Eurasia Media Forum opens amid skepticism
Amid skepticism from activists and outside
observers, the third annual Eurasian Media Forum (EAMF), a
government-connected, international gathering of news executives and
journalists, opened in the Kazakh commercial capital, Almaty on
"The forum sends the message, loud and clear, that [Kazakh]
President Nazarbayev believes in using public relations stunts to
try to gloss over his inconsistent policy of persecuting Kazakh
journalists," Alex Lupis, Europe and Central Asia programme
coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told IRIN
from New York, citing the cases of Assandi Times editor Irina
Petrushova and independent journalist Sergei Duvanov who wrote about
politically sensitive topics such as government corruption and
ongoing human rights abuses in the country.
"Press freedom in Kazakhstan is very bad and getting worse," the CPJ
Caroline Giraud, from the European desk of Reporters without Borders
(RSF) agreed, describing this week's well polished event as mere
window dressing for an otherwise oppressive regime. "This is so
hypocritical," she told IRIN from her office in Paris.
While there were undoubtedly more private media outlets in
Kazakhstan than in other Central Asian states, most were under the
direct control of people close to Nazarbayev, the RSF official
Their comments coincide with the opening of the conference by
President Nazarbayev, a three-day event organized by his daughter,
Dariga Nazarbayeva. She's chair of the EAMF organizing committee, a
media mogul and a budding politician in her own right - expected to
run in this autumn's parliamentary elections.
"We aim to provide a platform for some lively debate on how media
can contribute to public understanding of east-west and global
connections," she said in a statement.
But lively debate on Kazakhstan's own media freedom won't be easy.
The panel on the role of international organizations in journalists'
rights and safety did not include Kazakh press freedom advocates or
address the persecution of independent journalists who dared to
criticize government policies or report on the activities of the
opposition, Lupis reiterated.
Joshua Machleder, regional director for Internews in Central Asia,
an international organization working to foster independent media in
emerging democracies, told IRIN from Almaty that the larger themes
of media in Kazakhstan were not going to be addressed.
One of the more notorious issues covered by international media last
year at the time of the forum - but not within the country - was the
case of "Kazakhgate", a scandal surrounding charges that Western oil
companies had paid huge kickbacks to Kazakh officials, including
President Nazarbayev, for concessions to exploit the country's vast
oil reserves, he said.
"Anyone who would dare to bring such an issue up within Kazakhstan's
borders - and there were journalists that did try - faced very
severe, repressive measures," Machleder claimed. "Why can't you get
a major news item like Kazakhgate reported in the local media here?"
But according to an article looking into the pros and cons of the
forum, Jeremy Drucker, editor of the Prague-based Transitions
Online, a leading Internet magazine covering Central Asia, and an
attendee at last year's forum, the situation was far from black and
"There is definitely a good argument for boycotting the event as it
is essentially a very slickly well-done spin on events there. It
gives people connected with the regime the opportunity to get across
their view on imprisoned journalists, the opposition press, and so
on," he told IRIN from
Drucker asked, however: "Is it better to stay away and not raise a
voice at all or is it better to go and engage and put issues on the
table that might not be discussed? That is the fundamental
Such pragmatism could very well be the key. Speaking at the forum on
Thursday, President Nazarbayev announced he was vetoing a
controversial bill that critics said would restrict media freedom in
the country, after Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council also opposed
"I decided not to object to the council's decision. This means that
the new media bill has been rejected," Nazarbayev said according to
an AP report.
In March parliament had passed the legislation despite strong
criticism by opposition and media groups who said its provisions for
stricter registration and licensing rules would limit freedom of
The Constitutional Council had opposed a regulation in the bill that
would allow government agencies to withdraw or suspend a media
organizationís license for breaking the law, the council's chairman,
Yuri Khitrin, told journalists in the capital, Astana.
"Such actions can be taken only by courts," Khitrin said. The
council also rejected the articles that said only Kazakh citizens
had the right to disseminate and refute information within the
country, saying this would limit the rights of other people residing
Jan Kubis, the Secretary General of the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe, described Nazarbayev's decision "a very
welcome development," the AP report added.
ANKARA, 22 Apr 2004 (IRIN)
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