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Media Matters: August 16, 2004

16 August 2004, Volume 4, Number 15
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

As parliamentary elections approach in September and the government once again comes under pressure from the international community to permit more space for democracy movements, official and independent media have vied to depict reality in Kazakhstan.

The uneasy engagement with the presidential administration and the state-run media by some local liberal politicians and journalists has drawn foreigners alternately to applaud and criticize both the government and the opposition media. Observers often have trouble sorting out the facts in cases where independent journalists face charges of common crimes, suffer murky road accidents or fire-bombings of their offices, and trade insults with officials and opposition leaders.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has become adept at seeming to be a liberal force against his own administration's policies by first allowing draconian press laws to be introduced, and then, as domestic and international criticism mounts, coming in at the last minute to reverse the restrictions.

Two conferences in Kazakhstan this year shed light on the very different conditions experienced by state-run and independent media, and on the difficulties the press faces in gaining credibility and security. A new development is the emergence of local networks of journalists' groups, whereas previously they had relied exclusively on Russian organizations like the Center for Journalism In Extreme Situations (CJES) in Moscow and on international groups like the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna.

A new organization in Almaty with correspondents in other major cities called the International Public Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech, or Adil Soz ( as it is known in Kazakh, held a meeting in March to bring Kazakh and other Central Asian journalists together to discuss how to deal with government interference and outright attacks. They have launched a website with regular monitoring of press-freedom issues, advice to reporters on law and practice, and reports of attacks on journalists.

Then the lavish 3rd European Media Forum was held on 22-24 April. This annual festivity is sponsored by the Kazakh government and various businesses and features Darigha Nazarbaeva, Nazarbaev's daughter, who owns a large share of the media in Kazakhstan. More about East-West mingling than the media, the forum this year brought together such figures as OSCE Chairman Jan Kubis, "Le Figaro" Editor in Chief Jean de Belot, Russian political insider Gleb Pavlovskii, and former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard Perle.

Some news organizations and non-profit associations wondered whether they should attend the conference and thereby legitimize it, but most wound up sending representatives because it appeared to be an opportunity to lobby for increased media freedom.

Yet the agenda was skewed toward the government's spin on what should preoccupy journalists. "Elections and the Media: A Political Moderator or a Source of Destabilization?" was the question at the opening plenary. "Paying the Piper" was the title of another plenary, at which speakers were asked "how worried should we be" about the recent return to state ownership of the media in Russia, and whether this phenomenon is comparable to "political and financial pressure" on the media in United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.

"The two conferences were on two different planes of reality," Alex Lupis, CPJ program coordinator for Eurasia, told RFE/RL after the events. CPJ monitors press freedom closely in Eurasia and regularly sends fact-finding missions to the region. Unlike the official forum, where attention was drawn to issues like the United States in Iraq, the NGO conference brought together some 40 groups to hear reports about press-freedom problems in the region and to discuss advocacy and prospects for building networks among colleagues, Lupis said. The issue of protection from government interference and harassment was very much on their minds as cases in which reporters had been jailed, beaten, or murdered were discussed.

At the official forum, authorities were able to discount criticism of such heavy-handed tactics merely because they allowed discussion of these cases openly and gave speaking slots to such figures as Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's representative on freedom of the media. This helped position the Kazakh government as ostensibly "liberal" in dealing with such problems and seemingly willing to hear outside criticism.

Possibly mindful of the dissonance of such human rights cases within its high-profile official media forum, the government seemed to make some timely gestures. Vladimir Mikhailov, a journalist and founder of the opposition weekly "Diapazon," had his prison sentence commuted to 180 hours of community service, Adil Soz reported 27 April. He was sentenced on 17 March for failing to follow a court order to move the outside wall on a rental property owned by his paper's publisher. Adil Soz and local monitors viewed the action as an attempt by officials to shut the paper down.

The new information minister, Altynbek Sarsenbaev, also retracted a government lawsuit against the Russian-language newspaper "Nachnem c ponedelnika" last month for allegedly failing to deposit revenues from newspaper sales and for not providing free copies of the newspaper. Deputy Information Minister Ardak Doszhan even apologized to the paper's editor, Ramzan Esergepov.

But other incidents in recent months raise serious doubts about the government's intentions. "Assandi Times," one of Kazakhstan's few opposition newspapers, which was forced to publish in Russia after earlier attacks on its editor and offices, was effectively closed on 15 July when a court fined it 50 million tenges ($370,000). The case revolved around the paper's editor's contention that the presidential administration, or someone close to it, had published on 2 June a false issue of their newspaper with stories reporting that the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and Ak Zhol parties were squabbling among themselves, reported, citing the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, on 5 August. The false newspaper discredited the opposition and led "Assandi Times," which has been described as financially linked to Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, into filing suit against the website Navigator ( Later the suit was dropped when Navigator published a retraction.

In court hearings in June, Sergei Utkin, a lawyer for "Assandi Times," tried to show that the statement about the government's involvement in the false publication was not a declaration of fact but a statement of opinion protected even under restrictive Kazakh media laws, because the article began with the words "the editors think that." He also argued that a government office, unlike an individual or a business, cannot really suffer economic damages.

While Utkin is appealing the decision to a higher court, he told the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute that he has "no hope of justice." The OSCE's Haraszti said on 25 July that the large fine is "de facto annihilating the newspaper." He said the closure would "narrow down crucial pluralistic voices in the media" with elections approaching soon.

"Assandi Times," formerly known as "Res Publica," was violently attacked in 2002 and its offices were torched and decked with the body of a headless dog. Irina Petrushova, the paper's editor, now lives in Moscow, from where she is still able to produce the paper. "Assandi Times" has gained prominence in recent months for breaking stories about a U.S. corruption case implicating Nazarbaev and other senior officials. The fake issue of the paper purported to dismiss the corruption case as false.

Such dirty tricks, or "black public relations" campaigns, are standard fare during election campaigns in the region. Far more ominous is the 20 July death from injuries in a 16 July car accident of Askhat Sharipzhanov, editor of the Navigator website. The accident came shortly after Sharipzhanov interviewed Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a key opposition figure formerly close to the president, and Sarsenbaev, the new information minister and co-leader of Ak Zhol on 16 July. Sharipzhanov's brother, Merkhat, is director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

"Everything looks as if a tragic accident really occurred, but what has happened further in the course of the investigation leads one to certain reflections," opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov was quoted as saying by Eduard Poletaev of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in "Rubrika" on 26 July. Duvanov himself was jailed on what human rights groups and the OSCE found to be trumped up charges of rape and was released early in January on probation because of international pressure.

"Rubrika" said there were discrepancies in evidence that the government claimed to find and what journalists discovered. For example, doctors first said they had found no alcohol in Sharipzhanov's blood, yet the government claimed there was. Health authorities later reversed themselves, raising further questions. Reporters also said that Sharipzhanov's tape recorder had disappeared. Adol Soz has cautioned colleagues about jumping to conclusions, saying Sharipzhanov did not have any state secrets or large amounts of money that might attract enemies. Navigator Editor in Chief Yurii Mizinov believes his colleague's death was related to his professional activity. The French organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) continues to call for an impartial probe into the journalist's death

Some analysts have interpreted Sarsenbaev's recent appointment as information minister as a ploy to cut off criticism of how media are handled at election time, "Vremya Novostei" and reported on 16 July. Sarsanbaev became chairman of Ak Zhol, a party made up mainly of former officials and businesspeople, after resigning as ambassador to Russia after his views of the Kazakh government were covered by the media.

Soon after his appointment, Sarsenbaev, 42, said there was too much coverage of the officially sponsored parties Otan, a pro-presidential party, and Asar, the party headed by the president's daughter. "There is something indecent about forcing only two parties on voters merely because their leaders are the president and his daughter," Sarsenbaev was quoted as saying by "Vremya Novostei."

Regardless of the new information minister's statements, Adil Soz's report of media issues in the first six months of 2004, released on the organization's website on 22 June, indicates a rocky road ahead for journalists trying to practice their profession freely in the coming weeks. During this period, one journalist was jailed, nine were assaulted, four were threatened, 11 suffered obstruction of their work, six were asked to censor their publications, five were prevented from distributing media, 13 were fighting off criminal charges, including for libel and incitement, and 24 were battling administrative libel suits.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is editor of "RFE/RL [Un]Civil Societies."

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

A U.S.- and European-funded independent printing press with local and international management, which was launched in a fairly difficult climate in Kyrgyzstan in November, is thriving eight months later and looking to increase its list of customers in the regions and in neighboring countries, the project's staff told RFE/RL this week. Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernmental group promoting democracy, is managing the $1 million project in Bishkek (see "Kyrgyzstan's Nonstate Papers Get A Press Of Their Own," "RFE/RL Media Matters," 5 December 2003).

Mike Stone, the Freedom House staffer assisting the project, told "RFE/RL Media Matters" that since the initial outside investment from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the press is now just about "breaking even" with revenues of about $50,000 per month now largely covering costs from customers' orders. To the untrained ear, "breaking even" might sound like a poor performance, yet in a region where all to often democracy projects end up dependent on continued foreign handouts, this is good news indeed.

Stone says the plant, which began with a handful of nonstate newspapers, now prints 50 titles. Some customers print sporadically, he acknowledges, when they have the necessary funds. This is still an issue in this poor Central Asian country, with only an emerging market economy and a heavy reliance on foreign development grants. The well-known independent newspaper "MSN," which grew out of the paper "Moya Stolitsa" that was closed down last year, is one of the press's regular customers. In addition to newspapers, the press accepts orders for advertising circulars or specialty publications.

While not opposed to taking central government orders, so far the press has not had them -- although some papers controlled by local oblast administrations have put in orders. The customers are mainly from the independent press. "They all have really small press runs, far less than 10,000 copies a week," commented Stone, who has also worked on media-assistance projects in Budapest and Minsk. "MSN" prints one large issue, with a print run in the 50,000-copy range, each weekend to compete with the state daily "Vechernii Bishkek," says Stone. Given that a year ago, there was no nonstate outlet for nongovernmental papers, especially those featuring opposition movements and criticism of the government, even such small numbers seem impressive.

Recently, the press added a fourth printing unit and a stacker for post-press work. Based on talks held this year, Stone believes the plant is now positioned to accept commercial orders from Kazakhstan and, possibly, Tajikistan. "I think it's important to do what we can to help the neighbors," Stone said, noting that conditions for independent media in other Central Asian countries have not been as favorable and that some publishers have been refused service at state-run presses.

What goes into keeping the conditions favorable for the Bishkek plant is not just the benevolence of the government of President Askar Akaev. Stone and his colleagues at Freedom House and other NGOs have made sure to keep their projects on the radar screen of the U.S. political officials who deal with the Kyrgyzstan government on a variety of issues -- from security to business. Recently, Stone met with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to brief him on the printing press and the challenges facing the independent media in Kyrgzystan. NGOs are taking some heat these days from the Kyrgyz government, foreign observers in Bishkek have noticed. Recently, the Akaev government complained about the programs of U.S. NGOs, particularly the National Democratic Institute's programs in Kyrgyzstan, claiming that such groups are interfering with elections in the country.

"The authorities have decided to put those international organizations that criticize Kyrgyzstan about human rights firmly in their place," Yrysbek Omurzakov, editor of "Tribuna," was quoted as saying by the International War and Peace Report on 9 July. Stone said his project has not faced any direct challenges, but he makes sure that political assistance remains available if necessary. "We know we can go to the embassy if issues arise, but it's not our intention to cry 'wolf,' so to speak," he said.

The printing press has a prestigious board, known as the Supervisory Committee, with U.S., European, and Kyrgyz public figures on it to give the sensitive project the kind of clout and cover often needed in the world of emerging independent media. Recently, Alex Fulmek of Petit Press in Bratislava; Kevin Klose, president and chairman of National Public Radio; and Tom Dine, president of RFE/RL, joined the Supervisory Committee.

Stone said he is not aware of any newspapers facing closure due to political pressure or punishing libel suits in recent months, and he has not experienced any direct pressure at the plant. Freedom House reported in its 2004 "Global Survey of Media Independence" that last year at least 11 lawsuits were filed against newspapers, with journalists ordered by courts to pay up to $12,000. Some papers are still struggling with these judgments.

Internews, a U.S.-based organization that has helped form local counterpart organizations, has identified the need for increased training and capacity to enable media outlets to defend themselves in such cases. Internews-Kyrgyzstan this year opened the Institute for Media Representatives (IMR) to provide legal aid to the Kyrgyz media, "MSN" reported 24 May. "Even though now there are fewer legal proceedings against the mass media, there is still a lack of legal information concerning journalists," Elvira Sarieva, executive director of Internews-Kyrgyzstan told MSN. Sarieva said that since there are no full-time lawyers specializing in media law and since media outlets find it hard to pay for attorneys, the IMR is making available several staff lawyers to defend reporters in court. They also see a role for themselves in mediating conflicts between newspapers, citizens, and officials about controversial items in print. The IMR intends to lobby for better media legislation that would meet international standards.

Among the most pressing issue for journalists facing lawsuits in Kyrgyzstan -- as other former Soviet countries -- is the task of removing from the Criminal Code the offense of libel against public officials, a crime that is punishable by heavy fines and even imprisonment. Government figures often misuse the power of office to silence media criticism about their actions by launching punishing libel suits and extracting large payments for "insults of dignity".

In June, the Kyrgyz parliament looked at proposed amendments to the media law that would have softened some of the libel penalties and made other changes that would have democratized legal control of the press. But the changes failed to pass, prompting criticism even from the president's press office, which itself has been a factor in suppressing press freedom in the past. "Deputies of the Kyrgyz parliament could have demonstrated their adherence to democratic values by passing amendments to the law on mass media, but they didn't," "Vechernii Bishkek" quoted press secretary Abdil Sergizbaev as saying on 15 June.

Both the president's office and the parliament have been battling over what is meant by "democratic values." Deputies Asel Mambetalieva and Akbokon Tashtanbekov said they wanted to reduce the punishment for slander but rejected a proposal for a 5 percent fee for filing a claim against journalists to discourage irate officials from harassment suits, "Res Publica," reported on 22 June.

Tashtanbekov said the fee could backfire against journalists because if they lost the suit, they would end up having to pay the fee, and pay an additional 5 percent fee to appeal the court decision. He would rather see a practice now common in Western democracies whereby the law exempts public figures from libel suits, so that they cannot use the power of office to attack the press.

No beatings, jailings, or killings of journalists have been reported in Kyrgyzstan this year, yet the press remains wary of the government -- especially as elections approach. In May, "MSN" was investigated by the Kyrgyz Antimonopoly Police Department after being accused of "dumping," or selling its papers below what was believed to be market price, "MSN" reported on 28 May. The department's officials visited the editorial offices after they received a petition from the newspaper's competitors, "Vechernii Bishkek," "RIF," the "Bishkek Times," and other newspapers, as well as from the vice president of Uchkun, the state-run printing press. They accused "MSN" of "willfully destroying the print media market" by lowering its prices and "violating the laws of the market economy" -- the kind of comments that often crop up in countries undergoing market transition.

When the Freedom House-sponsored printing press was first up and running, one of the local board members, Viktor Zapolskii, chief editor of "Delo No.," a well-known independent paper, resigned to protest what he characterized as unfair policies at the new press. In letters circulated to board members, he complained that prices at the press were too high. Stone says his organization categorically denies the charges and continues to work with the independent media. There might have been sticker shock for some locals when they grappled with the true cost of commercial printing. And there might have been expectations that special bargain rates might be made available for those with connections.

At any rate, since Zapolskii left, "we haven't lost any customers," said Stone, who continues to keep the door open to independent newspapers. Rather than engaging in price gouging, Stone and his colleagues believe they are fostering a business atmosphere that will in the long run be more beneficial to the media. "It is interesting to note that among our commercial customers, our quality and color has allowed them to increase press runs," says Stone. "This has driven the competitors to our press to compete in the marketplace."

Stone is focusing mostly now on completing market-research surveys of the papers printed at the plant so that a better idea can be had about what readers really think and what they want in a newspaper. He hopes the data will become available in about two months' time. Asked if the independent papers at his press and publishing elsewhere in the country are likely to have any impact on elections, Stone shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine." Without the market study, it is hard to say now how people respond to the independent press they are getting.

It is difficult to say without good research, but many Western observers believe that small-circulation papers representing the democratic opposition might not have the ear of the public. Editors of independent papers often reply that they cannot compete with cheap state-subsidized newspapers and are compelled to price their publications out of the reach of average readers who are often forced to chose between a loaf of bread or a newspaper. Such received wisdom needs to be tested against actual polling data, Stone cautions. While a complex mix of ingredients must go into building an independent media -- legislation, protection of journalists, access to printing presses, a market economy, an engaged public -- the Freedom House project in Kyrgyzstan could be an important step toward a viable nonstate print-media sector.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is editor of "RFE/RL [Un]Civil Societies."

By Bess Brown

The OSCE Center in Dushanbe and the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan have joined many Tajik journalists, politicians, and other public figures in condemning the 29 July beating of Rajab Mirzo, editor in chief of the independent Dushanbe weekly "Ruzi Nav," by unidentified assailants in the Tajik capital. The embassy statement praised the Tajik authorities for quickly launching an investigation into the attack on Mirzo, called for the arrest of the perpetrators, and noted that attempts to restrict political debate by terrorizing journalists are no help to civil society, particularly as the country is preparing for elections.

The independent weekly "Nerui Sukhan" hosted a press conference in Dushanbe on 3 August, at which independent journalists and representatives of political parties and public associations issued a statement condemning the attack on Mirzo and demanding an investigation of that incident and of the alleged official harassment to which "Ruzi Nav," "Nerui Sukhan," and the independent weekly "Odam ve Olam" have reportedly been subjected in the last year. This harassment has primarily taken the form of difficulties with printing and distribution.

While the journalists participating in the news conference agreed that the attack on Mirzo was very likely politically motivated, and some even insisted that law enforcement officials must have been, "Odam ve Olam" correspondent Safvat Burhonov was quoted by the independent Internet news site Asia Plus on 4 August as having said the Tajik authorities were likely to be unhappy over such incidents, which undermine Tajikistan's reputation as a country moving toward democracy.

"Ruzi Nav," which was founded in August 2003, has experienced difficulties almost from the day it started publication. Noted for its investigations into government corruption -- as Nuriddin Karshibaev, chairman of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan explained to a "Deutsche Welle" correspondent, the weekly reports on topics that other journalists are unwilling to touch -- "Ruzi Nav" quickly gained widespread popularity among the public and attracted the ire of the authorities.

The editorial staff has been warned by the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office to tone down the publication, and the state publishing house has occasionally refused to print the weekly. The 29 July beating was the second that Mirzo has experienced since publication of "Ruzi Nav." In January, he and three colleagues were attacked in Sughd Oblast in northern Tajikistan. In an interview with "Deutsche Welle" shortly before the latest assault, Mirzo said the weekly was being published with great difficulty because many publishing houses have refused to print it, and those that have been willing to print "Ruzi Nav" demand high fees for poor quality work. He attributed the difficult conditions in which his publication and all independent media in Tajikistan are forced to function to the recognition by the executive branch and other state structures that the media has the power to threaten the status quo. In Mirzo's view, the government cannot pressure the media openly because it cannot risk losing foreign investment and international support.

A more positive event in Tajik journalism was the resumed publication during the week of 5 August of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan's weekly "Adolat" after a four-year hiatus caused by financial difficulties. At the same time, the party's publication "Oriyon" has reappeared in Sughd Oblast. The reappearance of the party's two publications coincides with the 14th anniversary of the founding of the party, which was part of the United Tajik Opposition during the years of the Tajik civil war (1992-97).

By Jeremy Bransten

Radio Mayak's call signal is intimately familiar to anyone who remembers the former Soviet Union. The radio began its 24-hour-a-day broadcasts of news and music in 1964 to all corners of the USSR and remains a staple of many households across the region to this day.

The Soviet Union may have crumbled, but Radio Mayak -- the "beacon" from Moscow -- retains its listenership.

Although there are no precise ratings in Turkmenistan, Radio Mayak was believed to be the country's most-popular station -- until 11 July, when Ashgabat cut off its signal without warning.

Radio Mayak Chairman Andrei Bystritskii spoke to RFE/RL from Moscow. "The Interfax agency -- I got this in a telegram I received yesterday -- reported that Mayak was the most popular radio station in Turkmenistan," Bystritskii said. "But you understand that there are no audience surveys, so there are no precise figures. It is hard to say in general how many people listen to us. Occasional surveys show that across the region, about 40 percent of the population knows the Mayak radio station, but how often or how regularly they listen to us -- that we don't precisely know."

The Turkmen authorities explained their move in the state-controlled press by saying technical maintenance was responsible for Mayak's disappearance from the airwaves. The Turkmen Communications Ministry said the transmitting equipment for Mayak -- in use since 1964 -- is in need of repair, which could take as long as one year, if money can be found in Turkmenistan's state budget.

But Bystritskii countered that if maintenance were really the issue, local Turkmen stations would not have been able to take over Mayak's frequency on a Sunday, as they did.

The Russian Embassy in Ashgabat, too, is suspicious of the motives behind the Mayak shutdown in Turkmenistan and addressed a note to the government, demanding an official explanation.

At issue are not only the estimated 300,000 ethnic Russians living in Turkmenistan -- many of whom listened to Mayak -- but the fact that most of the country's 5 million citizens are now cut off from all outside sources of information, with the exception of a minority who own satellite dishes or shortwave radio sets.

In 1998, the Turkmen authorities pulled the plug on Russian television broadcasts provided by ORT television, and in 2002, all foreign newspaper and magazine subscriptions were halted. Mayak provided Turkmen with their last source of easily accessible outside news.

To a certain degree, like all radio stations broadcasting abroad, Mayak is used to occasional political difficulties. Bystritskii said the station intends to continue trying to serve its loyal "foreign" audience.

"The fact is that this radio station does still garner a certain amount of attention," Bystritskii said. "I am talking about Belarus, where we have periodic difficulties with the Belarusian leadership -- they turn us on and off -- in eastern Ukraine, in northern Kazakhstan. We have our audience everywhere. People are used to our radio station, and they listen to us."

The days are gone when most everyone across the former Soviet Union would listen to Mayak on a daily basis, thanks to cable-radio receivers installed in every apartment. Bystritskii said most Mayak listeners tune in to its programs through normal radio sets, meaning the station depends on rebroadcasting agreements with local operators across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to reach most of its listeners.

"Even in Russia, this system is gradually falling out of use, and the number of cable-radio sets is rapidly declining, so we cannot count on this system for the future," Bystritskii said. "This same phenomenon holds true -- to a lesser degree -- for the CIS countries and in Central Asia. So the main vehicle for our programs are radio frequencies."

Those frequencies -- at least in Turkmenistan -- are filled this week with government-sponsored bulletins of good news about a record grain harvest, bulging state coffers, and President Niyazov's latest project -- building an ice palace in the desert outside the capital, Ashgabat.

Jeremy Bransten is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague. Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.