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Kazakhstan: OSCE Has Harsh Words For Treatment Of Independent Media

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has used uncharacteristically harsh words in a recent criticism of how the Kazakh government treats independent media. The OSCE said in addition to enforcing restrictive policies, Kazakh officials have sanctioned the harassment of media organizations.

Prague, 1 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev greeted international guests last week for the opening of the First Eurasian Media Forum Conference in the former Kazakh capital, Almaty. Nazarbaev has in the past called the media a cornerstone of democracy.

But at the end of the conference, the ambassador from the OSCE spoiled Nazarbaev's good mood by reading a statement that heavily criticized the Kazakh government's restrictions on independent media.

OSCE Ambassador Heinrich Haupt outlined a number of complaints that were later posted on the OSCE's website.

The OSCE statement lists control over media by "groups or individuals close to the political leadership, above all the president." It also points to "technical restrictions or excessive financial burdens on critical media" by various government bodies, and the use of courts by politicians and public officials to control media content.

The statement was a reaction to the closing of several independent newspapers recently because of lawsuits and alleged unpaid taxes. Independent television and radio stations, the few there are, are similarly plagued by bureaucratic problems and even by vandalism.

The OSCE center in Almaty declined to give an interview, deferring to the posted statement. But others were more willing to discuss the issue.

One is ethnic Kazakh Saule Mukhametrakhimova, the project coordinator for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. She says the situation with independent media has not been good and has recently gotten worse.

"It is true that the situation in Kazakh media has worsened in the last one or two years and particularly in the last couple of months."

Alex Lupis, the Europe and Central Asia coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), agrees. He says the fact that the OSCE sent such a strong message is itself an indication of how bad the problem is.

"The fact that an OSCE ambassador has issued such a clear and strong statement really highlights the sort of desperation of the situation."

The troubles for independent media come at a time of numerous sensitive stories involving top politicians that state-run media are not giving much -- if any -- coverage to.

One story is a shadowy deal going back several years involving Nazarbaev allegedly receiving money from a foreign oil company and depositing payments into a Swiss bank account. Nazarbaev denies the allegations.

Western and Russian news sources have covered the story, but in Kazakhstan, only the independent media have given it much attention.

The story got a new angle last month when the Kazakh prime minister revealed the existence of a $1 billion "secret fund." He said the fund had nothing to do with Nazarbaev's personal wealth, but instead was established with the nobler aim of helping out the country should it get into any economic difficulty. The prime minister said the account had been set up in a Swiss bank account in 1996 -- about the time a state-owned oilfield was sold off.

The story angered the political opposition, but when an independent TV station (TAN) prepared to cover a rally in support of the opposition, a group of unknown attackers shot up the station's offices.

Lupis of the CPJ said the government may be looking ahead to parliamentary elections in 2004 and presidential elections in 2006.

"I believe some analysts there have stated that they believe at least part of the reason that there is a sort of tightening of the noose against independent journalists is that the government is feeling perhaps a little weakened, challenged by the opposition in recent months and wants to ensure that basically anyone who challenges the government won't be able to get to the air waves and to get their message to other Kazakh citizens in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections."

Mukhametrakhimova of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting says there may not be anything like true independent media in Kazakhstan right now.

Kazakhstan joined Turkmenistan this week as coming in for strong OSCE criticism. Yesterday, the OSCE released a statement from Freimut Duve, its representative on media freedom. Duve wrote that Turkmenistan has what he called an "absolute lack of any freedom of expression." He said he planned to commission a special report on the media in Turkmenistan.

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