Around 500 policymakers and journalists from across the globe gathered in Almaty on April 21 for the Eurasian Media Forum. Kazakhstan’s state officials tout the annual event as a unique opportunity to promote cross-cultural dialogue among civilizations. State-controlled media predictably offered exceptionally positive assessments of the event, stressing Kazakhstan’s initiative to bring together global media giants for a trust-building exchange.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev opened the forum by paying lip service to democratization, noting that he sees the future of Kazakhstan linked to the “freedom of speech and media.” But in the same breath, he added that media outlets bear the “moral responsibility literally for every word” they publish. According to the president, “The freedom of speech is in fact is the responsibility of journalistic conscience, a supreme value that must not be used as a bludgeon in an information war” (Panorama, April 22). This emphasis on the “responsibility” of journalists was also echoed by the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who chaired the forum’s organizing committee and some months ago toyed with the idea of setting up a public television network before abandoning the project altogether. But at the forum, Ms. Nazarbayeva assumed her usual patronizing tone, calling on journalists to unite in order to achieve the status of a “fourth estate.”
Nazarbayev’s wily tactic of flattering the journalistic community proved effective in April 2003, when the president spectacularly vetoed an obviously restrictive draft law on media. By canceling the law, the government cleverly averted releasing a groundswell of resentment from the local democratic movement. Quiet likely, the government will try the same scenario this year.
On April 18 the Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan (CJK) announced that it had drafted, jointly with all democratic organizations and media representatives, a new media law that fully corresponds to the standards of a democratic press. The CJK statement came at a time when the government was making amendments to the media law adopted in 1999, further restricting the rights of journalists under the pretext of ensuring national security. In an appeal to parliament, the Congress of Journalists urged legislators to reject any government-drafted amendments.
The current media law does not in any way guarantee the rights of journalists. The freedom-of-speech foundation Adil Soz reported three cases of attacks on journalists and eight instances of restricted mass media activities, as well as lawsuits against two publications in the first three months of 2005. The total sum of fines imposed on media outlets by parliament members, state officials, government institutions, and individuals based on libel charges and allegations of financial irregularities exceed 183 trillion tenge ($1.4 trillion) (Zhas Alash, April 19).
Much to the distaste of independent journalists in Kazakhstan, the Eurasian Media Forum focused on abstract issues of terrorism and extremism, ethics of journalism, and globalization, issues largely irrelevant to actual media conditions in Kazakhstan. Democratic forces vented their disappointment in a letter to forum delegates, enumerating violations of democratic rights such as blocking the Internet publications Navi, Eurasia, KUB, and Svobodnaya Azia, and the closure of Vesti Pavlodara and Qazaqstan newspapers, fining Zhas Alash 70 million tenge ($530,000), and undertaking legal persecution of Respublika delovoye obozrenie. The letter also drew Media Forum participants’ attention to the imprisonment of the prominent opposition figure Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, leader of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party, and dubious investigations into the activities of 33 human rights organizations and NGOs receiving foreign grants. The letter calls on the media forum to hold hearings into the situation in Kazakhstan, inviting representatives from the government, the opposition, and the independent media (navi.kz, April 22). It is, however, doubtful that forum participants will be receptive toward the democratic movement’s appeals, since Dariga Nazarbayeva herself controls the Khabar national television network and arranged for a range of state-owned companies to sponsor this high-profile event.
However good the CJK draft media law may be, it will never be easy to find a solution that would be acceptable for all media in the country. One of the main problems relates to the dearth of Kazakh-language media in Kazakhstan. While Kazakh is officially declared a state language, only 17% of newspapers appear in the language. Given the current demographic and political situation in Kazakhstan, the lingering dominance of the Russian language in journalism is understandable. But members of parliament and the broader public are increasingly aware of the second-rate status of Kazakh in the media and in government offices.
According to the media law, half of all radio and television broadcasts should be in Kazakh, but this requirement is rarely observed. Russian-language broadcasts are the most numerous and receive the best air times. Parliament member Amangeldy Aitaly went as far as to say recently that this imbalance between Russian and Kazakh in the media undermines the national security of Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan TV, April 16).
For all its imperfections, the draft media law proposed by the Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan signals a growing awareness among journalists of the threats to press freedom. By protecting their own rights, journalists may assist the growing democratic forces in Central Asia and improve the political situation within Kazakhstan.