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'I Can't Handle Lies Anymore!' Kazakh Journalist Quits State TV, Citing Government Control

Kazakh journalist Erbol Mandibek (file photo)
Kazakh journalist Erbol Mandibek (file photo)

Erbol Mandibek quit his lucrative job at a Kazakh state television station because he said he could no longer take "lies and hypocrisy" in the government-controlled media.

In a Facebook post in early August, Mandibek wrote that he had to choose between his good salary and his conscience.

The journalist said he had chosen the latter, because working for the TV station Qazaqstan meant turning a blind eye to the country's problems, taking orders from the government, and prioritizing officials' wishes over the people's needs.

"I've had enough. I realized that I could no longer ignore my conscience and constantly feel a sense of shame," Mandibek, 34, told RFE/RL in an interview.

"Qazaqstan doesn't cover people's problems -- the priority there is fulfilling the authorities' instructions," he said.

"For example, during the mothers' protest [about social-housing issues], we wouldn't search for answers to their questions, we wouldn't analyze the reason behind their issues. Instead, we would report the way authorities told us to," Mandibek said.

"The Information Ministry instructed us to film the protests," he added. "'Look for provocateurs and record them when you see them,' we were told."

"I recorded mothers and children [protesting] in front of Aqorda [the presidential palace], but that material wasn't aired," the journalist, who is based in the capital, Nur-Sultan, recalled.

Mandibek, who worked for various state-media outlets for 16 years, was part of the presidential press pool and had access to briefings by the country's authoritarian leadership, went on business trips, and received financial perks.

'They Do What The Authorities Tell Them'

But he grew increasingly disappointed with his job and the censorship, hypocrisy, and pro-government bias that came with it.

Mandibek said he tried to challenge the situation, but said "it's impossible for one person to change" how the system operates in Kazakhstan.

"When you try to speak up, the leadership of the station looks at you as if you're insane," Mandibek told RFE/RL.

He said that all editorial and other decisions for the Qazaqstan station are taken by the president's office.

Mandibek said there are officials at Aqorda as well as the Prime Minister's Office and the Information Ministry whose job is to directly monitor and oversee the content on state media.

"Every single piece on state media is scrutinized before it is issued. All the details are thoroughly examined," he said. "Have you ever seen a person speaking against the authorities on a Qazaqstan TV show?"

The journalist said "the head of any state channel in Kazakhstan is a representative of the government" and that they do what the authorities tell them.

Erbol Mandibek had worked for state media for 16 years before finally calling it a day. (file photo)
Erbol Mandibek had worked for state media for 16 years before finally calling it a day. (file photo)

After he resigned from his job on July 26, Mandibek spoke about the passion he has to write about real problems in society and the shortcomings of the government instead of promoting its policies.

Mandibek added that he wants to "contribute to freedom of speech" in his country.

Having traded his lucrative job and its privileges for being able to live with a clear conscience, Mandibek is using social media as a platform to spread his message.

Since leaving, he has covered ordinary people's problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and has demanded transparency from government institutions.

'Widespread' Surveillance

In a recent Facebook post, Mandibek spoke about a topic close to his heart, freedom of the media.

He demanded the government provide "complete freedom for journalists."

Mandibek wrote that a journalist must not be put in a situation in which he has to worry about potential retaliation for challenging officials.

He wrote that high-ranking officials must be open to questions from the media about their properties, businesses, and any conflict of interest involving family members.

Mandibek had already turned to social media in the weeks leading up to his resignation.

In July, he wrote about the immense wealth of Kazakh billionaires -- including Timur Qulibaev, the son-in-law of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- and questioned the way they had become so rich.

Mandibek said he currently enjoys the freedom of speech he craved but it remains unclear how long it will last in a country where such a right doesn't actually exist for the average citizen -- particularly one who is critical of authorities.

Just before he left his office at Qazaqstan for the last time, the journalist "received a warning" from the station's officials about his Facebook posts.

Kazakh authorities have never shown any tolerance toward criticism, whether it comes from the independent press, activists, or political opponents.

Kazakhstan ranks 157th among 180 countries in the 2020 Press Freedom Index compiled by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

RSF has welcomed what it recorded as a slight improvement in the media situation over the past year in Kazakhstan.

But it wrote that "the state is modernizing its methods of repression and, in particular, exercising more control over the Internet, where surveillance is now widespread, news sites, social media, and messaging services are now subjected to more 'effective' periodic cuts, and bloggers have been jailed or confined to psychiatric clinics."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on an interview by Kazakh Service correspondents Nurgul Tapaeva and Ayan Kalmurat.

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    Nurgul Tapaeva

    Nurgul Tapaeva is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. 

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    Ayan Kalmurat

    Ayan Kalmurat is an Almaty-based correspondent with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. A graduate of Almaty's Turan University, he has many years of experience as a correspondent in different media outlets. Since joining RFE/RL in 2017, Kalmurat has been working as a reporter, television host, and investigative journalist covering a wide variety of topics.

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