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Kazakh Report: March 8, 2002

8 March 2002

Presidential Press Secretary Zhanay Omarov told journalists on 8 March that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev held talks with Minister of Transport and Communications Ablay Myrzakhmetov in Astana late on 7 March. Among the issues discussed was the situation faced by one of the most popular Almaty TV channels, TAN-TV. The channel was forced to suspend its operations for six months for "technical reasons" earlier this week following a decision by the Ministry of Transport and Communications (see "RFE/RL Kazakh Report," 5 March 2002). Meanwhile, TAN-TVrepresentatives said this week that the ministry's decision was politically motivated, noting that the channel is financially supported by former Kazakh Minister of Industry, Trade and Energy Mukhtar Abliyazov, who is a leading member of movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan which opposes Nazarbayev's regime. TAN-TV was one of the few media outlets that covered the anti-Nazarbayev mass gathering on January 19.

According to the Presidential Press Secretary, President Nazarbayev has received numerous letters from Kazakh citizens and local journalists asking him to intervene in the crisis faced by TAN-TV. Nazarbayev, in turn, ordered the Ministry of Transport and Communications and the Ministry of Culture, Information and Social Concord "to find ways for resuming TAN-TV's operations," adding at the same time that "the decision to suspend TAN-TV's broadcasts was based upon objective reasons."

On March 6, Alma-TV, which is the major cable television re-broadcasting company in Almaty Oblast, was given a temporary license valid till April 1 after its main license expired on March 5 (see "RFE/RL Kazakh Report," 7 March 2002). Alma-TV is a U.S.-Kazakh joint venture jointly owned by the U.S. Metromedia International and Kazakhstan's Cominvest Company.

Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner, who is Metromedia's representative in the CIS, told RFE/RL on 7 March that "Alma-TV is a cable television company rebroadcasting programs of different TV companies without producing programs of its own. So it re-broadcasts such channels as CNN, BBC, Cartoon Network, Deutsche Welle, Khabar, etc. In other words this company cannot be defined as a media outlet, it is not possible to put it in that category. Alma-TV's license expired on March 5. Since Alma-TV is not a media outlet, but a facility just rebroadcasting other TV programs, it was supposed to get its expired license prolonged automatically. But it did not happen. All of a sudden, the Kazakh side, namely the Kazakh Ministry of Transport and Communications, demanded that Alma-TV register at the Kazakh Ministry of Culture as a media outlet. According to Kazakh law on Mass Media adopted in 1998, any foreign company may own only 20 per cent of the shares in any media outlet operating in Kazakhstan. Alma-TV refused to comply with that request."

Carl Brazell , who is Chief Executive Officer of Metromedia International, told RFE/RL "Before the license expired at midnight on Tuesday (March 5), we and our partners went to the Kazakh Ministry of Transport and Communications and asked, number one, .. for the longer extension of the license as it is customary, secondly,... if there are issues that have to be resolved with the government, then we would like a temporarily extension. We were told there would not be a temporary extension... and we announced to our partners that we would not operate illegally and that would insist that the venture be closed at midnight Tuesday if there was no official extension of the license.

As a foreign shareholder we feel it is very important that we operate within the confines of local law, and we have always done that. We have been in Kazkahstan since 1994. Alma-TV employs over 400 people, the taxes have always been paid in time. We are a model foreign investor in our view and we don't think that as a foreign investor we should be treated that way. Further if there is some ultimate determination that we are required to be a subject of this law as a mass media company, we further believe that under the Kazakh-U.S. bilateral investment treaty our 50 per cent ownership (of shares) would be exempt from these restrictions. That is our position."

Metromedia's partner in Kazakhstan is Cominvest Company, which is owned by a private Kazakh bank Nurbank, which in turn belongs to Nazarbayev's eldest son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev. Should Alma-TV be registered as a mass media company, Rakhat Aliyev's team will get wider control over it.

It is not clear whether Nazarbayev and Minister of Transport and Communications Myrzakhmetov discussed Alma-TV during their talks on 7 March.