Prague, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As early as next month, Kazakhstan's Senate may start reviewing the text of a new media law already passed by the lower house of parliament. The draft law worries the country's independent media outlets and has already drawn criticism from local and international press freedom organizations.
The draft law would allow a nebulous "authorized body on mass media affairs" to oversee the work of journalists and dismiss reporters or shut down media outlets for various violations, such as insulting "the honor and dignity of a citizen, state organ, or other bodies."
"If the draft law is accepted as [it is], it would...represent a serious blow to freedom of expression."
In addition, under the draft law the procedure to register as a journalist is more complicated. Journalists and media outlets also can be held responsible for information disseminated that "does not coincide with reality," which could be interpreted as limiting a person's right to express opinions. The draft also places limits on the extent of foreign ownership of Kazakh media outlets.
Saidkazy Matayev is the chairman of the Journalists Association of Kazakhstan and spoke to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service about the draft law.
"Looking at the law, one can say that the Information Ministry's rights are getting stronger and the rights of journalists are completely forgotten," he said.
Reporters Without Borders and the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) have criticized the draft law. In a letter sent last month to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, WAN said it is concerned "that if the draft law is accepted as it stands, it would jeopardize constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and represent a further serious blow to freedom of expression in your country."
Sharip Kuratbayev is editor in chief of the independent newspaper "Soz." He views the draft law similarly, saying its adoption could result in the closure of media outlets that violate the law.
"Before, in order to shut down a newspaper, [the authorities] needed a court order. Now, if the new law passes, the officials of the Information Ministry are free to [close down a newspaper] without any court process."
The law was supposed to have been the product of meetings between journalists' groups and members of parliament. However, two of the media groups withdrew from talks in early December in protest at the direction the draft document was taking.
Kazakhstan's lower house, the Mazhlis, passed the draft law in late December after making amendments which have not yet been publicly reported.
Faizolla Orazay is a journalist and the author of several books on Kazakhstan's history. He questions why the Mazhlis passed the law so quickly: "[Deputies] pushed forward and adopted the new law too fast. Maybe in two years they will have to adopt another new law on media again. There should be [no] hurry in that matter. I am sure they should have thoroughly studied the old law first and, if necessary, they could just add some amendments maybe. I wonder why they needed to adopt a [new] law so fast?"
But to some, the new law is not without its virtues. Erasyl Abilkasymov is a member of parliament who ran as an independent candidate. He says he does not wish to see Kazakhstan's media outlets owned by foreigners.
In a speech to the Mazhlis on the day the draft was approved, 25 December, Abilkasymov said some of Kazakhstan's opposition newspapers are backed by foreigners who are interfering in the country's internal affairs.
"Even in the Parliament, newspapers such as 'Ekonomika-Finansy-Rynki,' 'Assandi-Times,' 'Karavan' and the newspapers of such political parties as Aq-Zhol and the Communist Party are freely distributed," he said. "These newspapers to a significant extent misrepresent all the achievements of our country. I am against interference of not only pro-Western media, but of pro-Russian media here. There is no doubt that those media outlets are run by Moscow, and I have no doubt even that the FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service) plays a role here."
Russian television and radio stations and newspapers have broadcasting and distribution agreements with sister companies in Kazakhstan.
Then there are those who see the new media law as strengthening the role of the state language. Despite appeals and threats, the Kazakh government has not been able to convince citizens to embrace the Kazakh language. Slavic people account for about one-third of the Kazakh population and many ethnic Kazakhs, particularly in the larger cities, are more familiar with Russian than Kazakh.
Under current laws, radio and television channels must broadcast half of their daily programming in Kazakh. But Kazakhstan's domestic television and radio industry is still developing, and Russian broadcasts offer more Western music and international films translated into the Russian language, in addition to their own programs.
The current law does not specify where the Kazakh-language broadcasts should appear, and so they often come at the beginning and end of the broadcast day, when few people are watching or listening. The draft law is more specific about when Kazakh-language programs would have to be broadcast.
Israel Ismail is a journalist at KTK-TV in Kazakhstan. He said the issue of language use in the draft law has captured the attention of the journalists: "Those at Kazakh-language periodicals and all the media outlets in the Kazakh language are very interested in how the issue of programming in Kazakh is going to be affected by the law. This is mainly about electronic media and the distribution of programs in Kazakhstan during prime time [when more people are watching]."
Ermurat Bapi was editor in chief of the now banned independent newspaper "SolDat" and has received awards from international press freedom organizations for his work. Bapi sees nothing good coming from the new media law. "Before adopting the law on mass media we, the society, should first elect a proper parliament and find those who are capable of adopting such laws. That is what I think about all that."
Kazakhstan's next parliamentary elections are scheduled for October. The current media law that this controversial draft would replace was adopted on 23 July 1999. Coincidentally, there were parliamentary elections in October of that year also.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)