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Eurasia Media Forum: Central Asia’s Masters of Spin

The Eurasia Media Forum, which opens this week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, heightens the debate over whether to engage or boycott the hard-line regimes of the region.

Critics call it the pinnacle of cynicism: a government-connected media conference held in a country with a long track record of brutally repressing the media. At the 2003 conference, hundreds of international journalists attended panel discussions on free speech even as one of the country’s few independent journalists languished in prison on what many said were falsified charges. For this year's conference, the banners of partners such as CNN and ITAR-TASS are being hung even as a draconian new media law sits on the president's desk, awaiting only his signature to take effect.

By denying any political affiliation and insisting that they are simply providing a much-needed venue for East-West dialogue and networking, the organizers of this annual conference in Kazakhstan manage to attract the biggest names in media year after year.

The Eurasia Media Forum (EAMF)--a massive international gathering of news executives and journalists that will take place again this week in Almaty on 22-24 April--has been both fiercely condemned and passionately defended since it began two years ago. It has also become a testing ground for Western engagement in Central Asia. The debates over the conference have come as the West faces increased scrutiny over its relationships with the heavy-handed regimes of this region; most are new partners in the U.S.-declared war against terrorism but have not given up their old ways of crushing opposition forces and silencing independent media. The question of whether to engage or boycott when progress slows or is virtually nonexistent is one that remains crucial to the overall issue of foreign assistance and democratic development.

I was invited last year to lead a panel at the EAMF on online journalism, but because of the controversial nature of the conference, I long hesitated over whether to participate and accept the organizers’ offer to cover all my expenses (attendees receive free room and board). In the end, after a lengthy exploration of my own position on the “engage or boycott” question, I decided to attend, largely motivated by my desire to experience the controversy first-hand. By the time I left Almaty, it was clear to me that the debate was not as black and white as I had previously thought; over the course of the conference, I heard valid arguments for and against attending. The following is my account of the second annual Eurasia Media Forum culled from notes from that time, as well as on-site and subsequent interviews.

GOVERNMENTAL CONNECTIONS

On paper at least, the official organizer of the annual event, the Eurasia Media Forum Foundation, is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization registered in Kazakhstan. But the chair of the EAMF organizing committee is none other than Dariga Nazarbayeva, President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter and a budding politician; her pro-government media company, Khabar, which dominates the domestic market, plays a major role in running the event; and her father gave the opening speech for last year's conference and will do so again this year. Throughout last year’s forum, held on 24-26 April 2003, Nazarbayeva made it clear that she is much more than a figurehead--by all accounts she plays a central role in setting the program and vetting presenters.

In keeping with their desire to appear independent of the government, the organizers say they don’t take money from the state. Funding comes from local and foreign companies and a few grants (including one from NATO last year). However, a number of the companies on the list of sponsors are owned either by the state or linked to the presidential “family” (as Kazakhs refer to the extended Nazerbaev clan, which controls much of the economy). That has led to much speculation that some of these “sponsors” had little choice to contribute significant sums of money to cover the costs of the lavish event. But it’s nearly impossible to find out. Beyond the list published on the forum’s Internet site, the organizers do not release information about the size of donations, the actual costs of the forum, or any other financial details, claiming the figures are “a matter of internal policy and internal management.”

Those connections to the authorities and the presidential family have been more than enough for local opposition journalists, as well as local and international freedom-of-the-press activists, to cry foul. On the opening day of the 2003 conference, a group of Kazakhstan's most prominent opposition and independent journalists released a letter alleging a litany of government-orchestrated media repression. Among other things, they pointed to fabricated charges filed against anti-regime journalists, the quashing of independent TV channels, and a broadcast monopoly controlled by the Nazarbaev family.

“By holding a global-scale event and [showcasing] its controlled media,” the statement read, “the forum organizers are pursuing the goals that are important for them: gaining the image of a press-friendly country, smoothing over criticism from the international community, and concealing the facts about harassment of independent media in Kazakhstan.

“A regime that represses freedom of speech in its own country has no moral right to organize and participate in forums held to support world media.”

Charges such as those are equally relevant this year. Just a few weeks before the opening of the 2004 conference, parliamentarians approved a new media law that had been repeatedly condemned by local and foreign press activists, as well as Western governments and international organizations. The International Press Institute had said about the draft law: “A number of articles stray so far from international standards on press freedom that it is difficult not to see the Law Concerning Mass Media as a government-inspired attempt to control and intimidate the media.” That criticism and others--especially from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)--led President Nazerbaev to rail in December against outside interference in the country’s legislative agenda. Now, the new measures need only Nazerbaev's signature to become law.

SMOOTH CUSTOMERS

The organizers, led by Nazarbayeva, argue that their intentions for the annual forum are simply to gather together prominent media professionals to promote East-West cooperation and understanding--through dialogue on topics such as covering Islam, religious conflicts, corruption, and, yes, freedom of the media. The president’s daughter, in her 2003 welcoming address, declared: “Mass media today should be independent and able to provide a community a chance to understand itself. Therefore,” she said, “nobody has the right to use it as an instrument of manipulation and propaganda.”

Last year, proclamations like that were sandwiched into a packed program of panels, which took place at the five-star Regent Hotel in downtown Almaty. Though the discussions sometimes dragged on--as speakers and individuals in the audience frequently digressed from the topics at hand--the logistics came off with few hitches. Smooth, well-groomed Khabar officials and security personnel blanketed the conference proceedings. Young women--ethnic Kazakhs and Russians studying at a local business academy--hovered helpfully, clad in blue and gold with girl-scout-like scarves. A cornucopia of food overflowed in the hotel restaurant and at the “cultural excursions”--an evening of Kazakh song and dance at the city theater and a late afternoon at a ranch up in the mountains surrounding Almaty.

The slickness, however surprising to Westerners dealing with the Kazakhs for the first time, is no shock to more experienced Kazakh-watchers. Unlike their counterparts in many other parts of the former Soviet Union, the Kazakh elite has clearly learned that image matters and that hiring professionals to do things right is worth the money. Over the past several years, the government has spent millions on lobbyists and public relations campaigns. As only one example, the Financial Times reported last year that the government planned to spend $1 million for Washington D.C.'s largest lobbying company, Patton Boggs, to improve Kazakhstan's reputation among U.S. officials and the media.

In other ways, the authorities operate much more subtly: opponents charge that their techniques include a range of strategies designed to distort reality to such a degree that the truth becomes increasingly hard to decipher. The case of Sergei Duvanov, which served as a grim backdrop to last year’s conference, is a prime example.

A MARKED MAN

Over the past decade, Sergei Duvanov--after dabbling in politics following the country’s independence--became one of Kazakhstan’s leading independent journalists and human rights activists. He was one of the few who dared to write about the high-level corruption allegations known collectively (and unoriginally) as “Kazakhgate,” a scandal surrounding charges that Western oil companies paid enormous bribes to Kazakh officials, including President Nazerbaev, for concessions to exploit the country’s vast oil reserves.

A central figure in the Kazakhgate scandal is an American named James Giffen, who once served as a special advisor to Nazarbaev. He was indicted in the spring of 2003 by a U.S. grand jury on charges that he handed out nearly $80 million in under-the-table payments to Kazakh officials on behalf of oil companies. (Speculation still abounds that Giffen might strike a plea bargain and implicate Nazerbaev, which would have huge implications for the country’s relations with the West--including its new role in the fight against terrorism--and international financial institutions.)

Since the scandal broke, the Kazakh authorities have come down increasingly hard on local opposition media that have dared to cover to the trials. It is within this context that most international press organizations have come to believe that Duvanov’s October 2002 arrest and conviction on charges of raping an underage girl was a government frame-up. The journalist was detained the day he was scheduled to leave for the United States to discuss his Kazakhgate investigations with U.S. officials. Two months earlier, in August, three men had brutally beaten him and warned that next time they would cripple him if he didn’t stop writing. He didn't.

A Dutch diplomat who attended Duvanov's trial later wrote: “There can be little doubt that Duvanov was the victim of a politically motivated secret operation of the security organs to discredit him.” In his meticulously detailed report, the diplomat claimed there were numerous instances where the security services had botched the set-up Keystone Cop fashion, and that the police had committed suspicious procedural violations.

Duvanov's defenders believe he was targeted partly because his coverage was more professional, more balanced--in short, more credible--than other press accounts. He cited specific legal examples, avoided using unsourced allegations, and presented information without the personal slurs and hysterical proclamations that mar some of the opposition media’s reporting. Duvanov may have had sympathies for various opposition groups, but he was as close to an “independent” reporter as it gets in Kazakhstan, and certainly could not easily be labeled a political hack.

Duvanov further irritated the authorities by publishing most of his writing on the Internet site, Eurasia.ru.org, a popular source of news and analysis about Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia, with Russian and English versions. It's widely assumed that the site is bankrolled by Nazerbaev’s arch-enemy, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was prime minister from 1994 to 1997 before he fell out with the president and emigrated to the West. Kazhegeldin, the theory goes, was an Internet-savvy technocrat when he was in power. After finding himself suddenly sidelined as an outsider by the pro-government media, he turned to the online medium as an effective weapon to fight the authorities. One expert on the Kazakh Internet, who did not wish to be named, told me that the state security services had even gone so far as to create a duplicate version of Eurasia.ru.org--almost a mirror, but with sensitive stories deleted.

In September 2001, a Kazakh court convicted Kazhegeldin in absentia of corruption and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. He continues to deny the charges, claiming they were politically motivated, while acting as one of the most prominent critics of the regime abroad--spinning in reverse, as it were, the messages of the authorities.

A DROP IN THE SEA

While nearly every press defense organization abroad, as well as the OSCE, has openly expressed doubts about the verdict, in Kazakhstan, public opinion is decidedly mixed. Only a small minority of people--opposition types and journalists, many of whom worked with Duvanov--believe he is completely innocent. But their non-state affiliated newspapers, which covered the case extensively, reach at most 40,000-50,000 people in a country of 15 million.

"In the provinces, in the northern regions, people have no idea about [the Duvanov] case or only have a very general idea," said Rozlana Taukina, a leading opposition journalist. I met Taukina and a group of other journalists--all of whom have had run-ins with the government--at the local office of Internews, an international organization that fosters independent media in emerging democracies.

Taukina and her colleagues in the opposition press, as well as many independent observers, believe the authorities have engaged in a calculated campaign to limit reporting about Duvanov and the Kazakhgate scandal. Taukina claimed that the local authorities have confiscated opposition newspapers to prevent the dissemination of information. Another opposition journalist told me that the authorities "coincidentally" sued his newspaper under an obscure law that prevents simultaneous publication in Russian and Kazakh one week after his newspaper became one of the first publications to write about Kazakhgate in the Kazakh language.

"I think it's an implicit policy to limit access of at least the Kazakh part of the population to news of this kind," he said. "We simply said that James Giffen had been arrested at the airport in such and such town, and we received a lawsuit almost immediately. That in itself tells you something."

The rest of the press is largely state-controlled or owned by members of the presidential family (ownership remains opaque, but media analysts judge that a vast majority are in the hands of the extended Nazerbaev family). The situation with the broadcast media is even worse, with a major independent station shut down in the months following the first Eurasia Media Forum. All of these state-friendly outlets have either ignored the Duvanov case or, at most, suggested during the trial that he was at least partly guilty.

It's clear when you talk to intelligent, independent people that the state-orchestrated information blockade has successfully created an atmosphere of doubt and innuendo surrounding the Duvanov case. One opposition journalist told me that while she didn't believe he had actually raped the victim, she did think that some sort of sexual contact had taken place. Another 20-something woman, sophisticated and educated in the United States, said she didn’t know what to believe, but some friends had told her that Duvanov liked young women. Tatyana Shevyakova, the chair of the journalism department at Almaty University, told me that she and her students don’t feel that they have all the information necessary to make a definitive judgment.

GOOD COP, BAD COP

The shadow that the Dubanov case cast over the 2003 EAMF conference seemed to bring a sense of urgency, some might say desperation, to the organizers' attempts to win the hearts and minds of the international and domestic public. And even though Duvanov has been transferred from his cell to house arrest, his situation is likely to pervade at least some of this year's conference.

Last year, during a panel called “Journalists Under Pressure,” Nazerbaev aide Ermukhamet Ertysbayev said: “To me, all these years Duvanov was a professional politician. I know people in this audience would vote for releasing him. It is a pity that such prestigious guests have been manipulated in this ideological battle.

“Let me reveal a secret,” Ertysbayev went on. “After Duvanov was arrested, as an advisor to the president, I told him [Nazerbaev]: ‘Duvanov is a member of the opposition elite, let’s hush up this case.’ Because I knew how it would be reported, that it would be said that he was persecuted by the authorities for what he wrote.” Ertysbayev said that the president then inquired if the arrest was a set-up, but was told that a crime had been committed. The president’s adviser ended his comments by ominously speaking about narrowing the field for the opposition--he had a tough time, he said, telling if certain “mercenary” journalists work for the mass media or for “radical opposition forces.”

More thuggish, but effective in his own way, was--until his death from a heart attack last year--Erik Nurshin, a lawyer and editor of the pro-government newspaper Dozhivem do Ponyedyelnika. A heavy-set man in his mid-40s, Nurshin made a healthy living from suing the opposition and opposition press for libeling the president and his family. He also defended the young woman Duvanov was charged with raping; during the trial, Nurshin’s newspaper referred to Duvanov as “rapist of the year.”

Nurshin took the conference floor halfway through the "Journalists Under Pressure" panel and, after briefly touching on the Duvanov case, ran through the usual charges uttered by supporters of the regime about non-state-affiliated media and their defenders: most journalist defense organizations in Kazakhstan are funded by foreign sources, they only protect opposition journalists, and opposition papers only exist to “curse” the president and write about court cases that have never taken place.

Peter Preston, the panel's moderator and one of Britain’s most respected columnists, cut Nurshin off several times, to no avail: “You see what pressure I am under--you, moderator, demonstrate your bias against freedom of speech,” Nurshin barked before finally handing over the microphone. Later I heard that he has pulled similar stunts at other conferences. One Cold War veteran told me that the incident reminded him of the days when the Soviets would plant barely-disguised provocateurs to stir things up at international conferences.

Certain parts of the forum did have a staged feeling. Sporadically, officials and businesspeople would chime up during panel discussions, almost as if they wanted to curry favor with the authorities and have their names checked off a list as having raised the "right" point. Even Nazerbayeva, in a departure from the schedule, took an odd few minutes after one panel to defend her father from corruption allegations by reminding us that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

It was the first time that many of the forum’s foreign guests had heard, firsthand, the authorities’ take on Duvanov, Kazakhgate, and the country’s media, and it probably persuaded some of them that the situation wasn’t as bad as they had heard. Nazerbaev himself, in his keynote speech, worked hard to convince his audience that mistakes (he called them “stops along the way”) had surely been made in the media’s development, but that it was natural for a country just emerging from totalitarianism, and things were now on the right track. The majority of the media is in private hands, he said, censorship had been outlawed, and economic incentives for the emergence of a vibrant, independent media existed.

“Some peculiarities of our life are sometimes not understandable for people in the West, who got used to simple and fundamental terms like private property, freedom of speech, and open society,” said the president, who has ruled the country since 1989, when it was a Soviet republic. “We should give up the illusion that it is possible to realize a model of a liberal and pluralistic press in a poor society, torn with social conflicts.”

Dinisa Duvanova, the daughter of the jailed journalist, countered that view when we spoke in a subsequent interview. “The present horrifying situation with media in Kazakhstan is the direct consequence of official policy toward the media, not a result of communist legacies or an underdeveloped social sphere,” she said.

“I lived in Kazakhstan in the mid-1990s to witness the booming independent electronic media, the proliferation of newspapers, and citizens’ reliance on sources of information independent from the state. By 1997, the per capita number of independent radio and TV stations in Kazakhstan was about twice as large compared to Russia, and surpassed that of the Central European countries. I also witnessed the gradual monopolization of the media by the state following the formation of the state news agency headed by Dariga Nazarbayeva and the 1998 regulations on frequency distribution, which drove the most popular independent electronic media out of business.”

Indeed, a decade ago, the Freedom House Press Freedom Survey actually rated Kazakhstan’s media as “partly free.” Since that time, the country has slipped into the “not free” category, with the 2003 edition of the survey citing widespread self-censorship and asserting that “The Nazarbayev regime controls or otherwise influences most newspapers, printing and distribution facilities, and electronic broadcasts.” Another Freedom House survey, Nations in Transit, rates the countries of the region since 1997 in a variety of democratization categories. In the category of independent media, Kazakhstan has either held steady or gone downhill every year. The country now ranks behind Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Those who see the hand of the Nazarbayevs, rather than post-Soviet legacies at the heart of the media’s downward spiral--and there are many who do--might find it particularly ironic that the upcoming forum features a panel discussion called “Paying the Piper.” One of the questions to be addressed: “What dangers are posed to freedom of information by the growth of private media moguls with their own political agendas?”

ALTERNATIVE REALITY

Feeling caged in by the rather ponderous ramblings of the panels and getting few insights about how the “other half” lives--or rather, the meager opposition press--I left the conference and took a trip to the other side of town. Here was an alternative media reality, far removed from the glitz of the Regent and the official version of events. The office of the opposition newspaper Soldat was decidedly no frills, just a few rooms in a one-story building. The neighborhood was a strange mix of colorful, onion-domed mansions looming over thick, concrete fences and flimsy, tin-roofed dwellings fit for a shantytown.

Editor in chief Ermurat Bapi had a small, plain office and showed off the paper’s tiny computer room, protected with a door of iron bars due to repeat, and unsolved, robberies. Time and time again, unknown assailants have attacked opposition newspapers, their employees, or their families, made pointed references to their work, and then disappeared--never to be found. The authorities have traditionally explained these incidents as routine cases of assault or theft and pledged to find the culprits. According to opposition journalist Gulzhan Ergalieva--whose family was attacked, leaving her husband handicapped--not one attack on an opposition journalist or newspaper has been solved, an allegation disputed by the authorities.

Kazhegeldin’s Republican National Party (RPK) owns the building that housed Soldat, used the other rooms for party activities, and didn’t charge the newspaper anything for its office space. The party’s logo and slogan hung prominently on the wall of the conference room where we met, and party members had even left large leaves of paper on the wall, filled with scribbled instructions that were the remnants of a recent seminar.

“We tried to rent offices in the buildings of government-owned mass media outlets, and we weren’t successful--after we started renting, we were asked to leave,” said Bapi, who worked at state media before joining the press service of then Prime Minister Kazhegeldin. The paper also had problems finding a Kazakh printer and, in the past, had used presses located in Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Circulation was between 20,000-30,000 copies, and the sole source of revenue was newspaper sales. Though the paper was popular--especially as one of the first Kazakh-language opposition publications--advertisers feared using a vehicle so vehemently opposed to the authorities and one that clearly relished delving into the Kazakhgate charges.

The close RPK connections led some critics to accuse Soldat of only representing Kazhegeldin’s point of view and therefore running biased coverage of the government and opposition groups that don’t support Kazhegeldin. Bapi denied those charges, but--unlike many of his counterparts throughout the former Soviet Union--he didn’t try to pass his publication off as “independent.” Soldat was an opposition paper, and its editor made no bones about it.

Bapi, who was on probation for criticizing the president, was not invited to the first Eurasia Media Forum. A year later, in 2003, the conference organizers asked him and his colleagues to join the proceedings, but he stayed away. He believes the conference organizers weren't interested in actually hearing from the opposition, but rather wanted "to show observers, the international media, and the international representatives at the forum that there is opposition and here it is. It is attending the forum.”

There’s little chance Bapi will be receiving another invitation. A month after my visit, he was in hot water again, ordered on 22 May to pay 57 million tenghe ($380,000) in back taxes. That was only the latest in a line of over a dozen verdicts against the paper, but more was in store later in the year. In August, the paper was shut down for financial reasons. On 17 November, Bapi received a one-year suspended jail sentence for tax evasion and other business improprieties. He was also barred from practicing journalism for five years, a novelty in the annals of the Kazakh media.

While I was speaking to Bapi at the Soldat office, a tall, middle-aged man wandered in, sat down, and started listening attentively to our discussion. After several minutes Bapi paused and said, “I want to introduce you to our guest, deputy prime minister of Kazakhstan, governor of one of the regions, former ambassador to Turkey, secretary of the security council--currently a citizen of Kazakhstan not needed by the administration. He can’t say anything positive about Nazerbaev because he still has a conscience remaining--that’s why he’s unemployed.”

Baltash Tursunbaev did hold all those positions, as well as high-ranking jobs in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. He fancies himself a rebel, a straight shooter even when he was working closely with the president (“I told Nazarbaev what should and shouldn’t be done,” he told me). I asked him why the crackdown on the press had worsened, even with the showcase Eurasia Media Forum taking place since 2002.

“During the last two years, Nazarbaev felt the Kazakhgate scandal getting at him," he said. "He thought there were two ways [to deal with it]: one is to totally stifle and eliminate all the independent and opposition press, hide them behind prison bars--just silence them. And he thought, as far as foreigners are concerned, [that] he’d make a nice reception for them, wear a nice tie, a French suit, nice shoes, present himself as a democrat, and that will take care of the foreign media.”

'MORE COMPLICATED THAN YOU'D HAVE THOUGHT'

Tursunbaev picked up on a theme I heard often from the forum’s critics. “When I advocated for boycotting the forum, I had no illusion about its purpose,” said Duvanova, who has received political asylum in the United States, where she is a graduate student. “The announcement of the forum came [only] weeks after Nazarbayev expressed concerns with the deterioration of the international image of Kazakhstan. The forum was an attempt at improving this image. This is what communists in the Soviet times also did: they would take journalists on beautiful tours, present the situation in the most positive light, talk false promises, smile, and reassure them that they are concerned with existing problems and making the best efforts to solve them.

“The logic is simple: feed them good, free, food, show them respect and they [the journalists] will start liking you.”

Of course, some in the foreign media aren’t so easily duped, either by Nazerbaev’s attempts to play Central Asian peacemaker and democrat, or by the forum’s ability to put a positive spin on the media situation, give or take a few blotches. The PR works to a great extent because Kazakhstan is not a clear-cut case of an unreformed, authoritarian regime that oppresses its populace, outlaws opposition parties, jails all its opponents, and crushes all unfriendly voices. The oil-fed economy is booming, and normal people are beginning to feel the benefit and not just the super-rich, as the government has raised spending in areas such as health and education. This is not Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

“It’s a little more complicated that you’d have thought,” said Peter Preston, who edited the Guardian for 20 years, and was representing the International Press Institute on his first visit to Kazakhstan. “In real oppressive places for the press--and I’ve been there--you can’t buy any outside newspapers, you can’t get any proper news, you may be just about OK in your Western hotel, but after that, it runs out. That’s not quite the same here.”

During the forum, Preston was invited one afternoon in Almaty to take part in a television talk show on the media situation and was surprised to find a very open, lively discussion that included Tamara Kaleyova, head of a well-respected Kazakh press freedom organization, among the guests.

“So clearly things are not totally buttoned down, totally cynical. I don’t believe that," said Preston. "As you go around the world you see that a lot of the places where the biggest debates about a free press and freedom of expression actually take place are not in places like Turkmenistan.” Indeed, in the Regent's lobby was a stack of the Kazakhstan Monitor, a weekly English-language newspaper, that featured an editorial titled “The ghost of communism has not yet lost its ground in Kazakhstan,” as well as a column blasting the forum written by a Soldat contributor. And, even with all the pressure from the authorities, several dozen independent television stations do exist, cowed but still doing some of the hardest news coverage in Central Asia.

Our hosts, however, weren’t perfect at creating the impression that, at least in the confines of the hotel, critical views were tolerated. One night, I went with colleagues from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to check for ourselves if the accusations of online censorship by international media organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders, were valid. While the Uzbek journalist and media rights campaigner could access sites usually not available in his own country (due to his own regime’s obstruction), none of us could log on to the Kazakh news sites Eurasia.ru.org or kub.kz, the websites of opposition politicians, or the online versions of opposition newspapers, such as Respublika or the Assanti Times. And it wasn’t a question of slow modems: the shiny, high-tech media center had around 25 powerful machines and a connection that would put many Internet cafes in the West to shame.

Though the number of Kazakh readers is minuscule, some in power are clearly worried about the ability of these sites to influence the elite, including potential dissenters in their own ranks.

Later, during a panel I led on Internet journalism, I asked Nazarbayeva if she could explain the official position about the rampant blocking of opposition websites since no one else had volunteered to do so. She had now, however, taken off her “authorities” hat (whereby she had earlier defended her father) and testily explained she was just one of the conference organizers and couldn’t express the government’s position. Only then did the minister of information--silent until then--unconvincingly say the blocking was a serious violation of freedom of speech and promise to look closer into the issue. One year later, opposition sites are still blocked.

A DEGREE OF DIALOGUE

Nevertheless, critics say that the Kazakh authorities use favorable comparisons to other Central Asian states to their advantage--they know that virtually any appearance of openness or malleability will be greeted with open arms. “The news people at Khabar and in the presidential administration are savvy enough to know what their critics are saying. They are also savvy enough to maintain relationships with them,” said Ivan Sigal, the Central Asia regional director for Internews, who had stopped by last year’s forum.

“They don’t work in an absolute authoritarian relationship. They are not here to say, 'we are not going to talk to you,' and they are not here to say they don’t care about your opinion. They are going to take your advice and then they are going to ignore it. We see that again and again internally with how they deal with the opposition and how they deal with the international presence, as well. We are accepted on a certain level, but at the end of the day, they still do what they want and so you have a degree of dialogue as calculated politically to appease the international critics.”

As an illustration, Sigal brought up an example from another Central Asian state, Tajikistan, where he lived shortly after the end of the five-year civil war. During the run-up to President Ibrahim Rakhmonov’s re-election, none of the other candidates could muster enough signatures to reach the exorbitant number required by the election commission to place them on the ballot. Evidently worried about the impression a single candidate would give to the outside world, the election commission chose one of the opposition candidates and put him on the ballot. The man, however, refused, saying the action was illegal, but to no avail.

“The national broadcaster then said that there was competition,” says Sigal. “Of course Rakhmonov won in a landslide, the result was announced, and most people didn’t know [about the counter-candidate controversy]. But I had a friend who was the AFP correspondent and after Rakhmonov came and voted and there were a bunch of journalists around, she said, ‘Mr. President, how can you say this is an election when there is only one candidate?’ And he responded, ‘This is a democracy. And young lady, we have a democracy because you are here.’”

“That’s a very prescient answer,” said Sigal. “Because what it means is that we demonstrate democracy precisely, and we caliber it precisely, to the degrees that you require us to have to demonstrate that democracy. And we play that game precisely to that level, and no more.”

“That whole PR game is done with considerably more sophistication here [in Kazakhstan] in comparison to the other Central Asian countries," he added. "What you have created, in a soft authoritarian way, is a whole gray area where people don’t know what the truth is and everyone is trying to appropriate the aura of truth and they are competing for that.” That is a major reason why Sigal urged foreign media representatives to skip the event, feeling they could (unintentionally) help color that grey area in favor of the authorities by their mere presence.

These are issues that Western institutions must deal with constantly in Central Asia, especially as engagement in the post-September 11 world has increased on a political and military level while the human rights situation and other elements of democracy have continued to deteriorate. How does one engage without appearing to condone a partner state’s behavior? Is it better to boycott any activity with unsavory states or rather build relationships and use those to further gradual reform?

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, for example, faced intense criticism last year over its decision to hold its annual meeting in Uzbekistan, a country roundly condemned for its human rights record. A recent report by the International Crisis Group said that strategy had backfired, with the regime not living up to most of the promises it had given the EBRD and other Western donors. At the beginning of April, the bank decided to cut back its aid.

At a 2003 RFE/RL conference on the media in Central Asia, Freimut Duve, then the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, spoke about attempts to misuse him personally and his office for such legitimacy-building purposes, and even mentioned Kazakhstan specifically: "… They [the Kazakhs] want to be part of the Western family, they want to belong… for many reasons, oil and others," he said. "So we may use this want to belong to our family, but we should be very careful not to use it in the wrong way. Of course, they want to use it--for example, I get certain invitations, so that I can be photographed shaking hands. In a situation like that, I don't go, I just wouldn't go. I don't want to be a heraldic wheel around a dictatorial situation.”

Kazakhstan is attempting to become, in 2009, the first former Soviet republic to head the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe--an immense step toward attaining acceptance in the international community.

LEGITIMIZATION AT HOME

The forum, however, isn’t just about swaying international opinion. The showy media coverage before, during, and after the conference; the billboards thrown up all around the capital; the flags lining the streets: it’s also about impressing the locals, boosting the regime’s prestige, and furthering the status quo. And that’s what really worries some forum critics and those that urged a boycott.

“There are two PR purposes for the conference,” said Sigal. “The first is to create these relationships with the outside--with international broadcasters and others--but I think more important--or at least as important--is the idea that it’s a legitimacy-building exercise for the government itself.

“The forum allows the government to link the national broadcaster [Khabar] by association with international broadcasters that do have demonstrated credentials of truthfulness--the BBC, the CBC, APTN [Associated Press Television Network], and others who are invited here," he said. "By association, Khabar is trying to appropriate that aura--the aura of honesty, of objectivity--to its own news, to its own information game. So the value of your presence for them is that it allows them to promote their own agenda inside the country regardless of what you say.” Sigal believes any real debate over media issues won’t actually be aired. “They appropriate the idea of dialogue and remove the content, which is why it is a relatively sophisticated PR move: you [as a participant] are complicit one way or another.”

Before coming to Almaty, I received an e-mail, containing similar warnings, from a colleague who has spent much time in Central Asia over the past few years, writing about the media and training local journalists. The author, who did not wish to be named, wrote: “Another real danger is that you get interviewed for TV or the TV catches part of your panel discussion, and they change your words in the voiceover translation. The Kazak audience at home then gets to see an international media figure praising Nazarbaev and his approach to the media. Think they wouldn’t do that? A regime that rigs rape charges to teach journalists a lesson is more than capable of putting words in someone’s mouth. And will you know if it happens in any case?”

"If you look at the official coverage of such events," Duvanova said, "you see the happy faces of foreigners, handshakes, a Kazakh official lecturing, and the foreign officials-journalists nodding their heads approvingly. The narrator quotes officials in praising the achievements of Kazakhstan. This creates an illusion that the policies adopted by Kazakh officials are internationally recognized, approved, and probably the norm in a democratic-Western society. It is a pity that journalists whose work in informing the people ensures the democratic polity in the West allow themselves to be used as tools of authoritarian propaganda in the East.”

STAYING AWAY

Those fears, over appearing to give the regime a stamp of approval, as well as lingering questions over Duvanov’s imprisonment, have led some to stay away over the past two years--including some big name journalists who headlined the 2003 program--until the very last minute. Most prominent among these was Tim Sebastian, the veteran BBC newsman who moderates the station’s “Hard Talk” program and was supposed to chair the event.

Two weeks before the forum, Sebastian, Yuri Goligorsky (chief editor of BBC broadcasting in Central Asia and the Caucasus and a member of the 2002 forum advisory committee), and the Financial Times's Anthony Robinson said they would only attend if they could see Duvanov, whose sentence was upheld in March 2003, just a few weeks before the opening of last year’s forum. The organizers, however, said they could only forward the request to the Ministry of Justice. Arranging a visit with an inmate was a matter for the legal authorities and out of their competences--evidently a job too much even for Dariga Nazerbaeva.

After the ministry did not grant permission, Sebastian and others cancelled. Aiden White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, also chose not to attend, saying the Duvanov case would cast a shadow over the conference. The International Press Institute only agreed to participate after the addition of two panel discussions on “Journalists Under Pressure.”

The threat of others joining this informal boycott was enough to push the organizers to issue a pre-conference press release in which Nazarbayeva said “the EAMF conference is the place to discuss these issues. No one is trying to silence the regrettable incident with Duvanov, however, it would be wrong to bring Kazakhstan media issues down to this case only. Kazakhstan journalism today is very heterogeneous and controversial, and it highly needs support from our experienced colleagues.”

In an e-mail after the forum, Mirgul Issanova and Talgat Dairbekov--content director and director general, respectively, at the EMF foundation--wrote me: “The organizers’ point was and remains as follows: We are fully aware of Duvanov’s situation and understand the concern raised in the Western media community. We work closely with local media and journalists’ rights protection organizations and joined their initiatives in support of a fair trial over Duvanov. This, however, remains a purely legal matter (a criminal case) and we should rely on the law enforcement authorities’ actions and the court decision.

“We are sorry that this case prevented some of our colleagues from attending the conference; however, [we] strongly believe that this is not a constructive way of reacting to the situation. Silencing the problem will not help to resolve it. We had two lively sessions on ‘Journalists Under Pressure,’ where participants brought up many issues on media freedoms and pressures in the region, including the Duvanov case. The idea of the organizers was to give the platform/the chance to discuss these issues openly and share the experiences, views, suggestions, [and] knowledge of as many CONCERNED [sic] people as possible on these vital issues. And we believe the organizers managed to arrange this kind of open conversation, and it is a pity that some our respected colleagues failed to contribute to this exchange of ideas.”

BIG PLAYERS UNDETERRED

Even with the high-profile Sebastian example, opposition to the conference has yet to translate into any significant boycott of the forum. Lone individuals chose not to attend, but that’s it. Major international media, as well as some prestigious academic and research institutions, have so far largely ignored the criticism of the forum and its political connections. The 2003 conference guide (entitled “East or West, peace is best”) lists as partners the BBC, ITAR-TASS, and CNN, as well as the University of Cambridge, the East West Institute, and many others. Associated Press Television News Chief Executive Ian Ritchie is quoted as saying his organization is “proud to be closely associated with the conference.”

With Sebastian not in attendance, Richard Quest, the high-octane CNN anchor and business reporter, became the de-facto media star of the forum. Quest told me that he had heard many warnings about the political situation and the state of freedom of the press before coming. He said he had sought to hear both sides of the arguments, but overall welcomed the chance to travel to a region and chair a few panels on issues--the Caspian sea, Eurasia’s potential--where his knowledge was minimal. In any case, Quest said, “CNN had decided that this was a forum which was worth attending and therefore I was deputed to be the designated speaker.” While initial requests to participate in such events may come from the business or marketing department, Quest said that editorial--in the form of CNN's Standards and Practices department--always has the final call.

“As a general principle CNN does not boycott events, countries, or organizations on journalistic grounds,” Quest said. “It is self-defeating. At best, it ensures our ignorance of the issues, at worst it hinders our ability to understand and cover these issues. But participation does not and should not be taken as a mark of approval of the event, either. We are journalists. Provided certain basic rights are guaranteed (the right to ask questions, the right to speak to whom we decide is appropriate, the right to direct the flow of information, and the right to speak to local media and other journalists) then there is no reason not to take part.

“I am indeed pleased that I attended,” said Quest. “I found that nothing was off-limits and indeed if anything had been proscribed then I most certainly would have argued strongly for my withdrawal.”

The association of so many high-profile organizations with the Eurasia Media Forum, however, does convey some sense of “approval” and provides crucial legitimization of the event. When I ask the conference organizers what it takes to be listed as a “partner,” the message I get back is a rather liberal definition: “all organizations, companies, or individuals contributing to preparing and conducting the Forum.” That runs the gamut from producing various sessions to just providing coverage of the event or PR.

“All our partners (we generally do not divide them into official and non-official, we just tailor the ways of their promotion during the forum to the scale of their contributions/involvement) are the ones who support our activities and provide different kinds of assistance,” wrote Ms. Issanova.

That clearly made sense for CNN, which hosted a Quest-led panel for the event and closed a major barter deal with the forum, exchanging ads on CNN for the label of co-sponsor for the closing party and signage around the convention center. On the other hand, the BBC also ended up listed as a partner, even though it was only one BBC producer, in an unofficial capacity, who helped organize a few sessions. And in spite of a BBC senior editor--Yuri Goligorsky--boycotting the event along with Sebastian, one of the corporation’s top stars. (Contacted by e-mail, Goligorsky declined to comment on this incongruency, saying only: “There is absolutely nothing I can add to what you already know: I have been invited to attend in a private capacity and decided to decline the invitation.”)

As long as hired guns are on hand to add some bulk to the program--like last year’s conference chair Riz Khan (the former CNN anchor turned rent-a-moderator) and this year’s headliners, Richard Holbrooke and Richard Perle; as long as big- and small shots, in search of publicity and contacts, look at the forum as a prime opportunity to make headway in Central Asia; and as long as at least some freedom-of-the-press defenders see more value in engaging instead of shunning, a boycott is not going to happen. Key for the Eurasia Media Forum's future will be how long the conference organizers succeed at creating some distance--however small--between their agenda and that of the authorities, and at perpetuating the ambiguity about their true intentions (are they just fronting for the regime or actually providing a valuable public service?). And as each additional year passes without any organized opposition, the event gains in stature and acceptability.

QUEEN BEE

It is also a testament to the powerful personality and charm of the 40-year-old Dariga Nazarbayeva that so many prestigious organizations seem to accept the event's most benign interpretation. Nazarbayeva is an impressive figure, who, when I was there, floated around the forum comfortably chatting up guests from the East and the West. By all accounts, she is more media savvy than her father and highly skilled at fostering her image as an intellectual, Central Asian cosmopolitan. In her opening speech at last year’s forum, she sprinkled references to Fukuyama and Hegal throughout and philosophized about journalists’ inability to tackle deeper issues. In the conference literature, she is called “Dr. Dariga Nazarbayeva,” a title she acquired in 1998 with her PhD from the Russian Academy of Public Service (her dissertation was titled “Democratization of Political Systems in the Newly Independent States.”)

Whether unintentional or not, part of Nazarbayeva's image building has included high-profile events abroad rarely attended by people from this part of the world. Nazarbayeva’s mere presence represents integration into the “civilized” Western world, and the resulting PR inevitably plays on those themes. Last fall, for example, she traveled to New York City to participate in the 31st International Emmy Awards Gala (she is a board member of the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, also a forum partner). According to the Eurasia Media Forum website: “Among the guests at the EAMF table at the Gala were high-level US political and media executives. The event was attended by almost 1,000 people, including well-known celebrities from the entertainment world.”

Yet for all Nazarbayeva’s academic titles (she also has a master's degree in history from Moscow State University) and networking skills, there was clearly something else at work that accounted for her rapid rise to becoming the queen of Kazakhstan’s media landscape. Her professional career started only in 1992--as the vice president of a fund for children--but only two years later she became director of the powerful Khabar TV. The following year she became president of the company, and in 2001, chair of Khabar’s board.

Khabar now associates itself so much with Nazarbayeva that the company’s “Our History” English-language web page doesn’t even have a proper retelling of the station’s beginnings. Instead, in classic personality-cult style, pages and pages are filled with fawning accounts of Nazarbayeva's public appearances, including her performance at a benefit concert. The description of the latter is worth quoting at length for the insight it provides into how the president’s daughter spins herself:

“All of us at the Agency had long been aware of the fact that the chairman of our Board of Directors has a strong and beautiful mezzo-soprano,” the author writes. “Dariga Nursultanovna would perform Kazakh national songs, Russian romances, and masterpieces of world classics at corporate parties with pleasure and without false shyness. But a solo performance with a serious program for the country's elite--cultural figures, politicians, and businessmen--this move amazed even those who had personal knowledge of her talent.

"What was this? Was it majestic caprice? Or, as it is now trendy to say, was it good PR? Malicious tongues have already taken aim at the sole and unprotected voice of a singer newly cast into the limelight…Dariga Nazarbayeva herself does not intend to explain her behavior to critics, to comment on or refute anything. She said, ‘Pigs grunt about everything and nothing.'

"'… It is sad but I am already not destined to be heard either at the Vienna opera or La Scala...’ The bitterness of Dariga Nazarbayeva's words from the liner notes of her first solo disc hide her moving confession to the public: ‘But I will sing! As I nevertheless love you!'

“Yes, her life took a different path, not one of poetry. She has become manager and head of the country's largest media-empire!"

Whether Nazarbayeva, in fact, aspires to become more than that--head of the country--has been the subject of much debate. Her political ambitions and orientation are hard to read, like much about her. (Attempts to interview her at the conference and afterward were unsuccessful.) She founded a political party called Asar (All Together), which was officially registered in December 2003. Since then, the party has surged to the front of the pack of those competing in this fall’s parliamentary elections; at a February 2004 press conference, Nazarbayeva claimed Asar had 172,000 members--if true, an amazing accomplishment in such a short time, and one that put it second only to the pro-presidential Otan (Homeland) Party.

Some say Asar will be little more than a tool to help President Nazerbaev get reelected in 2006, a prelude to a dynastic transfer of power to Dariga in a decade. Others have commended the president’s daughter for targeting neglected groups for political participation, especially women (the party’s deputy head is Raushan Sarsembayeva, head of the Kazakh Businesswomen's Association). She has also assumed a comparatively liberal voice in government circles. “Nazarbayeva has been an outspoken reform advocate, especially in the area of electoral and media reform. In some cases, she has embraced opposition positions as her own,” wrote Alima Bissenova in a recent article on the news website Eurasianet.org.

Nazarbayeva has also faulted the way the authorities arrested and convicted several leading opposition figures. She criticized the handling of the Duvanov case, saying the journalist had a right to an opinion about her father. And after last year’s conference, her media outlets and associations (she heads the Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan, viewed as a pro-governmental body, and several other journalism organizations) lobbied against a draconian measure in the draft media law that would have allowed the minister of information to shut down media organizations without a court order.

Some say, however, that Nazarbayeva is just hedging her bets in case a changing of the guard takes place in the upper echelons of power. Others praise her willingness to offer at least some level of dissent, but are dismayed that her comments haven’t led to any concrete results--just the point, charge critics, who say it’s all for international consumption. “That’s the sign of a real politician who can do anything,” says one Kazakh media observer who asked to remain anonymous. “Throw a journalist in prison and then criticize it. It’s like America: at the same time as they’re bombing Iraq, they’re sending in humanitarian aid.”

That mixed resume, like much about Nazarbayeva, makes her a challenging figure to interpret--that grayness, that ambiguity, ends up marking her as much as it does the Duvanov case, the Kazakhgate charges, her new political career, and the forum itself. Watching her in action during the proceedings, you can’t tell whether she is a more liberal, sophisticated member of the younger generation--ready to take the reigns from her father and create a true democracy--or whether she will simply follow in his authoritarian footsteps.

Yet with the forum so clearly Nazarbayeva’s “baby” and a showcase for her ambitions, getting behind the façade is crucial to judging whether this annual event represents a nefarious attempt to sidestep media repression and legitimize an oppressive regime or rather serves as a genuine attempt to soothe the clash of cultures and connect normally unconnected or “unconnectable” people.

AN UNENVIABLE POSITION

To be fair, the forum has placed Nazarbayeva and the organizing committee in an essentially no-win situation: she is damned if she speaks out against media repression, and damned if she doesn’t; the forum is damned if it includes dissenters on the program, and damned if it doesn’t. Unless action follows criticism of the media situation--action that may very well be out of her hands--people will claim the forum is all for show, to give the (false) impression of real dialogue. In years past, lively debates have taken place, pitting free press advocates against people connected with the authorities, including Nazarbayeva. Yet the situation did not improve. In fact, many claim that it worsened, with increased repression on the opposition media and the closure of the last opposition television station after the first forum.

Whatever the organizers’ motivations, there is no denying that at least a minimum of debate about the situation of the Kazakh media does take place--even if it is far from being a focal point of the conference. Both foreign and local critics get a say, and on the sidelines, some opposition journalists and activists mix with the foreign press corps, telling their side of the story.

That reality also gets to the heart of whether participation at events such as the forum makes sense or whether boycotting is a better idea. The Khabar crowd and other “media savvy” types may be unmalleable no matter what they hear, but perhaps other members of the elite, never directly exposed to such criticism from abroad, might think twice the next time before rubber-stamping an authoritarian move. An opposition journalist might be reinvigorated by the international interest in cases such as Duvanov’s. And even the young people present--the ushers listening in on the discussions or the students who showed up en masse last year--might take away a kernel of dissent normally hard to find. (It was, for example, eye-opening to see Ermukhamet Ertysbayev, the presidential aide who had referred to “mercenary” opposition journalists, sit down for lunch with one of those he probably had in mind, Rozlana Taukina, joined by Steve LeVine of the Wall Street Journal--an encounter unlikely to take place anywhere else). Those types of influences are impossible to measure, but are the building blocks that could eventually contribute to greater liberalization.

GOODBYES

The final farewell party last year took place at one of Almaty’s newest hotspots, a place called “Heaven.” And amid the post-Soviet kitsch that somehow still passes as appropriate for an international gathering--barely clad female and male dancers gyrating beneath small banners bearing the logos of the Eurasia Media Forum and CNN (a co-host of the party, along with Khabar)--Dariga Nazerbaeva also shook it up on the dance floor, taking turns with her international guests. She was sure, however, to be back at the hotel by 2 a.m. to graciously bid farewell to the first batch of departing participants, who were flying out a few hours later.

Late that night, as we waited in the Almaty airport lounge to be ushered through customs and onto the plane to Frankfurt, I asked Peter Preston where he stood on the boycott or engage dilemma. “There was a bit of a debate whether one should come or not but the International Press Institute said that quite a lot depended on people coming. And I’m not disappointed to have come,” he said.

“About people deciding to come next year, I think the answer is you just have to look at the situation over the course of the next 12 months, and ask 'is the situation in any respect better? Is there any sign that things have improved? Can the forum be in any respect--or ought to have been--a part of the improvement?’ If it can, you would then certainly recommend people to be involved. If it’s all gone to sick and tears, then there is no reason why you should be here next year, or I should be here or anyone should be here.

"[By coming] you may have done a bit of good, you may have done no good--you don’t know, but you’ll find out later on. Certainly you haven’t done any harm.”

Preston paused. “Probably not,” he said, as we headed out of the gate and back to Europe.

Jeremy Druker is TOL’s executive director and editor in chief and has written about media issues in the post-communist region since 1992.

TOL, Transitions Online: Unique coverage of all of the region’s 28 post-communist countries, was founded as a Czech nonprofit organization in April 1999, the month after the final issue of its print predecessor, Transitions magazine, was published. With the financial and professional support of the Open Society Institute's (OSI) Internet program and the Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF), TOL was resurrected online in July 1999. The new Internet format also meant a renewed stress on working with the region's young, up-and-coming journalists and on taking advantage of electronic communications for journalism training throughout the vast post-communist region.

April 22, 2004.

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