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Kazakhstan: Parliament Debating Controversial Media Bill

Darigha Nazarbaeva, head of the Asar party and daughter of the president (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, June 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh lawmakers today began debating a controversial, government-sponsored bill which critics say aims at further restricting freedom of speech in that Central Asian nation.

The draft bill has sparked an outcry among media advocacy groups, which argue that the proposed changes would make Kazakhstan's legislation one of the most restrictive in Central Asia.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media watchdog this year listed Kazakhstan among the less media-friendly countries in the world. Kazakhstan ranks 119th among 167 nations the group has reviewed and is listed among the countries "where journalists have the toughest time and where government repression...prevent the media from operating freely."

"Apparently the president has not made this draft law a priority and we don't understand why [the government is in] such a hurry to have those reactionary amendments brought to the existing media legislation."

Delayed Debate

In a statement posted on its website after today's parliamentary vote, the Almaty-based Adil Soz (Right Word) media-rights group lamented that critics of the draft bill could not block it and that the only thing they could achieve was to delay the next parliamentary hearing until October 20.

The group has said it believes that the proposed amendments would represent "a step back to stagnation and totalitarianism."

Adil Soz coordinator Tamara Kaleeva told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the draft bill, if adopted, would make Kazakhstan's media environment look like that of Turkmenistan -- which ranks 165th in RSF's annual report.

"Ideally, [the government] would like to bring us closer to Turkmenistan, where there are four television channels -- I watch them regularly -- which all praise the 'Rukhnama' and its author [President Saparmurat Niyazov]," she said. "I think this option suits [Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet] Ertysbaev."

Even if Kaleeva's comments seem exaggerated, it remains that the government says the bill aims at preventing what it describes as "abuses of freedom of speech."

Opposition To Media Bill

In a letter recently sent to parliament, Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov said the draft also seeks to sanitize the media environment in a country where only about 4 percent of the 7,000 registered media outlets have any "real influence" on public opinion.

Ertysbaev is coming under increased pressure (RFE/RL)

With the exception of government members, few in Kazakhstan support the proposed changes. Sholpan Zhaksybaeva, the managing director of the nongovernmental National Association of Broadcasters, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the bill bodes ill for the country's media environment.

"The amendments proposed by Ertysbaev could make things significantly worse [not only] for the broadcasting market, but also -- I am sure -- for the print-media market," Zhaksybaeva said. "It must be noted that those amendments do not [directly] concern the work of journalists. They aim at making the life of media outlets much more difficult by increasing the number of their [legal] obligations."

The draft amendments seek to bar editors of periodicals who have been closed by a court order to work in the same capacity for any other publication. They also oblige each media outlet to have a deposit of tens of thousands of dollars prior to beginning operations.

If adopted, the changes would also introduce a fee for registration applications and increase to six from the current three the number of reasons for denying a media outlet official registration.

Even the official Journalists Union is critical of the draft. The union's chairman, Seitkazy Mataev, today accused the culture and information minister of relentlessly seeking to muzzle the country's media ever since he was appointed to that post in January.

"Every single day, [Ertysbaev] takes his baton and assaults us," he said. "I don't understand why. Probably someone is forcing him to do that."

The controversial bill has further soured relations between Ertysbaev and lawmaker Darigha Nazarbaeva, the eldest daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the leader of the Asar (All Together) party.

Criticism From President's Daughter

Addressing reporters in Astana on June 6, Nazarbaeva described the draft media bill as undemocratic.

"Apparently the president has not made this draft law a priority and we don't understand why [the government is in] such a hurry to have those reactionary amendments brought to the existing media legislation," she said. "We all believe this would represent a great, great step back."

Although Nazarbaeva resigned as chairwoman of the powerful Khabar media group to run for parliament two years ago, she is still believed to control it.

Former presidential adviser Ertysbaev, whom many in Kazakhstan believe remains Nazarbaev's right-hand man, suggested last month that the government take over Khabar. It currently owns 50 percent-plus-one-share of the group.

The Congress of Journalists, which is headed by Nazarbaeva, has counterattacked by demanding Ertysbaev's resignation.

Ertysbaev today implicitly accused the president's daughter of manipulating those who criticize him for advocating changes to the media legislation. "And you, whose orders are you fulfilling when you attack the information minister?" he said. "You wouldn't by any chance be fulfilling the orders of a particular elite group which used to monopolize the overwhelming majority of electronic media in our country? Here is the main obstacle to our efforts to develop freedom of speech and a civilized media environment."

Ertysbaev's comments are likely to add fuel to speculation that the media-bill controversy reflects a deeper factional struggle within the country's ruling elite -- namely between the president and his daughter -- whom many in Kazakhstan believe has greater political ambitions.

Media In Central Asia

Media In Central Asia

Ukrainian journalists trying to cover Kazakhstan's presidential election being expelled from the country in December 2005

MUZZLED MEDIA: Below is a brief overview of key media issues in each of the five Central Asian countries. (prepared by Daniel Kimmage)

Although Kazakhstan has seen the harassment of journalists and media outlets that fall afoul of the state, the larger problem is one of access -- both to sensitive information and to the larger public.
Asked whether freedom of the press exists in Kazakhstan, Darigha Nazarbaeva -- the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and a media magnate in her own right -- said recently that one need walk only five minutes in Almaty to find a publication that elaborates "what a bad president we have and how I've monopolized the entire press." And she's right -- an opposition press exists.
But national television, with its enormous potential to shape popular opinion, remains either state-controlled or subordinate to allied interests -- as witnessed by a strict taboo on investigations of alleged corruption in the Nazarbaev family.

Nowhere in Central Asia has the fate of the media reflected political upheaval as strikingly as in Kyrgyzstan of late. The true fall of President Askar Akaev in March 2005 took place not when he fled the seat of government before an advancing crowd, but when opposition leaders later made an impromptu appearance on state television. A heady period ensued, with revelations of Akaev-era skullduggery suddenly front and center in national media. But the honeymoon proved short-lived.
A post-Akaev political morass deepened through 2005 and early 2006 amid high-profile contract killings and frustrated expectations of political and economic reform. And the media environment followed suit, with initial gains eroded by renewed state interference in television, salaried partisanship in the print media, and the rising influence of organized-crime groups.

Tajikistan's media environment has seen no such political upheavals. President Imomali Rakhmonov could rule through 2020, as long as he continues to secure reelection. He has consolidated his power in recent years -- seemingly with that aim in mind.
The media have also felt the consequences. As the country nears the end of its first decade since the 1992-97 civil war, the state maintains a firm grip national television and politically relevant print outlets. Meanwhile, a handful of tiny independent newspapers fight an increasingly uphill battle for access to printing facilities and readers.

The case of Turkmenistan speaks eloquently of a total stifling of media under blanket state control. News outlets trumpet the cult of President Saparmurat Niyzov and tout the purported glories of Turkmenistan's golden age under his rule. This reduces them to little more than a peephole on an otherwise sealed regime.
The media unfailingly broadcast Niyazov's pronouncements and feast on the latest official to fall from grace. On April 24, for example, former Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanov, who recently stepped down after a decade of dispatching onetime colleagues to unenviable fates, begged for mercy on the evening news as the president vilified her for corruption. Those same media outlets ignore whatever fails to fit the script of the decreed golden age.

President Islam Karimov insists that Uzbekistan's media are at war. What foreign media reported as evidence of a massacre in Andijon in May 2005, the president and officials have described as an "information attack" intended to undermine Uzbekistan's stability and sovereignty. Print and broadcast outlets, controlled either directly or indirectly by the state, are required to fight off this alleged assault by detailing extremist threats and foreign plots. They are also tasked with explaining the country's shift of geopolitical allegiance to Russia and China.
What space remains goes to a sanitized portrayal of Uzbek reality, with some warts left in -- local corruption and economic difficulties -- to lend credence to the grand official narrative espoused by slogans such as "Uzbekistan, a country with a great future."

Of Related Interest:

Turkmenistan: RFE/RL Journalists Given 15-Day Sentence

Uzbekistan: New Media Resolution Tightens The Screws

Central Asia: Internet Fills Void Left By Media On Religious Freedom Issues

Central Asia: RFE/RL Speaks With Media Monitor About Press Freedom

THE COMPLETE STORY: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of media-related stories, click here.

For regular news and analysis on media issues throughout RFE/RL's broadcast area by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Media Matters."