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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 regulations.

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 media sector.

"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 time."

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 Kazakhstan.

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 Mataev.

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 media enterprises.

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 tender process.

"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 of expression."

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 "not free."

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

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