A PRESIDENT AT A CROSSROADS
By Mark Berniker
Media activists, human-rights groups, and political
figures are voicing serious concerns about the Kazakh government's
recent active involvement in shaping new media laws, ventures, and
As disturbing revelations about the harassment of journalists in
Kazakhstan continue to surface, direct pressure -- both at home and
abroad -- is increasing on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to
moderate his government's purported direct involvement in the
country's media affairs. As a new draft media law moves to the upper
chamber of the Kazakh parliament, domestic and international critics
charge that Nazarbaev is exerting too much control over Kazakhstan's
"The president of Kazakhstan has yet to give a clear indication that
he's committed to improving the country's appalling press-freedom
record," said Alex Lupis, program coordinator for the Europe and
Central Asia division of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The New York-based CPJ is drafting a formal letter of complaint to
Nazarbaev about the draft media law, just as several other groups --
including Internews, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Article 19
-- have already done.
Moreover, there are indications that Nazarbaev's inflexibility might
be softening somewhat in the wake of a highly critical letter from
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that was written on 17 November
2003 but only made public on 7 January. The letter said Kazakhstan
will have to improve its poor human-rights record if it wants the
United States to support its goal of becoming the first former
Soviet republic to hold the rotating chairmanship of the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009.
Powell's letter praised Kazakhstan for its support in the
reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan and applauded Nazarbaev's
"public commitment to accelerate the building of democracy."
However, Powell expressed concern that several government actions
are belying the president's statements. Powell particularly
questioned the draft media law, saying: "It is my understanding that
the draft under consideration is being discussed widely and that
strong reservations have been expressed about the draft both within
the OSCE and in the mass media." Powell asked Nazarbaev to
reconsider "whether a new law on the mass media is warranted at this
Powell also called on Nazarbaev to release journalist Sergei Duvanov,
who was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of
raping a 14-year-old girl. His detention and sentencing followed the
publication of several reports by Duvanov alleging that officials in
Nazarbaev's government -- possibly including the president himself
-- accepted bribes from U.S. oil companies for energy concessions in
Powell also reminded Nazarbaev that he made promises to U.S.
President George W. Bush in December 2001 "to promote freedom and
pluralism in Kazakhstan's media environment, including the right of
the media to criticize the country's elected leaders."
On 15 January, a Kazakh court revised Duvanov's sentence from
imprisonment to house arrest, and on 22 January, RFE/RL reported
that Duvanov had been released from prison and granted "semi-free"
status by the government. On 19 January, the Russian newspaper "Kommersant-Daily"
reported the release was the result of Western pressure, citing in
particular Powell's pointed letter to Nazarbaev.
However, many human-rights activists say the sudden release of
Duvanov doesn't mean the Kazakh government has really reversed its
alleged policy of controlling the country's media.
"The Kazakh government has been encroaching on the media for several
years. Kazakhstan claims to be a democratic society, but has a
terrible record on freedom of expression and media freedom," Rachel
Denbar, acting director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central
Asia division, told "RFE/RL Media Matters."
Denbar said Kazakhstan has "a long record of harassment of
journalists." "The government of Kazakhstan should not be hindering
media freedom and should back off of civil-defamation suits against
journalists," Denbar said. "There is a need for a balance in the
Kazakh media, and the government is preventing the emergence of a
balanced media environment."
It is not just international observers who are crying foul. Many
parliamentarians, journalists, and even President Nazarbaev's
daughter are speaking out against the government's treatment of the
media, the draft media law, and a recent decision by KazMunayGaz,
the state natural-gas company, to enter the media business.
The draft media law was adopted by the lower house of parliament (Mazhlis)
in December and could potentially be passed by the upper house some
time in February. The law would give the government the power to
dismiss reporters or shut down media outlets for insulting "the
honor and dignity of a citizen or a state organ or other body." RFE/RL
reported on 16 January that the draft law also contains rules for
new and more complicated registration procedures for journalists,
according to Journalists Association of Kazakhstan Chairman Saidkazy
On 20 January, Darigha Nazarbaeva, who is director of the Khabar
television channel and chairwoman of the Executive Committee of the
Congress of Kazakhstan's Journalists (CKJ), said she believes the
country's journalists should have their own lobby in the lower house
of the parliament. Nazarbaeva is also the leader of the recently
created Asar party. In an address to the 10th external session of
the CKJ in Karaganda earlier this month, she said the provision in
the draft media law that gives the government the right to order
media companies to shut down for three months for coverage it
considers objectionable could lead to the bankruptcy of many small
On 20 January, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported that Nazarbaeva said the
draft law would prohibit television channels from showing sexual or
erotic programs, but it fails to provide a definition of what would
be considered sexually explicit programming.
On 22 January, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) party
issued a statement on the draft media law, saying it is
antidemocratic and would severely limit freedom of speech in
Kazakhstan. The party points to provisions that would strengthen the
government's control over media outlets through stricter
registration and licensing requirements. The party wrote that the
new law could lead to "self-censorship."
AP reported on 26 January that several Kazakh political leaders have
expressed concern about the government's antidemocratic policies
during a conference organized by the International Institute for
Modern Politics, an Almaty-based think tank. Gulzhan Yergalieva, a
DVK leader, was quoted as saying the government's recent moves
threaten "competitive elections, independent media, and political
pluralism." National Research Institute Director Burikhan
Nurmukhamedov has reportedly called on the government to create a
transparent election system and to foster free media.
But just as pressure is building on Nazarbaev to reform his
government's policies toward the media, his state natural-gas
company has decided to aggressively enter the television business.
KazMunayGaz, which holds lucrative rights to the vast energy
reserves located on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shelf, recently said it
has ambitions to be one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the
world. Uzakbai Karabalin, the president of KazMunayGaz, has spoken
broadly about the company's plans to create a newspaper, television,
and radio group following the model of Russia's NTV. NTV and several
other media outlets were seized by Gazprom, Russia's
state-controlled natural-gas monopoly, in 2001 after a controversial
and, many say, politically motivated business dispute with former
oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii's Media-MOST. The KazMunayGaz project
will be called NTV-Kazakhstan.
NTV-Kazakhstan representative Yevgenia Dotsuk told a press
conference in Almaty on 19 December that KazMunayGaz's initiative is
a joint project of Russia's NTV, which holds a 20 percent stake in
the new company, and the Kazakh Rauan Media Group, which controls
the rest. Dotsuk admitted that NTV-Kazakhstan is being created with
state money and should be considered another state channel. Rauan
Media Group has received the exclusive right to terrestrial, cable,
and satellite rebroadcasting of NTV programs in Kazakhstan, and
Russia's NTV will be inaccessible to Kazakh viewers.
But KazMunayGaz's media plans aren't going over well with Alikhan
Baimenov and Bulat Abilov, two prominent DVK members. They object to
the use of state funds to finance the new media firm. On 20
November, RosBalt Consulting reported that Yerasyl Abylkasymov, a
deputy in the lower house of the parliament, wrote a letter arguing
that Kazakhstan's "small television channels will be doomed" with
the creation of NTV-Kazakhstan.
Such concerns about the project are shared by Asar's Nazarbaeva. The
new channel will presumably put competitive pressure on Nazarbaeva's
Khabar network and potentially cut into their advertising revenues.
While the president's daughter has become more outspoken in recent
months about developments in the Kazakh media, Denbar questioned the
problem of nepotism in Nazarbaev's Kazakhstan. According to the BBC,
Nazarbaeva's Khabar group is "privately held but publicly funded"
and controls an influential news agency; the Khabar, Khabar 2, and
ORT-Kazakhstan television channels; the Europa Plus, Russkoye radio,
Hit FM, and Radio Karavan radio stations; and the newspapers
"Karavan" and "Novoye pokolenie."
Moreover, Timur Kulibaev, the husband of another Nazarbaev daughter,
Dinara, is a deputy president of KazMunayGaz and has been named to
the management team of NTV-Kazakhstan. KazMunayGaz's new media group
has also asked the government to grant NTV-Kazakhstan broadcast
frequencies without compelling it to go through the legally required
"The odds are that NTV-Kazakhstan will be a pro-government station
that will shy away from controversial coverage," Denbar said.
The Kazakh government's flurry of moves in the country's media
market comes just months ahead of parliamentary elections -- which
are scheduled for October -- and raises concerns about the
government's motives in trying to shape public opinion.
Several international press-freedom and human rights observers have
filed formal objections with the Kazakh government. The World
Association of Newspapers (WAN) recently wrote to Nazarbaev to say
the draft law would "jeopardize constitutional guarantees of freedom
On 11 December, Toby Mendel, the Law and Asia Programs director for
Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression, wrote a public
letter regarding the bill. Article 19 is a London-based group
fighting censorship worldwide. "Our analysis indicates that the
proposed law falls far short of international norms for the
protection of free expression," Mendel wrote. "Passage of this law
would, therefore, place the government of Kazakhstan in breach of
its constitutional obligations as well as its obligations as a
member of the UN and OSCE.
"A more important concern, however, is that significant powers --
including registration, licensing, and accreditation systems for the
media and journalists -- are exercised by bodies that lack
independence from government. This is in clear breach of
international standards in this area and presents the possibility of
excessive state control over the media," Mendel wrote, adding that
the law could "exert a chilling effect on freedom of the media." He
asks Nazarbaev to withdraw the law from consideration.
The Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) has also
joined the chorus of critics. HRWF Director Willy Fautre wrote a
sharply worded letter to Nazarbaev on 18 December saying his group
is "extremely concerned with the new draft media law."
"The draft law provides for unacceptable limitation of press freedom
through governmental control and regulation. The system of
registration, licensing, and accreditation alongside the provisions
on secrecy laws, journalists' confidentiality, censorship, and
privacy shield to politicians does not comply with international
standards and will jeopardize the constitutional guarantees of
freedom of speech and freedom of expression," Fautre wrote.
RSF, in its 2003 annual report on Kazakhstan, wrote: "The worsening
press freedom situation aroused international concern, especially on
the part of the European Union and the United States. Violence
against opposition journalists increased."
The report also said "the government used harassment, censorship,
legal intimidation, and control of printing and publishing to crack
down on the independent and opposition media." Freedom House in its
"Freedom of the Press 2003" report described Kazakhstan's media as
Clearly, the country is at something of a crossroads. The latest
developments seem to indicate that Nazarbaev, like many of his
counterparts in the region, intends to take Kazakhstan down an
antidemocratic path. There is still time to change direction, but
that time is rapidly running out.
Mark Berniker is a freelance journalist who writes about Eurasian
political and economic affairs.
February 6, 2004
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Volume 4, Number 2