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

Self-Censorship Rife in Kazak Media

The fate of opposition activists such as Sergei Duvanov seems to have frightened many journalists into toeing the government line.
By Venera Abisheva

Kazak journalists appear to be censoring themselves to an unprecedented degree following the perceived persecution of some of their colleagues.


While editors and writers employed by the government-controlled media have always practised a degree of self-censorship – deliberately keeping news or opinions unfavourable to the authorities from reaching the wider public – even reporters working for privately owned newspapers seem to be toning down any criticism of government policy.


There have also been documented cases of negative stories being edited out of Russian newspapers’ Kazakstan editions before they reach newsstands in Astana and Almaty.


Nachnem s ponedelnika journalist Amantai Akhetov told IWPR, “Nobody officially dictates to journalists what they should write, and there is no ban on criticism, but everyone who takes that path knows what the consequences may be.”


Analysts link the trend to the experiences of opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on a rape charge in January of this year, and former Respublika editor Lira Bayseitova, whose daughter died in police custody under suspicious circumstances.


Bayseitova, now living in Europe, was one of a handful of Kazak journalists who interviewed the Swiss investigator heading an inquiry into allegations of corruption facing individuals close to Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev.


Duvanov had also covered this story - referred to as Kazakgate in the international media - and had earlier been charged with insulting the honour and dignity of the president in connection with an article, Silence of the Lambs, which detailed the allegations. While this charge was eventually dropped, the journalist was later accused of raping an underage girl.


The duo’s experiences at the hands of the authorities seem to have convinced their media colleagues that discretion is the better part of valour – at least in Kazakstan. An IWPR investigation has shown that many Kazak journalists are now so wary of officialdom that they are publishing pro-government material regardless of their personal opinions and the views of the titles and stations they work for.


Instead of tackling the big issues in society and challenging the government over its record, Kazak reporters and broadcasters are choosing to keep their heads down to avoid dismissal or persecution.


According to Nataliya Stebluyk, a coordinator from the media NGO Adil Soz in Almaty, Duvanov’s case was a part of ongoing campaign of intimidation that reached its peak in 2002.


Adil Soz has since noted a rise in self-censorship within the media – but Stebluyk admits that it is almost impossible to compile statistics, as nobody is willing to own up to it. “No one discusses this publicly. After limiting their freedom of their own accord, not a single journalist or publication is going to admit as such,” she said.


“The reaction of Duvanov’s colleagues to his conviction was unanimously negative, and this has only increased the phenomenon of self-censorship in the mass media.”


Reporter Tatyana Li believes the Duvanov trial marked the end of an era for the country’s media, saying, “Quite honestly, it’s unlikely that any Kazak reporters will want to follow in [Duvanov’s] footsteps and risk his fate – no matter how strongly held their beliefs.”


The deputy director of the Kazakstan national press club, Alexander Kimasov, agreed. “Duvanov’s case has put media workers on their guard,” he said. “There are no longer any guarantees that journalists will not find themselves in a similar position if they criticise the authorities. As a result, the press no longer discusses controversial issues.”


The case of television journalist Artur Platonov, who presents the current affairs programme Portrait of the Week on the Commercial Television Channel, would seem to back this theory up.


Platonov, who was beaten up in mysterious circumstance in August 2002, appears to have softened his stance in recent months.


Yuliana Jikhor, a journalist from the local newspaper Nachnyom s ponedelnika, told IWPR, “I think that the majority of the Kazak mass media now has a certain fear of making harsh, direct criticism of the government, or even being viewed as oppositional.


“Platonov, for example, has swapped his previously caustic statements for a more loyal tone, and his coverage of high-ranking officials and political decisions is now milder. Before, he would use phrases such as ‘government upstarts’ and ‘political prostitutes’, and openly allege that high-ranking individuals were involved in fraud and embezzlement.”


The situation has deteriorated to a point where analysts fear that journalists and broadcasters – conscious of what their editors will and will not print - may soon choose to churn out bland stories devoid of uncomfortable facts that could jeopardise publication, the reporter’s job or the future of the newspaper or station itself.


However, the insidious nature of self-censorship begins with nothing as dramatic as ignoring controversial stories. One journalist from the opposition title Assandi Times, who uses the pseudonym Alexandra Lazorskaya, said she feels she has no other choice than to hide her identity to prevent “the shadow of persecution” from falling on her family.


Lazorskaya said that the problem of self-censorship is not confined to the government-controlled outlets – even reporters from privately owned publications are affected.


“I am constantly finding that journalists [working in both sectors] will express an extremely negative opinion on some government initiatives while in private conversation, but I see nothing but praise of the same schemes when their reports are published,” she said.


While material produced in Kazakstan is routinely altered to remove any criticism of the authorities, some bad press never makes it into the country at all.


Andrei Sviridov, of the Journalists in Trouble foundation, told IWPR that the Russian newspapers Izvestiya-Kazakstan and Komsomolskaya pravda routinely excise material deemed “undesirable” for Kazak readers.


Sviridov cited as examples two articles published in Komsomolskaya pravda in February, which weren’t included in the Kazak editions. One criticised security surrounding Nazarbaev’s visit to Moscow and another showed relations between Kazakstan and Russia in a poor light.


The issue of self-censorship has not escaped the notice of the international community, in particular the OSCE’s Central Asia team based Vienna. “We are very concerned. It is of course something that is very difficult to measure, but it is often raised in talks with partners in the country,” said Hanna Voukko, a spokesperson for the organisation, adding that the general view within the republic is that journalists are now clearly following a government line.


Indeed, many young people seeking to enter the media feel there’s little point in joining opposition publications and stations. “Even though they constantly carry job advertisements, it has become too dangerous to work there. We cannot express our real opinions, so we will have to restrict ourselves to working in the pro-government media,” a journalism student at an Almaty college, who gave her name only as Alfiya, told IWPR.


Venera Abisheva is the pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan.


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