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Masquerade Eclipses Kazakhstan's Media Problems At Annual Forum

Dariga Nazarbaeva
Dariga Nazarbaeva
The eighth-annual Eurasian Media Forum recently concluded in the Kazakh capital, Almaty.

That might look like a paradox, unless you knew that the April 23-24 forum was organized by Dariga Nazarbaeva, the daughter of Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The preparations, the opening ceremony, the two-day discussions were all designed to make it look like a typical big international event, no less than the film festival in Nice or the Academy Awards.

The highlight of the forum was the hostess receiving her guests. This year those guests included Harvard University professor Niall Fergusson, British parliamentarian George Galloway, and Russian economist Mikhail Khasin, none of whom is likely to be a household name to the people of Kazakhstan.

But the organizers are trying to give the impression of a global event and a global approach. The president sent a personal message with all possible good wishes to the participants. His daughter publicly thanked her father for those good wishes, thus fulfilling the requirements of etiquette in what resembles a monarchy more than a presidential state.

Unfortunately for the organizers, reality then intervened.

On the very same day, in the same city, Ermurat Bapi, editor of the opposition newspaper "Taszhargan" ("Stone-Breaker"), was arrested and sentenced within hours to five days' imprisonment on charges of failing to pay an earlier fine imposed for libel. The court decision was then immediately revoked following the personal intervention of the hostess of the Media Forum.

How fortunate Bapi was that the local police did not dare to poison the Day of Glory of the Daughter of the President.

Packed Agenda

The next paradox was the agenda of the forum itself, which encompassed practically every conceivable global problem, from the election of the new U.S. president and reforms of the world market economy to the virtualization of the media world and the special problems of development of the blogosphere.

The agenda was, in fact, so packed that the organizers did not have any opportunity to discuss the more prosaic problems of the media. Or perhaps they simply did not want to do anything that might jeopardize the image of the father of the forum's hostess.

Some local analysts believe Nazarbaev's policies are the main contributing factor to the deterioration of the media situation in Kazakhstan.

Take the case of Ramazan Esergepov, owner and editor in chief of the newspaper "Alma-Ata Info." His trial, on charges of disclosing state secrets in an article his paper published in November 2008, was scheduled to begin on the very day the forum opened. This was considered inopportune and unfortunate timing, and the trial, which is to be held behind closed doors, was postponed for several days.

Esergepov has been in jail since January: he was unlucky in not having a patroness within the presidential family.

Meanwhile, the participants of the Media Forum devoted themselves to discussing journalistic problems anywhere in the world but Kazakhstan.

And they really seemed to enjoy themselves, thanks to the party atmosphere created by the ruling family.

Alexander Narodetsky is a London-based correspondent for RFE/RL and specializes in developments in the former USSR. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.