Tough Times For Kazak Media Freedom

More restrictive legislation on the way, experts warn.

Tough Times For Kazak Media Freedom

More restrictive legislation on the way, experts warn.

The coming year will see a downward spiral for media freedom in Kazakstan, with a bill allowing greater state control of broadcasting and a restrictive information security law, a prominent media rights campaigner says,

Tamara Kaleeva, who heads Kazakstan’s leading media rights group Adil Soz, warns that the two bills reinforce an official drive to exert tighter control over various parts of the media; an efforts that has been going on for some years.

In Kaleeva’s words, 2012 will be a “black year” for freedom of expression.

The broadcasting law is currently before parliament and is expected to be approved by the end of this year. The information bill – ostensibly part of efforts to curb religious extremism – is being considered by the government and is likely to be passed next year.

Kaleeva was speaking to IWPR during a media forum held to discuss the problems facing journalists in Kazakstan, on December 5-6 in country’s second largest city, Almaty.

The event was organised by the opposition newspaper Respublika with the support of the Soros Foundation-Kazakstan and the OSCE Centre in Astana. Other partners included including Adil Soz, IWPR, Freedom House-Kazakstan and MediaNet.

Kaleeva said the government has spent 2011 preparing the ground for a renewed onslaught on free expression. Last year, its hands were tied because Kazakstan was chair of the Organisation for Security and Coooperation in Europe, and as such was under more international scrutiny.

The broadcast bill envisages a monopoly operator taking charge of all radio and TV frequencies. The role has been earmarked for the state broadcaster Kazakteleradio.

Broadcasters and media rights groups warn that the result will be a sector completely monopolised by the state, and that this will place new limitations on media freedom as well as stifling enterprise, undermining competition, and leaving consumers with less choice than before.

Officials say the bill seeks to support locally-made television and radio programming, promote Kazak-language material, shield children from adult-content media, and introduce sign-language output.

In 2009, Kazakstan’s media law was changed to make internet content subject to the same controls that apply to conventional print and broadcast media.

The information security bill is a response to the threat of terrorism, according to Kaleeva.

On November 12, a shooting spree by a suspected Islamic militant took place in southern Kazakstan. The assailant killed seven people and finally blew himself up.

The incident was the latest in a series of attacks in Kazakstan over the last six months. In late October, two explosions hit the western city of Atyrau when a local man blew himself up, and a second blast occurred in a rubbish container. No one else was hurt.

In mid-May, a 25-year old man blew himself up at the security service’s headquarters in the city of Aktobe, also in western Kazakstan. It has been described as Kazakstan’s first suicide bombing.

In Kaleeva’s view, the government’s failure to counter the threat has led it to fall back on the tried-and-tested method of slapping a blank ban on anything that could be a conduit for extremist ideology.

“First and foremost, that means the media,” she added.

One particularly controversial section of the bill suggests that “information that prompts a negative public reaction” amounts to “undermining national security”.

On this point, Kaleeva said, “If this wording of this provision – which refers any kind of critical information, even to statistics presented in a critical way – is adopted in its current form, it will finally bury media freedom, probably for many years to come.”

Other media analysts say the authorities have been steadily tightening their control over the media since Kazakstan became independent, apart from the first few years when private media flourished and independent outlets proliferated.

“The government’s persecution of private media and of journalists who criticise it, and the obstructions to circulating such newspapers go back ten or 15 years,” well-known journalist Sergei Duvanov said.

He noted that Respublika newspaper is currently under the same kind of pressure. At the insistence of the authorities, no printing house in Kazakstan is willing to touch it, so copies are printed in Russia and transported to Kazakstan.

Duvanov said internet freedom, too, has been gradually eroded in similar fashion since 2000, with any site critical of the authorities blocked in Kazakstan. These days, the government is armed with draconian laws allowing it to use legal means to block hundreds of websites, he added.

The authorities say some regulation of the internet is essential to prevent people accessing pornography and extremist propaganda. Their critics argue that the legislation is a tool for political censorship of the web.

Duvanov says the administration is single-minded about its aim – maintaining the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has run Kazakstan for more than two decades.

“What does one need to do to achieve that? Make sure the public knows as little of the truth as possible,” Duvanov said.

Kaleeva agreed that the authorities have successfully achieved the aim of keeping the number of troublesome media outlets to the media, and making them subject to restrictions that prevent them from reaching a wider audience.

As Kaleeva concluded, the legacy of 20 years since Kazakstan became independent is that “realistically, the number of truly independent, courageous media outlets is very small.”

Almaz Rysaliev is IWPR editor in Kazakstan.

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