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Kazakhstan: Journalists Say Press Censure Severe

  • Julie Moffett



Washington, 17 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading journalist in Kazakhstan says that press censure in his country today is as severe as it ever was during the communist years.

Sergey Vladimirovich Duvanov, a long-time journalist and founder of the Internet News Agency for Independent Kazakh Mass Media, made the comment today in Washington during a press briefing at RFE/RL.

Duvanov says one of the most difficult problems facing Kazakh journalists are the government tenders -- or official competitions -- for broadcasting frequencies which were introduced in December 1996. He says the tenders, which are run by the government's Frequency Commission, require broadcasters to apply for a license and submit a "creative plan" for the station before it can be granted a frequency.

Duvanov says broadcasters must also pay an enormous amount of money for a license, in addition to annual fees, which he says are substantially higher than equivalent fees in the region as well as the rest of the world. As a result, he says the fees and the tenders have already forced at least 30 out of some 50 independent radio and television stations out of business.

Duvanov says the Kazakh press also faces other obstacles. He says there are four major topics considered off-limits to the Kazakh press: the personality of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev; the move of the capital from Almaty to Astana; the so-called Plan 2030 -- an economic and political plan charting Kazakhstan's course to the year 2030; and any opposition or anti-government movements.

Duvanov says these harsh restrictions have resulted in the reappearance and subsequent flourishing of underground newspapers and journals -- a common activity for journalists during the communist years.

The charges by Duvanov and other Kazakh journalists in Washington yesterday are consistent with observations made this year by some leading independent human rights and media watchdog groups. In its annual report on the status of the press worldwide, released in May, U.S.-based Freedom House said press freedoms in Kazakhstan had deteriorated.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in its annual survey of press rights released in March, accused Kazakhstan of government censorship and intimidation and harassment of journalists. Both reports also rated the treatment of press in other Central Asian nations as similarly negative.

Kazakh officials gave no immediate comment to RFE/RL correspondents seeking a reaction to the censorship charges by journalists in Washington on Wednesday. Our correspondents called the office of Erlan Satybaldiev, the president of Kazakhstan's State TV and Radio Corporation, but his secretary said he would not be available for comment.

Our correspondents also spoke with Ashirbek Kopicey, director of the Almaty-based Oner Publishing House, which publishes pro-government and state-controlled magazines and newspapers. Kopicey criticized RFE/RL's Kazakh service for being overly critical of the government but he did not directly address the allegations of government censorship raised by the Kazakh journalists.

Kazakh officials gave no immediate comment to RFE/RL correspondents seeking a reaction to the censorship charges by journalists in Washington on Wednesday. Our correspondents called the office of Erlan Satybaldiev, the president of Kazakhstan's State TV and Radio Corporation, but his secretary said he would not be available for comment.

Our correspondents also spoke with Ashirbek Kopicey, director of the Almaty-based Oner Publishing House, which publishes pro-government and state-controlled magazines and newspapers. Kopicey criticized RFE/RL's Kazakh service for being overly critical of the government but he did not directly address the allegations of government censorship raised by the Kazakh journalists.

Roslana Ramazanovna Taoukina, President of the Association of Independent Electronic Mass Media of Central Asia, also spoke at the press briefing. In cooperation with Italian partners, Taoukina founded an independent television-radio company Totem in 1993. She says it was closed by the Kazakh government in 1996.

According to Taoukina, the Kazakh government not only exercises control over the press by refusing to issue tenders to some organizations and requiring high fees, but also by harassing organizations with unfair tax and business laws, and leaving loopholes through which the government can claim a media organization is violating the law.

Taoukina says every media organization in Kazakhstan has some kind of provision that would permit it to be shut down if the government decides to do so. She adds the situation is only getting worse.

Explains Taoukina: "In Kazakhstan today, there is still a shadow of communism over the country. The government is actively trying to create a national ideology of its own without the participation of the press or the people."

Taoukina says most of the nation's press licenses expire in March 2000, shortly before the nation's presidential elections. She adds that it is highly likely those media organizations which have not faithfully supported the government or have engaged in what officials consider questionable activities will not have their licenses renewed.

Taoukina says her organization is trying to fight back by filing 30 lawsuits against the government on behalf of many of the journalists and press medium that have been put out of business by the government. She adds that although it is doubtful the cases will ever be resolved or decided in her organization's favor, she says the action is largely symbolic and intended to send a message to the government that many Kazakh journalists will not stand by silently while the government tries to stifle their right to freedom of the press.

Duvanov, Taoukina and three other Kazakh journalists are in Washington for a three-day visit sponsored by the Kazakh 21st Century Foundation -- a private U.S. organization which focuses on broadening and deepening Kazakh-American ties.
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