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No Relief for Kazakstan's Media. The president's decision to reject a tough new media law was a cosmetic gesture designed to conceal the dismal state of press freedom

By Sergey Duvanov in Almaty

Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev's recent decision to block a controversial media law will do nothing for freedom of speech, and is merely an attempt to score political points at home and abroad.

In a country like Kazakstan, it does not ultimately matter what bills are adopted or rejected, as there is no rule of law anyway. The authorities have the capacity to punish the media without resorting to legal mechanisms. All it takes is the will to silence one's opponents, an obedient set of bureaucrats, and an obliging judicial system that is dependent on the president.
So rejecting this draconian law won't change anything. As long as the current political system is in place, powerful authorities will continue to crack down on critical media and persecute independent journalists. President Nazarbaev announced his decision at the Eurasia Media Forum, an international conference organised on April 22-24 by his daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva - herself an important player in the media business. The president explained that he had rejected the law after taking legal advice, saying, "I received a ruling from the Constitutional Council that certain provisions of the draft law are not in accordance with the constitution."

It was not difficult for Nazarbaev to knock the law back, as a gesture to show his support for the media, as I believe that certain provisions of the draft law were deliberately made excessively harsh to give the president some room for manoeuvre.

In reality, his decision was no more than sleight of hand, designed to earn the president the respect of journalists and improve his country's worsening image both at home and abroad.

It was bare-faced deception. The media is already subject to draconian restrictions and regulations even without this new law, yet the authorities present themselves as democrats and benefactors.

It is certainly a positive thing that the information ministry failed in its attempt to push the law through.
But the truth is that Kazakstan's media is currently in a worse state than ever.

The authorities embarked on a path of steadily curbing media rights in the mid-Nineties, and they are not going to turn back now. The law that was rejected did not mark a radical shift; instead it was just part of the third wave of a long-running campaign to tighten control over press freedom.

I am saying this so that no one has any illusions that everything was OK up till now, or that things began going terribly wrong only when the draft law was produced.

In fact, restrictions on media have been growing steadily over the last eight years.

First, all TV stations and print media perceived not to be loyal to the authorities have been forced out. In 1997, independent media outlets that had emerged in the first years of independence ceased to exist as such. They included TV and radio stations such as "M", which I set up; Totem, established by Rozlana Taukina, Serik Medetbekov's radio RIK, and the Karavan newspaper run by Boris Giller.
These people proved to be naпve in believing that if they steered clear of politics, they could establish a modus vivendi with those in power and thus remain in business. Some were forced to sell out, and others forced to give away their media outlets.
The lesson to be drawn from this was that for the authorities, it is not enough for media to be loyal, they need to control and dominate it.
The administration did not stop there. After the biggest independent players had been taken over, the remaining non-government print outlets were subjected to restrictions.

A culture where some topics are taboo was imposed, and editors given clear hints that certain personalities cannot be criticised. The rules are unwritten, but self-censorship is widespread since everyone knows what can happen if they are broken.

The few remaining critical voices, such as media aligned with opposition groups, have been targeted through the creation of obstacles to publication and distribution, under various pretexts.

The culmination was the legislation drafted last year that would have given sweeping powers to the information ministry and making journalists hostage to virtually every word they say and every quote they cite.

I understand why the authorities are doing this. Total corruption, mismanagement of public funds, pandering organised crime, widespread human rights violations are now inextricable characteristics of the way they operate. The last thing they need is independent, uncontrolled media - in their eyes that's highly dangerous.

Rejection of this law will do nothing for those journalists who work in what I would call "the zone of heightened risk". By that I mean those opposition-minded journalists who have no platform for expressing their views. Even the internet is denied them, as some websites are blocked by service providers on orders from the secret services.

The opposition newspapers Dat and SolDat, and websites such as Eurasia, Kub and Politon are blocked from publishing. Well-known individual voices such as Nurbulat Masanov, Pyotr Svoik, Amirjan Kosanov, Andrei Sviridov and Ermurat Bapi are prevented from running media outlets and cannot be heard.

The information ministry uses various pretexts to prevent them operating legally. One of these I would describe as the "anticipation game". As soon as the ministry receives an application for registration from such "unwanted" media, they concoct backdated paperwork to show that some other media organisation has already been registered and has a prior claim to the chosen name. They can then issue a formal ruling explaining why a licence cannot be issued. This method has been used against the SolDat newspaper, which has been refused registration six times.

Some opposition papers continue to operate but they do not constitute a forum for completely free expression. Those that still exist, like the Ak Jol party's Epokha, follow the self-censorship rules. They will for example accept critical articles - but not if the target is the president and his family.

Another problem is that these papers are partisan by their very nature. Soz and Assandi Times, both linked to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, do carry critical reporting but are reluctant to publish views that go against their particular political slant.

What now? It is not entirely clear what will happen to the text of the law before it is once again submitted for parliamentary and presidential approval. The best we can hope for is some tinkering with a few of its provisions, and that won't be enough to address the serious concerns facing journalists. The substantial changes that the draft made to the old legislation will remain intact.
What is certain is that our working lives as journalists will be remain as tough as they ever were.

Sergei Duvanov is an independent journalist based in Almaty. He was released from prison in January 2004; during his imprisonment there was an international campaign for his freedom.

May 13, 2004. Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), Reporting Central Asia No. 282 as of May 8, 2004

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