Two Almaty-based independent media outlets -- the "Nachnem s Ponedelnika" weekly and the TAN-TV broadcast company -- have been suspended in March for alleged legal violations. Journalists and human rights activists claim the shutdowns are politically motivated.
Prague, 8 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This week's suspensions of an independent news weekly and a television station in the Kazakh capital have brought attention back to the issue of press freedom in Kazakhstan.
The Almaty-based "Nachnem s Ponedelnika" weekly was handed a three-month suspension on 6 March for what claimants call "technical reasons."
The weekly's editor, Mertai Aqsholaqov, explained: "The Bostandyq district court of Almaty made this decision, as they say, due to technical reasons, and the failure of the weekly to show its proper address and the exact number of copies issued weekly. Today we received an official letter from the publishing house saying that it refuses to print our product."
But Aqsholaqov said he believes the decision to issue the suspension is politically motivated. On 1 March, "Nachnem s Ponedelnika" held a public interview with Akezhan Kazhegeldin -- the former Kazakh prime minister and a major political opponent to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Kazhegeldin, who is currently living in exile and last year was convicted in absentia on charges of corruption and tax evasion, said during the interview he may return to Kazakhstan in the near future. Some say granting a public forum to one of Nazarbaev's most prominent rivals may be the real reason behind the weekly's suspension.
On 4 March, the Kazakh government issued a six-month broadcasting suspension to the Almaty-based TAN-TV company. Its license was suspended for a number of procedural violations including use of a faulty transmitter, improper registration of equipment, and poor sanitary working conditions.
But TAN-TV employees say their shutdown is also politically motivated. The company receives financial support from another opposition figure: Mukhtar Abliyazov of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement and a former minister of trade, energy, and economy.
TAN-TV may also have drawn government ire for broadcasting a January gathering of opposition political parties and local non-governmental organizations (NGO). For five hours, television viewers were exposed to wide-ranging criticism of government policy.
Some international organizations consider the week's developments part of a wider clampdown by Nazarbaev on domestic media.
Internews Kazakhstan is part of the Internews International Network, an NGO that promotes the development of independent television and radio in emerging democracies. Internews employee Svetlana Dylevskaya told RFE/RL that her organization has voiced "serious" concern regarding "numerous incidents" restricting the freedom of activity of independent and private mass media in Kazakhstan.
Dylevskaya said the Kazakh government in February recalled broadcasting licenses for six television companies (Irbis, STS, Alfa, Channel 43, Channel 29, and TKT). In each case, the state cited violations of Kazakhstan's language and mass media laws. Dylevskaya said, however, that many press observers claim such technical violations are only used as a pretext.
"In each individual case, authorities use various arguments and accuse broadcasters of violating Kazakh legislation. However, journalists and owners of closed stations, media experts, and opposition figures in the country all claim in their speeches that in reality, a campaign of political persecution of media, which to some extent report on democratic opposition in their information programs, was launched in the country," Dylevskaya said. "In addition, decisions of various bodies are being officially used for closing stations, including judicial bodies."
Dylevskaya added that Internews Kazakhstan is also concerned by the government's crackdown on the independent press.
"From the beginning of the year, newspapers containing critical articles regarding the government have had serious problems," Dylevskaya said. "Publishing houses under the control of the authorities refuse to print newspapers like 'Respublika-delovoye obozreniye,' 'Vremya po -- The Globe" and 'SolDat.'"
Dylevskaya said journalists from a number of the suspended television companies and print publications have appealed to the Kazakh parliament, as well as to international organizations, to protect them from state crackdowns.
In an address to parliament in early March, journalists from "Irbis" -- a TV channel broadcasting in North Kazakhstan that was among those suspended last month -- said that executive authorities, particularly those in the regions, have been "dictating conditions" for the mass media, introducing censorship, and limiting journalists' ability to receive information.
In a letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Ermurat Bapi, the editor in chief of the "SolDat" opposition newspaper, appealed to Washington to expedite the creation of an independent publishing house in Kazakhstan.
Marilyn Greene is the executive director of the U.S.-based World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC). She said the problem of mass media in Kazakhstan is the "permissive spirit of restriction."
"There is a very limited amount of freedom to comment freely about the government and about the policies there. One of the big problems we see in Kazakhstan is with the law, one of which forbids any kind of comment that could be seen as critical of the president," Greene said. "In order to avoid punishment under this law, many journalists simply don't approach that topic. And so we see self-censorship and we see a lack of full disclosure or full discussion of issues that are relevant to the public's future and policies."
Among the most frequently used justifications for restricting the media, Greene said, are charges of insulting the dignity of public officials and endangering national security. She added that the WPFC is most concerned about one particular article frequently invoked by officials to prevent criticism.
"It's [the law] even embodied in the constitution of the country in Article 18, which says everyone should have the right to private life, personal or family secrets, and the protection of honor and dignity," Greene said. "This is a very broad brush which can be used by public officials to prevent any kind of scrutiny of their actions, policies, or activities. And then Article 46 of the constitution is the one that specifically protects the president and his honor and dignity."
According to international organizations, the campaign against independent media in Kazakhstan has recently intensified. The Vienna-based International Press Institute, in its annual World Press Freedom Review released in late February, said the Kazakh press is largely controlled by the government and the situation is worsening. It added the government is expanding its use of the courts to persecute critical media.
The month before, Kazakhstan's president ordered a crackdown on his growing opposition, prompting fears that the country's independent TV stations could be shut down. After opposition protests were held demanding new elections, Nazarbaev warned they could lead to civil war. At a special cabinet meeting, he then ordered prosecutors to investigate "statements by politicians and the press over the past three months and hold them responsible."
In a statement made public on 1 February, four parliament deputies condemned Nazarbaev's instructions to bring to trial all persons who have criticized the president and his family. They describe those orders as being "in the best traditions of 1937," the year of one of Josef Stalin's most notorious purges.
Nazarbaev also ordered the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into how well the republic's television stations are complying with a law that took effect on 1 January requiring 50 percent of prime-time programming to be in the Kazakh language.
Television officials strongly protest this law because of the expense of translating programs and fears they will alienate many viewers. Russian is the primary language for many people in Kazakhstan, where a significant Russian minority still remains.
Few television stations have complied with the new law, but independent journalist Sergei Duvanov recently declared that sanctions are being applied "selectively," tending to come down on independent stations that broadcast programs critical of Nazarbaev's regime.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)