Journalists in Kazakhstan had little reason to celebrate during this year’s national “Journalism Day” on June 28. Traditionally a joyous event, this year the festivities were spoiled by recent attempts by officials wanting to silence the press. The rights of journalists to investigate and disseminate information and to express their personal views, as laid down in the constitution, are regularly violated on both the national and local levels. There are roughly 2,000 print and electronic media outlets in Kazakhstan, and a majority of them serve as mouthpieces for the corporate oligarchs who own them. Others face intimidation from the central government.
Government officials who want to muzzle the press typically opt for libel accusations or fictitious charges as their preferred instruments of intimidation. Given the widespread corruption in justice system, journalists have very slim chances of winning a case in a courtroom. Last year a fierce critic of the ruling elite, journalist Sergei Duvanov, was sent to prison on trumped-up charges of raping a teen-aged girl. The offices of the now-closed Respublika were searched for “subversive publications.” In October the owner of the Diapazon newspaper, Vladimir Mikhailov, spent several months in prison for allegedly violating “business ethics.” Earlier this year Gennady Benditsky, a reporter for Vremya, revealed a multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme benefiting several high-ranking officials. One of the accused sued Benditsky for libel but, unlike many trials involving journalists, Benditsky was eventually found not guilty in court. In the run-up to Journalism Day, Akhas Tazhutov, deputy editor of the Megapolis weekly, was sacked for disclosing improper deals involving top government officials and transnational corporations (navi.kz, June 23). Beatings, intimidation, and persecution have also become preferred methods of dealing with independent journalists.
Some observers think that journalists themselves are to blame for the loss of their freedom, because they lack a sense of solidarity. In late June a group of journalists, public figures, and intellectuals set up a committee to defend Zhas Alash, a newspaper that has been sued by several members of parliament for publishing a slanderous — at least in their opinion — article. But only a handful of reporters mustered enough courage to protest the spurious judicial pursuit of Zhas Alash (Ak Zhol Kazakstan, June 25).
Last April President Nursultan Nazarbayev rejected a controversial draft law on the media, which had been proposed by the conservative Information Ministry. The draft law flagrantly violated fundamental provisions of the constitution and had been sharply criticized by the OSCE, U.S. State Department, and the greater international democratic community. The proposed media law had become a serious obstacle blocking Kazakhstan’s membership in Western institutions and damaging the country’s international reputation. In vetoing the law, Nazarbayev emphasized his government’s commitment to Western democratic values, but at home journalists found their plight going from bad to worse.
Despite flirting with Western human rights organizations and capitalizing on public opinion, the ruling regime has not abandoned its determination to restrain the media. Earlier this year, a media law drafted by the pro-democratic party “Ak Zhol” was rejected without even being considered by parliament members loyal to the government. On June 28 the deputy chairman of the pro-presidential “Otan” party, Aleksandr Pavlov, publicly announced that the party was planning to present a new version of the media law (Khabar TV, June 28). Given Otan’s notorious proclivity toward repression, its draft is not expected to loosen the government reigns on the media.
Yet the press restrictions in Kazakhstan should be kept in perspective. Many journalists concede that press freedom in Kazakhstan is much greater than in any other Central Asian country. Seitkazy Matayev, the chairman of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan, noted: “My Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen colleagues gasp at what they read in our private papers. You can find anything in our papers practiced in journalism: exerting pressure on people, carrying out someone’s orders, witch-hunting? What can one wish more? Despite all this, some people kick up a fuss, crying: ‘There’s no freedom of expression in this country!’ ” (Aikyn, June 26, 2004).