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

New Threat to Kazak Press Freedom

Changes to laws on religion and the media will give government prosecutors new powers of censorship.
By Alim Bekenov

Proposed legislative changes in Kazakstan will give the authorities wide-ranging powers to take swift action against media outlets deemed to be breaking the law.


The planned changes, which were lobbied by a group of deputies known to be staunch supporters of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, have met with fierce opposition from human rights lawyers. Even the president’s daughter Dariga – who is both a politician and a player in the media - has spoken out against them.


One of the major concerns is that the legislation will enable prosecutors to take any action they deem appropriate – including closing down media outlets – without recourse to the courts, and without the target of their action having any redress.


Critics of the laws say that they are being pushed through in preparation for the presidential elections due in December 2006, and that they will be used to clamp down on media and religious groups to preempt the kind of popular protests that have accompanied elections – and resulted in regime change - in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.


The draft law, which is entitled “On amendments and additions to several legislative acts on issues of ensuring national security”, will affect a raft of other laws concerning non-commercial organisations, political parties, the media, freedom of religious belief and religious organisations.


Under the proposed amendments, the prosecution service will have new authority to impose fines or prison sentences on those deemed to be involved in “extremist activity”. There will be restrictions on foreigners financing political parties in Kazakstan, and on the nomination of party candidates.


Those involved in drafting the law argue that prosecutors should have strong regulatory powers and be able to respond rapidly to “dangerous” publications and cut out lengthy court procedures.


Toktarkhan Nurakhmetov, who is in charge of the parliamentary working group on the draft legislation, said, “In general, I’m in favour of these powers being exercised by the courts. But in cases where immediate intervention is required – matters of extremist activity - it is necessary to make a decision without delay. It is impossible to do this without a prosecutor.”


The restrictions on religion, as well as those on the media, have caused most concern among international organisations and public bodies. They believe that the amendments are a serious violation of the Kazak constitution and contradict all international principles of human rights.


“The constitution is supreme,” said the head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee Ninel Fokina. “And this law directly goes against the principles of our constitution.”


Fokina believes that if the law is passed, the government will be acknowledging that civil society institutions – the media, public and religious organisations, and political parties – are in fact the greatest risks to national security.


According to the amendments that have been proposed, prosecutors can halt the work of any religious organisation if it is found to be in breach of the constitution or individual laws, or of its own charter.


Amangeldy Aitaly, a deputy in the Majilis or lower house of parliament, defends the changes out of a conviction that religious missionaries may seriously undermine Kazakstan.


“Any missionary activity undermines the national culture and traditions. Especially for Kazakstan,” he said.


But Roman Podprigora, professor of legal science and expert on religious organisations, says that in imposing this ban, the government will only create martyrs and make things worse.


“If people do not fulfil the requirements of the law – and in some cases it is unlikely they can be fulfilled – then people will go to jail. People in jail means tension and dissatisfaction with the authorities. We will get people who are prepared to oppose the authorities as the result of the latter’s own clumsy actions,” he said.


The greatest criticisms, however, have been of the reforms which will allow prosecutors to step in to regulate the media.


The draft law will prohibit publicising information which is felt to constitute a state secret, advocates violence, or undermines social and ethnic stability.


There will be new restrictions on information that is deemed to reveal too much about counter-terrorist and counter-narcotics operations. Stricter bans will be enforced on pornography.


Such wide-ranging restrictions have been denounced by international human rights organisations and media bodies.


The president of the International Foundation for the Protection of Freedom of Speech (Adil Soz), Tamara Kaleeva, told IWPR,


“This law goes directly against the guidelines of the constitution.


“It means that there will be potential for abuse and conscious manipulation of the media. It will provide a pretext to deal with unfavourable reporting. This regulation is the height of lawlessness, it is a way of tyrannising the media.”


Kaleeva continued, “It is clear that this is being done for political peace of mind - it is connected with the upcoming presidential elections. But instead of worrying about observing the law, they want to restrict our rights.


“Of course it is connected with the revolutions that took place in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. There can be no other reasonable explanation.”


However, the government says that the restrictions themselves are not new, just the ease with which the prosecution service will be able to take action.


Deputy justice minister Ubaidulla Stamkulov said, “The [law] already allows prosecutors to regulate the press in a number of cases. So it is not a completely new thing. But in conditions when there is swift distribution of various kinds of information, of course, it is sometimes necessary to take very swift decisions.”


The new amendment has been criticised by Dariga Nazarbaeva, Majilis deputy and leader of the Asar party. Nazarbaeva, who is the president’s eldest daughter, controls the state news agency and a number of other media organisations.


In a speech at the end of March, she said, “I believe that this does not match the legislation of any democratic nation or adhere to any international standards, and it is especially inappropriate for a country which aspires to the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, in 2009.”


Nazarbaeva’s Asar party is the most visible opponent of the proposed legislation.


The party’s deputy chairman, Serik Nugmanov, is concerned that if the prosecution service is given the power to stop a media outlet operating, then there will need to be adequate safeguards against any errors it commits.


“All media is business,” he said at a meeting last month. “By ordering publication to stop, you halt production… [which involves] certain human and financial resources. What if a court rules that the grounds for curbing a press report were invalid? We must have means for compensation if there are to be these legal changes. The draft ignores the need for redress.”


However, neither the justice ministry nor the general prosecutor’s office has heeded Asar’s views.


Deputy justice minister Stamkulov blithely ruled out the possibility of error, saying, “Staff at the prosecutor’s office and the courts are adequately qualified specialists and legal experts.”


Some members of parliament are voicing concern that the changes could mean wide-scale censorship. And while they largely agree that the media might at times pose a threat to national security, pornography seems less relevant.


“The grounds for prohibiting publication are too general. They will give certain officials the ability to open and close media outlets when they want. The prosecutor’s office may exploit this,” said Serik Abdrakhmanov, head of the Majilis Committee for International Affairs, Defence and Security.


However, Abdrakhmanov went on to suggest that tougher laws might be needed to prevent unrest leading to revolution in Kazakstan.


“We cannot rely on the fact that we’ve had a fortunate past. We must worry about the future. We must pay close attention to the dynamic trends of our times,” he said.


Alim Bekenov is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent in Astana.


More IWPR's Global Voices