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Kazakhstan: Plan To Diversify Media Market Comes Under Fire

Kazakhstan's state KazMunaiGaz oil and gas firm is pushing ahead with a plan to diversify the country's media options by creating a company with the rights to rebroadcast programming from Russia's popular NTV network. Many Kazakhs might relish the opportunity to expand their viewing options with NTV hits like the crime drama "Ulitsa razbitikh fonarei" (The Street of Broken Lamps) or political shows like "Svoboda slova" (Freedom of Speech). But the country's leading media group � controlled by Dariga Nazarbaeva, the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- is not pleased by the threat of competition.

Prague, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � Kazakhstan's state KazMunaiGaz oil and gas firm has announced plans to set up a new holding company that would include the minor radio station and newspapers that the group already controls.

But its centerpiece will be a new TV channel that would rebroadcast programming from Russia's national NTV network, which is controlled by energy giant Gazprom.

Before this happens, KazMunaiGaz will have to get a TV broadcast license. It will also have to brace itself for strong opposition from Dariga Nazarbaeva, President Nursultan Nazarbaev's oldest daughter, who controls the powerful Khabar media group.

Oleg Katsiev is the director of Internews Kazakhstan, which is part of the Internews International Network, an NGO that promotes the development of independent television and radio in emerging democracies. He told RFE/RL: "Almost all the media that belong to Dariga Nazarbaeva's group are talking a lot about [KazMunaiGaz's plan]. In articles, in newspapers and TV programs they criticize KazMunaiGaz, they write that it's not good for national security and so on."

The controversy is largely financial. Currently, the country's most popular TV channel is Nazarbaeva's ORT Kazakhstan, which rebroadcasts programming from Russia's ORT network. Nazarbaeva is clearly considering that the arrival of NTV's popular program lineup may steal a considerable percentage of her viewers and revenues.

Nazarbaeva appears to have a number of parliamentarians on her side. At a parliamentary session this week, Agrarian Party deputy Nurbaq Rustemov called upon the government to throw its support behind existing Kazakh media outlets rather than financing a new media holding. "If the government has some extra money, why doesn't it use that money to support our national media outlets? Why doesn't it spend that money for the development of education in journalism in our country?" he asked.

Some parliamentarians are concerned that the new media group might boost the influence and authority of Kazakhstan's energy magnates. Serikbolsyn Abdildin, leader of the Kazakh Communist Party and a member of parliament, told RFE/RL: "Today all media outlets are controlled by rich people or the government. The media outlets protect the interests of those who are in power, while rich people finance those media outlets. That is why I suspect that any move in this sector is intended to reach one single goal: how to fool ordinary citizens."

Some members of parliament such as Amangeldy Aytaly also fear that such a group will increase Russia's influence in Kazakhstan. "Media outlets and media space have nothing to do with the export of oil or any sort of mineral resources. [Media] is ideology, it is education," he said. "This [plan] is an attempt to increase the influence of the foreign language and foreign culture with the aim of influencing our nation's security."

Indeed, a new TV station showing Russian-language programming would step up the already dominant presence of the Russian language in Kazakh media. Equal broadcast time for both Kazakh and Russian-language programming is the subject of a draft law on media now before parliament.

Meanwhile KazMunaiGaz is sharpening its arguments. Its president, Uzakbai Karabalin, apparently wrote a letter last month to a top Nazarbaev aid, saying that the new media holding will aim at shoring up support for government policies, Agence France Presse reported. Such a step may be intended to soften government resistance ahead of parliamentary elections due next year.

And the project is not without supporters. Seitqazy Mataev, chairman of the state Journalists' Union of Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL that he would welcome access to NTV for all Kazakhs �- not just the very few who can currently afford to receive it through satellite or cable connections. "NTV is a well-known Russian channel. If the number of TV channels available in Kazakhstan increases, that is good." he said. "Let's take myself as an example: I watch NTV every evening. I would say that today NTV is a window to the world for us."

Oleg Katsiev of Internews Kazakhstan said the creation of a new media holding would be a plus for the local market. "I guess the appearance of a new strong and powerful media player in Kazakhstan maybe will help others to create their own networks," he said. "Now the media holding controlled by Dariga Nazarbaeva tries to create a monopoly on our market. It's not good for the society. So the appearance of any competitor is good for media development."

Nevertheless, Katsiev noted that the new media holding will also be closely connected to President Nazerbaev. One of his sons-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, is deputy president of KazMunaiGaz.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.)