After securing reelection in a hastily arranged January snap poll, President Nursultan Nazarbayev continued to consolidate his grip on the press by harassing independent and opposition media, covertly buying out some outlets, and attempting to put others out of business.
Nazarbayev boasts that his regime privatized state-run media but generally fails to mention that most media outlets were privatized into the hands of his close associates and family. The process is also far from transparent–often, the tax police and the National Security Committee (the former KGB) are deployed to coerce owners into selling. In June 1998, the president’s daughter Dariga and her husband, Rakhat Aliyev, bought the last remaining independent media company, Karavan, thus expanding her media empire to include all the major national TV channels and two leading daily newspapers, Novoye Pokoleniye and Karavan.
President Nazarbayev, meanwhile, continued to attack and isolate his only serious political rival, former premier Akezhan Kazhegeldin. In the fall of 1998, Nazarbayev’s administration barred Kazhegeldin from the presidential ballot for addressing an unsanctioned rally and later investigated him for alleged tax evasion and corruption during his term as prime minister (1994Ð97). Kazhegeldin fled the country. At the same time, the weekly XXI Vek, published and edited by Kazhegeldin’s associate Bigeldin Gabdullin, fell victim to a series of attacks, including a firebombing, that nearly shut it down in September 1998.
With President Nazarbayev’s reelection assured, the attacks against the paper stopped until the summer, when campaigning heated up for the October parliamentary elections. Once again, the government disqualified the exiled Kazhegeldin from the race and then tried to implicate Gabdullin in a trumped-up bribery scandal. Authorities renewed their attempts to squeeze XXI Vek out of Kazakhstan by barring newsstand sales of the paper in Almaty, freezing its bank accounts, and discouraging local printers from publishing the paper.
On April 24, pro-government lawmakers announced a draft mass media law designed to enhance the government’s arsenal of control. In a calculated effort to ensure that certain key points would be adopted, legislators added many blatantly unacceptable provisions to the first draft. President Nazarbayev was then able to appear as a defender of press freedom by publicly calling on deputies to revise articles that obviously contravened constitutional press freedom guarantees. The final version of the new media law was approved on July 23. It contained many troubling provisions, including rigid licensing and registration requirements for media outlets.
The final bill also reinforced provisions of the country’s so-called language law that required half of all programming, including advertising, to be in Kazakh. These quotas provide Kazakh officials with another convenient tool for harassing or even closing independent stations. Kazakhstan was heavily Russified during the Soviet period, and many ethnic Kazakhs do not know their native language. The current regime has encouraged and even required its use by some, but few broadcasters are proficient in Kazakh. Nor can stations afford to dub all their programs and commercials into Kazakh. Officials have enforced the expensive quotas only selectively, mostly against the handful of independent local TV and radio stations that have managed to survive in towns around the country.
Kazakh authorities were also quick to suppress critical broadcasting from outside the country. Between October 16 and October 18, Kazakh authorities blocked transmissions of all the Russian television networks available in the country, including ORT public TV and the independent NTV network. The move came in retaliation for Russian TV coverage of a Swiss government decision to freeze bank ac- counts allegedly belonging to Nazarbayev.
Bigeldin Gabdullin, XXI Vek THREATENED, HARASSED
XXI Vek HARASSED, CENSORED
XXI Vek staff THREATENED, HARASSED
Gabdullin, editor of the Almaty opposition newspaper XXI Vek, was subjected to a campaign of harassment and blackmail, apparently instigated by the State Security Service (KNB).
Gabdullin told CPJ that a man who identified himself only as a KNB member telephoned him on July 19 and insisted on meeting later that day at the Hotel Otrar in Almaty. The KNB official showed Gabdullin a hidden-camera videotape that allegedly showed Gabdullin accepting a bribe. He threatened to air the video on national television unless Gabdullin agreed to stop criticizing the government in his newspaper. Gabdullin denied taking bribes and refused to discuss the matter further.
On July 21, during its evening news broadcast, the national commercial television station Kommercheskiy Televisionniy Kanal (KTK) aired a video clip of Gabdullin receiving money from an unseen figure beyond camera range. The news anchor, Andrei Prokopiev, announced that KTK had recently “come across a tape” that showed Gabdullin receiving a wad of cash from someone he ambiguously identified as an “agent,” implying that the editor worked for the State Security Service as well as for the opposition. Prokopiev provided no details and offered no evidence to back any of his claims.
Gabdullin told CPJ he was unaware that he had been under surveillance and was greatly alarmed. He stressed that there was nothing illicit about the event filmed by the hidden camera, which involved a legitimate exchange of money between himself and a colleague who was actually a shareholder in the newspaper.
After the broadcast, Gabdullin sent a letter to KTK, demanding they provide legal documentation in support of their allegations. In addition, he asked the general prosecutor’s office to inform him of any criminal investigation being carried out against him related to the filming and the airing of the videotape.
Gabdullin believes the threats were related to his newspaper’s plans to publish a series of articles about U.S. congressional hearings on Kazakhstan’s human-rights record, held in mid-July. On July 16, a group of Kazakh human-rights monitors and political figures testified in Washington about the Kazakh government’s repressive policies against opponents and independent media. These hearings received scant coverage in the Kazakh press because many journalists feared reprisals.
While KTK fired its director after the network aired the controversial tape, it was not clear whether his dismissal was connected to the broadcast. By year’s end, Kazakh authorities had not yet pressed bribery charges against Gabdullin. The government instead renewed its efforts to shut down XXI Vek altogether.
On November 17, XXI Vek‘s printer declined to continue printing the paper, offering no explanation for the move. Unable to find a printer in all of Almaty and its surrounding region who was willing to work with him, Gabdullin was forced to suspend publication. In December, the editor resumed publication after signing a contract with a printer in Russia.
Gabdullin and his colleagues received a number of anonymous phone threats in December. Gabdullin and his staff were convinced that the threats were made by KNB agents. Meanwhile, their office was subjected to constant KNB surveillance and wiretapping.