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Kazakhstan: War Against Media May Be About More Than Journalism

  • Zamira Eshanova

Attacks against journalists are depressingly commonplace in Kazakhstan. But one recent incident may indicate there is more to such attacks than simply the state's desire to crack down on independent media. Last week's brutal beating of a popular television journalist may in fact be tied to ongoing power struggles in the uppermost echelons of Kazakh politics.

Prague, 20 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Artur Platonov, host of the popular Kazakh political TV program "Portrait of the Week," was hospitalized in Almaty last week (16 August) with injuries sustained during a fight with three former Interior Ministry officers.

Platonov, who suffered a concussion and a broken nose, tells RFE/RL he was the target of a deliberate and organized attack: "Three employees of the Interior Ministry attacked and beat me. They chased my car to the yard of my house and attacked me. I was sitting in the car at the time. Now I [am missing] two teeth and my nose is broken."

A police investigation turned up the three suspects in the beating, but quickly released them for lack of evidence. The three men, all former high-ranking police officers, argued that it was in fact Platonov who provoked the incident, by attacking them with pepper spray.

Platonov, whose program is aired on the private station Kazakh Commercial Television (KTK-TV), calls the story "absurd" and says the attack was clearly meant as punishment for his programs criticizing the Interior Ministry. "In this case, I think, law-enforcement bodies are definitely involved. Because it was precisely this body that I criticized most of all, although some other government departments were also subjected to criticism. But [it was] mainly law-enforcement organs."

Interior Ministry officials denied any involvement in the attack and said an ongoing investigation will help clarify what actually took place. But some observers say that regardless of whatever official conclusions are made, assaults on journalists like Platonov will continue.

Harassment of the Kazakh media has been on the rise in recent months. The opposition "Soldat" newspaper and independent "Respublika" newspapers both came under attack in May. The following month, the daughter of well-respected independent journalist Lira Baisetova died under mysterious circumstances.

The assault on Platonov is considered just the latest in a series of brutal attacks on journalists judged inconvenient to the government and state-run media.

Rozlana Taukina heads the independent foundation "Journalists in Danger." She says journalists are more and more often becoming the object of government hostility. But, she adds, it is not only the journalists' activities that are causing the trouble: "I think all these [attacks] are being carried out for [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbaev. But at the same time, I agree with those analysts who say that there are some elements other than journalistic activity involved. We all know that a fight between various clans is involved. It's clear that KTK-TV had an order to uncover negative facts about the activities of law-enforcement bodies. But I think in this particular instance, it's more a matter of law-enforcement organizations putting pressure on people it considers disloyal and inconvenient than a fight between clans."

But other observers see the alleged assault on Platonov as having greater significance. They say it reflects an intense power struggle within Kazakhstan's political elite -- specifically, a struggle between the Interior Ministry and Rakhat Aliev, a son-in-law of the president.

Aliyev -- who held a top position in the country's National Security Committee and was once favored to serve as Nazarbaev's successor -- has repeatedly clashed with the Interior Ministry in the struggle for power in the country's upper political echelons.

His appointment last year to serve as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria was widely seen as a kind of forced exile and a behind-the-scenes victory for his Interior Ministry rivals. But Aliyev -- whose wife, Dariga Nazarbaeva, is the president's eldest daughter -- continues to wield some power in Kazakhstan, particularly through a media holding that includes a number of newspapers as well as KTK-TV, the television station that broadcasts Platonov's "Portrait of the Week."

Observers say Platonov helped fuel Aliev's struggle with the Interior Ministry by regularly airing critical reports about the ministry's work based on information provided by Aliev's circle.

Independent analyst Oleg Katsiev says Platonov may have become an indirect victim of Aliev's play for power: "In my opinion, this [assault on Platonov] is a reflection of a conflict between the person who controls the KTK-TV television station and other media groups -- by this I mean Rakhat Aliev, a son-in-law of the president -- and the Interior Ministry. It's likely that, in the course of this struggle for power and influence, [Aliev's] conflict with the leadership of the Interior Ministry became quite serious. To be honest, I do not see any clear connection to democratic processes here. In my opinion, and in the opinions of other independent observers, this is simply the result of a quarrel within the [presidential] family, within the power structures."

Dariga Nazarbaeva -- who herself chairs Kazakhstan's Congress of Journalists and the official Khabar news agency -- has rarely addressed previous attacks on journalists in her country. But her stance appeared to change dramatically last week, when the assault on Platonov was one of Khabar's top news items.

On 19 August, Nazarbaeva went one step further, saying the attack on Platonov represented a political assault on the president. She blamed Interior Ministry officials for undermining peace and stability in Kazakhstan, and criticized prosecutors for failing to investigate other attacks on journalists. "All newspapers, whether governmental or independent, are always connected to politics. I think when journalists are beaten or threatened with death, or newspapers are set on fire, it always has political motives. If every single journalist who criticizes a policeman or a prosecutor in the newspapers is killed, where would it lead? I think this is bad. This is against the president's policy. I think [these attacks] are not meant to support the president, but to increase the number of his enemies."

But despite Nazarbaeva's call for the case to be resolved, Platonov says he has little hope his attackers will ever be brought to justice: "You know, I wouldn't be surprised if they [investigators] say that this is ruled to be the usual hooliganism -- as was the case in previous attacks on my colleagues -- or law-enforcement officials try to cover for their colleagues, as has been seen so many times before."

But while Platonov expresses little optimism about the outcome of the ongoing investigation, he says he and other journalists in Kazakhstan have no other option but to continue their professional work.