parliamentary discussion. Referring to legislation which would remove libel from the criminal lawbooks, Yertysbaev said,

“Although the president himself has already approved it, many deputies are against decriminalising defamation because they themselves are the targets of libel and insults.”

As for the close interest the taxman was taking in certain media outlets, Yertysbaev said newspapers were not being singled out because of their political views, and there had been cases where state-run newspapers had been investigated for tax evasion. Another worrying trend in 2010 noted by media-watchers was the government’s increasing ability to buy media outlets’ loyalty by offering them contracts for public relations work, with the result that they tone down their editorial content.

The Almaty-based MediaNet group said that up to 70 per cent of independent media outlets received government money this year, one-fifth more than in 2009. Experts fear that when a privately-owned newspaper, for example, agrees to carry paid advertising of government policies, it cannot help compromising its principles.

MediaNet’s director Igor Bratsev said his pessimistic view of the media situation was “largely connected to the political influence on the media, which made them financially dependent and had a direct impact on editorial content, encouraging self-censorship”.

Bratsev said explicit censorship was not even needed in an environment in which restrictive legislation and the frequent use of costly and never-ending libel suits effectively fulfilled the role of forcing media to censor themselves. Adil Jalilov, chairman of the Media Alliance of Kazakstan, is not against the government supporting the media, but warned that over-reliance on the state as a source of income will mean that “the media stop putting the consumer of information first, they try to appease their [state] customer, and lose their competitiveness and freedom”.

Yertysbaev said he did not agree that public funding would undermine editorial independence, and argued that some state-owned newspapers published material critical of government.

One of the few positive developments in 2010 was that non-government groups were involved in discussions around new legislation which should make it easier for members of the public to access information held by government and make the system more transparent. Parliamentary debate and approval have been postponed until next year.

Irina Mednikova is a correspondent for the Golos Respubliki newspaper.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

 

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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