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

Medium and Message Challenge for Kazak Party

The main political party ruffles opposition feathers with plans for its own TV channel – but would anyone actually watch it?
By Adilkhan Shaikov
Moves by the main pro-government party in Kazakstan to set up its own television channel have been roundly condemned by opposition politicians and free speech activists as a scheme by which the authorities can dominate the media even more than they do now.

But some question whether the move will do much to promote the Otan party since it has appears to have few exciting policies to offer – and it is far from certain whether Kazakstan’s TV viewers will actually want to sit through hours of political coverage.

The decision to set up a dedicated TV channel was announced by Otan’s acting chairman Bakhytjan Jumagulov on January 13. He said the idea was in response to demand from rank-and-file party members for a channel that “which could guide us better, and which could provide more coverage of party life”.

Otan has a weekly newspaper Dala Men Kala, published in Kazak and Russian with a circulation of 30,000, but Almas Joltaev, the director-general of the Otan Media Group, which currently has just the party newspaper under its wing, says TV is definitely the best medium for spreading political messages.

“It has to be said that television is more powerful than newspapers. Of course, there are national, state and even private TV channels which cover the activity of the head of our party [President Nazarbaev]. But the party’s television channel will be able to use new technologies, and I think we could all do with something like that,” he said.

Tamara Kaleeva, who heads the free speech group Adil Soz, sees uncomfortable reminders of the Soviet period, when it was the media’s function to cover Communist Party events exhaustively.

In fact, she says, “The idea probably came up because a large percentage of the Otan leadership have considerable experience working in [Communist] party organisations in Soviet times.”

Times are different now, and audience demand should determine whether media outlets live or die, she said, adding, “Setting up a party television channel represents a return to the past - and it will be doubly wrong if it is financed out of the government budget.”

However, the main obstacle to Otan’s media ambitions may be that viewers switch off from a TV diet that is politics-heavy and overtly partisan. As Kaleeva notes, there have other viewing choices, including Moscow television stations and other channels via cable or satellite as well as domestic TV.

“Our society needs objective information, but by definition, party media cannot provide that,” she added.

Otan is by no means the only political party in Kazakstan to use media outlets - it is just the biggest and best funded. That leads rival parties – particularly those in the opposition – to worry that their message will be drowned out.

Vladislav Kosarev, who heads the Communist People’s Party of Kazakstan, fears for the future, since his party’s newspaper has a circulation one third that of Otan’s. “If one mouthpiece is huge and the other is tiny, what sort of multi-party system do we have? It loses all meaning,” he said.

But according to Dosym Satpaev, director of the think-tank Risk Assessment Group, Otan’s principal target is not the opposition at all but Asar, a pro-government party set up and led by the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva.

“Otan’s leadership think they need this channel so as to improve the party’s image relative to Asar,” he said. “It’s no secret that there are powerful channels such as KTK and Khabar working for Asar.”

Dariga Nazarbaeva used to head the Khabar media group, which includes a TV channel and a news agency of the same name. She stepped down before the September 2004 parliamentary election, in which her newly-created party Asar fielded candidates, but critics believe the move disguised her continued control over the channel.

As Asar rapidly built up its membership and public profile, it began to be seen as a serious rival to and possible replacement for Otan as the main loyalist party.

President Nazarbaev is formally the leader of Otan, but he does not use it as his mouthpiece and it does not enjoy the kind of prominence it would have in the classic one-party state. In fact, Nazarbaev has never placed great reliance on any one political party, preferring a more direct, presidential style. There has been a succession of parties which operated for a time as the main parliamentary voice for his administration, but were then allowed to crumble as a new favourite appeared.

Otan was established in 1999 to support Nazarbaev in a presidential election year, and in 2000 it won a landslide victory in a parliamentary ballot which many external observers criticised as rigged. But it failed to shine in the years that followed, so the formation of a new and seemingly more active party that had the president’s blessing and his daughter as leader seemed to spell doom for Otan.

However, Asar’s performance in the 2004 general election was unspectacular – it won just four of the 77 seats in parliament compared with Otan’s 42. The opposition got only one seat.

So Otan remains at least technically the ruling party. But it has little real clout in policymaking, and its public profile is completely overshadowed by the giant figure of Nazarbaev himself. Initiatives and policy comes from the executive, not from the party or the parliament it dominates.

The main problem facing Otan may be not so much about how to find new ways to communicate its policies to the public, but identifying any kind of coherent and relevant message over and above general expressions of support for the president. If it can do that, it is fairly well assured of getting media coverage even without a dedicated TV channel.

According to Nurjan Mukhamedzhanova, deputy director of the media development organisation Internews-Kazakstan, “I think that Otan, as the largest and most authoritative party in Kazakstan, should be able to inform people about its political initiatives and achievements quite adequately through the existing national television channels, which is essentially what it does at the moment.

“So perhaps Otan shouldn’t be complaining that there is no objective information about its activity, or not enough of it. We are all grown-ups and we can see that Otan has no problems at all in this regard.”

Adilkhan Shaikov is an Astana-based correspondent for Channel 31 television in Kazakstan. Askar Shomshekov is an independent journalist in Pavlodar.

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