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Kazakhstan: Parliament Moves To Further Restrict Media Independence

Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament approved legislation this week that would tighten controls on the country's media. Debate on the new law, likely to be passed soon by the Senate, was clouded by questions involving the promotion of the Kazakh language. But it's clear that once the law is enacted, it will bring further condemnation of Kazakhstan from Western human rights and press freedom organizations. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the law and the parliamentary debate that preceded its approval.

Prague, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Kazakh government's proposed new restrictions on mass media passed their only potential hurdle 21 March when they were approved by the lower house of parliament, or Mazhlis.

The proposals -- due to be passed next week by the Senate and thereby become law -- would limit both access to the Internet and the rebroadcasting of foreign programs.

The legislation is contained in a series of amendments to an earlier media law. They would introduce stiff fines for newspaper, radio, and television news editors who do not use information from official state sources.

Under the new law, Internet sites will be considered part of mass media. In the past, independent Kazakh journalists have reprinted articles from the Western press found on the Internet, many of them alleging corruption among Kazakh government officials.

The legislation would also reduce the transmission of foreign television and radio programs in Kazakhstan. Beginning in January, their number is to be cut to half of all available air time, and a year later (January 2003) further reduced to one-fifth of air time.

Even before the new restrictions go into effect, Western press-freedom monitors did not give Kazkhstan high marks for its treatment of the media. Chadwick Gore, a staff adviser for the Washington-based Helsinki Commission says the new law can hardly be considered an improvement.

"This new legislation takes Kazakhstan completely backwards and on the wrong path toward abiding by their commitments. There wasn't a particular air of freedom of speech and media in Kazakhstan prior to this. This just makes a bad situation much worse."

It is not clear that all Mazhlis deputies understood the full import of the new law. Our correspondent says the parliamentary debate was complicated by claims the amendments would strengthen the Kazakh language.

During the debate, Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbayev justified the amendments by saying they will end the domination of Russian programs on Kazakh television and radio. He said that many in Kazakhstan would appreciate watching or listening to programs about Kazakhstan rather than about other countries.

One deputy (unnamed) supporting the law said it would improve the quality of Kazakh journalism:

"I'm sure the decision to reduce the volume of foreign-transmitted programming will improve the quality of Kazakhstan's journalists. We have our own peculiarities. We have our own psychology and our own rites and traditions. We have our own consciousness and our own way of perceiving the world. That is why we have to approve this law."

Gany Kasymov, a deputy who voted against the law, pointed out that for logistical reasons alone the restrictions on rebroadcasting foreign programs don't make sense.

"Look at the horrendous situation facing television and radio stations around the country. They are using the oldest, most broken-down equipment. These are the television and radio stations financed by the budget. Today the minister [Sarsenbayev] said local stations only produce 20 percent of their programming themselves. This is not true."

Another opponent, Valerian Zemlyanov, predicts the enactment of the law will have dire consequences for the country:

"[The law means] switching off all computers and dismantling satellite dishes from tens of thousands of homes. Further, we will have to quit the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), toward which our government and president are already baring their teeth. Lastly, we will recall all our ambassadors from our embassies. These are the steps the government should take if the law is adopted."

U.S. media monitor Gore says the new laws will be difficult for many outside the country to understand.

"For Kazakhstan and the people of Kazakhstan to really grow and flourish, instead of cutting back access to foreign television and radio, you should be expanding access to foreign television and radio. This [new law] is wrong-headed. I think in any progressive's mind it would be unbelievable that a modern state would take a step like this and that their legislators would comply with it."

That was more or less the view U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Jones publicly expressed last month when debate on the law began in the Mazhlis. Jones' comments came just before the U.S. State Department released its annual human rights report about Kazakhstan, which underlined the need for greater freedom of speech and for more independent media.

Since the report was released, state media in Kazakhstan have repeatedly characterized as "unfair" the State Department's criticisms.