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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 Thursday.

"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 official maintained.

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 explained.

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 white.

"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
his home.

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 question."

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 the legislation.

"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 speech.

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 here.

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)
Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is a non-profit venture, totally dependent on financial contributions from donor governments and/or institutions. IRIN pioneered the use of e-mail and web technology to deliver and receive information to and from some of the most remote and underdeveloped places, cheaply and efficiently. Its reporting focuses on strengthening universal access to timely, strategic and non-partisan information so as to enhance the capacity of the humanitarian community to understand, respond to and avert emergencies. IRIN further supports efforts at conflict resolution and reconciliation by countering misinformation and propaganda. IRIN takes an increasingly broad view of what comprises 'humanitarianism' and seeks to cover the full range of humanitarian issues from the abuse of human rights to the environment.

April 26, 2004. Integrated Regional Information Networks


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