On August 18 the newly appointed Kazakhstan Information Minister, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, the co-chairman of the pro-democratic Ak Zhol party, presented a new draft law that is promisingly titled, “On Guarantees of Freedom of Speech in the Republic of Kazakhstan.” A new law is needed, after President Nursultan Nazarbayev vetoed the notoriously restrictive draft law on media last April. That media law had been drafted in ministerial cabinets amid protests from the freedom-of-speech group Adil Soz and opposition forces. Explaining the background for the adoption of a new law, the Information Minister emphasized that the existing law, which was adopted in July 1999 and slightly modified in 2001, no longer worked in Kazakhstan’s changing society. “I believe that this new law can be regarded as the first of the documents that are to lay foundations for political renewal. I expect that this law on media will be followed by the revision of law on political parties and other laws that regulate the relationship between the power and the society,” concluded Sarsenbayev (Aikyn, August 19). Notably, the team that developed the new law included members of all political parties.
Observers almost unanimously note that the proposed law grants more freedom to journalists than the existing one and removes practically all obstacles created by authorities. The crucial point of the new law will be, as conceived by its authors, the diversification of the media market and increased editorial independence from media outlet owners. The most important clause, however, is the simplified procedure for registering a media outlet through the Ministry of Information’s Internet site. Other positive points include a substantial reduction of fines imposed on newspapers or TV channels in proven cases of libel. In practice, libel charges are widely used by influential people to exert moral and financial pressure on journalists. The most glaring case of judicial browbeating, perhaps, is the closure of the opposition paper Assandi Times on June 15, 2004, following a court decision to fine the paper 50 million tenge (about $368,000), an impossible sum for any newspaper in Kazakhstan to produce, and to seize the newspaper’s property and bank accounts. Obviously, the harsh court ruling was meant to intimidate the newspaper and scare others.
The information minister maintains that individuals frequently use heavy fines for alleged cases of slander as a means of personal enrichment. Many such cases verge on absurdity. He mentioned an anecdotal case of a businessman who demanded the bizarre sum of 777 billion tenge as moral compensation for a supposedly slanderous statement.
Sarsenbayev also proposes to revoke an existing law that allows the court to treat a journalist like a common criminal, if the judge finds the publication slanderous (Panorama, August 20). The draft law stipulates that a newspaper or a TV channel can be closed only through a decision by the owner or the court; the only justification for such judicial acts would be if the media holding had violated the constitution. The new law also obliges state officials to respond within one month to publications raising allegations of human rights violations or misappropriation of state money. In a bid to eliminate media monopolies, the new law states that a single owner cannot hold more than 25% of a company’s shares. This grants staff members the right to distribute the rest of the shares, but it should also allow journalists to define their media policy more independently. The information minister proposes that the state should own one television station and several print media outlets and web sites.
The new draft media law has been made available for public discussion, and journalists have welcomed it as a document of remarkable progress. Many observers attribute the ministry’s radical attitude shift to the minister of information himself. Sarsenbayev had a brilliant career as a prominent state figure before he resigned as ambassador to Russia in 2002 to devote himself to political reform in the ranks of the pro-democratic Ak Zhol party.
Other people would also like to be seen as reformers ahead of the September 19 parliamentary elections. On September 3 Dariga Nazarbayeva, the daughter of the president and the chairwoman of the Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan, announced that the Congress has drafted its own law on media, which gives better legal protection to journalists. She emphasized that the Congress of Journalists was not competing with anyone in updating the existing media law (Khabar TV, September 3). But given the complexity of the pre-election intrigues, these words do not carry much conviction.