This year Kazakhstan’s Journalists Day was marked by a massive protest rally in Almaty on June 24. The rally was unprecedented in scale and united almost all media outlets regardless their political views. The demonstration was organized by the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan, the Adil Soz Foundation for the Protection of Freedom of Speech, and Nagyz Ak Zhol, an opposition political party. The groups were upset because the Majilis (the lower house of parliament) had approved government-initiated amendments to the media law, amendments that journalists widely criticized as anti-constitutional. The Ministry of Information and Culture submitted the amendments to parliament without consulting the Union of Journalists or relevant non-government organizations.
Although the Almaty mayor’s office had only granted permission for a rally lasting one hour, the time limit did not damper the emotional intensity of the event. The amendments complicate the re-registration procedures required for electronic and print media. They effectively give the ministry unlimited powers to close down a newspaper or television station for minor violations of tax law or if a newspaper bears a name similar to those of banned publications. If a newspaper is closed down by the courts, its editor will be barred from any media activity for three years. The government-drafted law also imposes heavy fines on media outlets for even slight deviations from the regulations. Surprisingly, the most devastating criticism of the government-proposed bill came from Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who warned members of parliament that if the amendments to the law are adopted it will “condemn the freedom of speech to death” (Turkistan, June 8).
On June 21 the lower house of parliament approved the proposed amendments to the media law with an overwhelming majority of votes (46-11). The majority in parliament drowned out the weak protests of some parliament members who had expressed concern that the new version of the law would give the Ministry of Information power to appoint loyal editors and to punish those who oppose government policies. Information Minister Yermukhamet Yertisbayev, a former presidential aide, observed that it was “a real blessing for Kazakhstan in political terms that [pro-presidential party] Otan, Civic Party, and Agrarian Party hold a majority in parliament” (Panorama, June 23).
U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway called the amendments a step back in the development of a free press and added that Washington’s views on this issue fully coincide with those of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Ordway believes that the latest turn of events will not facilitate Kazakhstan’s plans to chair the OSCE in 2009. OSCE envoy Miklos Haraszti said that he spoke with Yertisbayev on the issue and that the minister had explained that strict rules help raise public confidence in the media. Nevertheless, the OSCE expressed deep concerns over the declining freedom of speech in Kazakhstan and called upon the Ministry of Information and Culture to revoke the bill. Nazarbayeva complained that she could not get a clearly articulated response from the government when she asked why it was trying to push the amendments through parliament. “They give an alleged threat to national security as a reason. But what does that ‘threat&’ mean?” (Zhas Qazaq, June 16).
The pro-presidential parties apparently are trying to use the amendments to the media law to strengthen their own positions and to launch a witch-hunt against their opponents. Speaking at the most recent congress of her Asar party, Nazarbayeva said the stability and balance in Kazakh society hinges on only one person — the president — and that situation leaves the state vulnerable. She went on to say that the real threat for the country comes not from opposition forces, but from what she described as a “clannish and bureaucratic system forming an alliance with financial and industrial groups, oligarchs.” She warned that a new source of opposition to the president was brewing “in the calmness of some cabinets” from which emanate “rumors” about a presidential successor. According to her, such insinuations are made to accustom the population to the specter of a possible coup d’etat, and she called on all pro-presidential parties to establish a united party (Panorama, June 23).
But for many independent newspapers, which remain remote from such behind-the-scenes political intrigues, the standoff between the government and journalistic community boils down to a simple question of survival. The National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters appealed to President Nazarbayev to veto the draft law. The draconian new law will put enormous financial and moral strain on non-government newspapers. But it may also backfire in anticipation of Nazarbayev’s visit to Washington, scheduled for September, during which he and President George W. Bush are expected to discuss Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the OSCE. In this context, the government-initiated amendments to the media law were definitely an ill-timed adventure.