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Draft media law stirs political controversy in Kazakhstan

Political intrigue is swirling around a media bill pending before Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council. Four political parties, including one headed by the president’s daughter, have called for the proposed legislation to be rejected, saying it would give government excessive control over the country’s mass media.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev sent the draft law, "On the Media," to the Constitutional Council on March 31, after both parliamentary houses approved the bill earlier in the month. A Constitutional Council ruling is expected in the coming days. After the ruling, Nazarbayev will decide to either sign or veto the bill.

On April 9, four political parties – Asar, Ak Zhol, Aul and the Patriotic Party – issued a joint appeal that urged Nazarbayev to veto the legislation before the constitutional ruling. If approved, the media legislation would "strengthen the bureaucracy’s already extensive abilities to curb journalists’ professional activities," the joint statement said. The fact that Asar was a signatory to the appeal surprised some political analysts in Kazakhstan, given the fact that Dariga Nazarbayeva, the president’s daughter, heads the party. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ak Zhol is viewed by Kazakhstani authorities as a moderate opposition party. Aul and the Patriot Party wield far less political influence than either Asar or Ak Zhol.

Kazakh and international media experts claim the law, if adopted, will give the government broad powers to meddle in media operations. Nazarbayev has been a consistent backer of the idea of changing the legal framework of government news and information gathering and dissemination in Kazakhstan. Since the bill won parliamentary approval, the European Union, the US government and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, along with a variety of media and human rights watchdog groups, have all criticized the legislation.

Prior to the publication of the April 9 joint appeal, many political observers viewed the passage of the media legislation as a fait accompli. The Constitutional Council is dominated by Nazarbayev appointees, causing Nazarbayev critics to question its independence. "The Constitutional Council will take whatever resolution on the Law ’On the Media’ that is given to it by the president. And the president most certainly thinks that the law complies with the constitution," Tolen Tokhtasynov, an MP who is one of Nazarbayev’s most outspoken political opponents, said in an interview published by the Assandi Times.

The April 9 statement has prompted some political analysts, such as Sabit Zhusupov, to suggest that Nazarbayev may end up not signing the media bill in its existing form. Nazarbayev created a precedent for such a development when he announced last October that he was withdrawing contentious legislation on non-governmental organizations and returning it to parliament for redrafting.
Some political analysts suggest that recent developments, including the Constitutional Council’s review of the legislation and the April 9 appeal, will have little influence over Nazarbayev’s final decision. They believe that Nazarbayev is determined to clamp down on independent media outlets ahead of the parliamentary elections, and is merely attempting to create the appearance of democratic debate concerning the bill.

"It, of course, is necessary not only for officials from the Ministry of Information to be able to control such a profitable business as the media. On the threshold of the ’big’ [parliamentary] elections, the media should be under special control of the authorities," said a recent commentary in the Assandi Times.

Editor’s Note: Olivia Allison is a researcher on a fellowship, currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. She is studying media developments in Central Asia. Ibragim Alibekov is the pseudonym for a Kazakhstan-based reporter and analyst.

April 15, 2004.


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