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Kazakhstan: Media Continues To Face Strong Pressure

Kazakhstan's media freedom remains under strong pressure. Both houses of parliament have approved a media bill that critics say will limit freedom of speech. The move comes as journalists continue facing beatings, intimidation, and lawsuits.

Prague, 18 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A court in the former capital city of Almaty yesterday acquitted Gennadii Benditskii, a correspondent for "Vremya," an opposition weekly.

The head of the state-owned Republican Innovation Fund, Asygat Zhabagin, had attempted to sue Benditskii for libel for an article reporting on the company's alleged involvement in a corruption case.

It was a rare victory for the Kazakh media.

"These recent incidents are just a reflection of the consequences that can happen to journalists [who] criticize the authorities or mention corruption facts."
Vladimir Mikhailov, director of the Rifma media company and Arsenal publishing house, was not as lucky. A court in the northwestern city of Aktobe yesterday sentenced Mikhailov to one year in prison for not implementing a 2002 court ruling. That ruling had demanded that Arsenal remove a wall in its rental office space.

Mikhailov's "Diapazon" newspaper is well known for its criticism of the local administration and the regional prosecutor's office.

Tamara Kaleyeva heads Adil Soz, a Kazakh press freedom watchdog. She says Mikhailov's sentence is part of a broader trend.

"This is an example of what is, on a nationwide scale, the oppression of the opposition media," Kaleyeva said.

Caroline Giraud works for Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nongovernmental organization defending press freedom around the world. She says press freedom is extremely precarious in Kazakhstan, with journalists facing beatings, intimidation, and politically motivated lawsuits.

Giraud notes that most of the news media are controlled by close associates of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

"Even though the private press is more developed in Kazakhstan than in the other Central Asian countries, the independence of this private press is very theoretical. Most of the private media -- 80 percent -- are controlled by allies or the family of President Nazarbayev, especially his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva," Giraud said.

Opposition and media rights groups agree that the latest version of a media bill endorsed yesterday by the lower house of parliament will not improve the situation.

The OSCE and the European Union's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, who was visiting Kazakhstan this week, have raised concerns that the text -- if adopted -- would limit freedom of speech.

The Kazakh Senate today approved the text. President Nazarbayev now has 10 days to give the measure final approval.

Giraud says many elements in the bill restrict press freedom.

"The registration system allows a lot of arbitrariness on the part of authorities, and there are too [many] conditions for media registration. It can be a way to pressure the media. There are also restrictions on the content of what can be published or broadcast. For instance, there is a prohibition on false news. Who can judge whether a [piece of] news is false or not?" Giraud said.

Giraud adds that the media's obligation to publish or broadcast official statements by state authorities also raises concern.

Journalists can also have their accreditation withdrawn if their material "derogates honor and dignity of the government agencies, public associations, and organizations." This, Giraud stresses, leads to self-censorship.

Self-censorship is precisely what two Kazakh sports journalists, who were involved in two incidents in less than a month, have refused to condone.

Maxim Khartashov -- who, like Gennadii Benditskii, works for the "Vremya" weekly -- was beaten up last week by two unidentified assailants in Almaty.

Khartashov, who has written articles about alleged corruption in sports, said he believes the attack was linked to his work because the assailants did not attempt to rob him.

Earlier, the minister of tourism and sport, Daulet Turlykhanov, dismissed Nesip Zhunusbayev, editor of the "Sport & KS" weekly, a ministry publication.

The minister was apparently angered by an article critical of the ministry, and said Zhunusbayev should have submitted the article to the ministry for approval prior to publication.

In an article published in January, Zhunusbayev criticized training and preparation of the country's athletes ahead the Athens Olympic Games. The article also spoke out against the privatization of several sports bodies and called for more government backing for the development of sport in rural areas.

Giraud says these are just the two latest incidents demonstrating the government's unwillingness to tolerate any form of media criticism.

"These recent incidents are just a reflection of the consequences that can happen to journalists [who] criticize the authorities or mention corruption facts. [Khartashov] has been writing about corruption in sports,"
Giraud said.

Last week, Irina Petrushova, editor of the "Assandi Times" weekly -- formerly known as "Respublika" -- was detained in St. Petersburg, where she is a resident.

Her arrest was made on the basis of a warrant issued by Kazakh authorities. Russian police released her after several hours, saying they were reluctant to interfere in a political conflict in Kazakhstan.

Last year the European Parliament demanded that Astana put an end to the persecution against Petrushova, who has been harassed for several years because of her newspaper's political stance.

(Edige Magauin from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)