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First Eurasian Media Forum Conference
Almaty, 25 - 27 April 2002

Intervention by
Ambassador Heinrich Haupt
Head of the OSCE Centre in Almaty

Almaty, 27 April 2002

Freedom of expression prominently figures in many OSCE documents.

All 55 OSCE participating states, including Kazakhstan, have committed themselves not only to tolerate media freedom, but also to actively defend it.

Freedom of expression was a major issue at the Regional Conference on Mass Media in Central Asia chaired by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media here in Almaty last December.

However, many local media representatives affirm that their working conditions are constantly deteriorating. Authorities keep imposing more and more controls and restrictions on the media to the extent as to seriously threatening their ability to play their vital role of providing broad information and fostering democratic debate. Let me evoke some examples:

  • Systematic Concentration of media ownership or corporate control is continuing, primarily to the benefit of groups or individuals close to the political leadership, above all the presidential family.

  • Ministries, state security organs, fiscal police, and other administrations, as well as law courts, whose independence is not always guaranteed, tend to impose technical restrictions or excessive financial burdens on critical media, thus obstructing their work and inducing them to practice self-censorship.

  • Politicians and public officials, when criticized in the media, regularly turn to the courts demanding compensation for "libel", instead of entering into a public debate on facts or opinions published.

  • Cases of physical harassment by the police and violent groups have also taken place.

  • Although the Constitution of Kazakhstan guarantees the freedom of expression and prohibits censorship, new legal restrictions, like limitations on the retransmission of foreign electronic mass media or blocking the access to opposition internet web-sites, are aimed to restrict the work of journalists, often under the pretext of safeguarding national security.

The “Code of Administrative Violations” of January 30, 2001 introduced about 40 administrative violation structures in the sphere of Mass Media. This Code gives the Ministry of Culture, Information and Public Accord the right of systematically registering Administrative Violations. According to amendments to the "Law on Mass Media”, from January 2002 on, retransmission of foreign television production is not to exceed 50 % of the whole transmission sessions, and, starting January 2003, will be limited to 20%. The amendments have defined web-sites as "mass media". They effectively turned the media registration system into an “allowing” system, which contradicts the Constitution.

  • Unspecified "dangers" allegedly emerging from the anti-terrorist campaign have been used as a pretext to unduly limit the freedom of expression of mass media.

The "Almaty Declaration on Freedom of the Media in Times of Anti- Terrorist Conflict", adopted at the OSCE Media Conference last December, stressed i.a. that:

- The Central Asian States should not take the new conflict situation as a justification for repressive steps against opposition media.
- The media should be free to exercise their corrective function …especially in times of conflict and
- They should be free to play their fundamental role as society's watchdog against corruption.

As a result of restrictive policies and measures taken in the last months:

  • almost all critical media, have now been silenced and

  • others are subject to an effective self-censorship, which precludes objective coverage of taboo topics like corruption scandals on high political levels.

The most disturbing aspect is that there seems to be a tendency to further tighten controls and restrictions.

I see no justification for such a mistrust of the authorities in the free media: Neither security concerns, nor the global fight against terrorism can justify them; nor can the alleged lack of democratic experience of the young republic: Kazakhstan has, in fact, in the very first years of independence shown a high potential for reform. She has been in the forefront of economic, ecological, financial, and social reforms. She has paved the way for key disarmament and non-proliferation policies, and has practiced a new degree of international cooperation and openness.

Kazakhstan thus would have the potential to be in the forefront of media freedom in Eurasia, provided her leaders had the political will to play this vital role.

The OSCE is offering the political framework, the legal instruments and the professional assistance to help politicians, parliamentarians, administrators, media representatives, non-governmental organizations and other civic society structures advance in the stated common aim to strengthen the freedom and the professionalism of the media.

On June 13-14, in Almaty, the OSCE Centre in Almaty will hold a seminar to discuss new сhallenges for Kazakh mass media.

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