Dear Senator Abdykarimov:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, is very concerned about deteriorating press freedom conditions in Kazakhstan and government efforts to strengthen legal restrictions over the independent media ahead of parliamentary elections due later this year.
In light of your deep concern for democratic reforms and your position as chairman of the Senate, we would like to call your attention to the draft media bill, entitled “On Mass Media in the Republic of Kazakhstan,” which was passed by Parliament’s lower house on December 25 and is currently awaiting approval by your chamber. While senior officials such as Information Minister Sautbek Abdrakhmanov claim the draft media bill will protect journalists from state interference and censorship, the current draft contains vague language that weakens legal protection of the media and expands the ability of government officials to influence and censor independent journalists.
Throughout the process of preparing the draft media bill, Kazakh government officials and parliamentary deputies have consistently rejected substantive changes proposed by international and nongovernmental organizations. During the fall, local nongovernmental organizations such as the Almaty-based press freedom group Adil Soz and the Almaty office of the U.S.-based media training organization Internews participated in a parliamentary working group preparing the draft legislation. These two organizations withdrew from the working group in early December after parliamentary deputies from pro-government parties–who dominated the group–rejected their principle recommendations.
In December, President Nursultan Nazarbayev refused efforts by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), a Vienna-based international organization that monitors human rights in former Soviet republics, to have the draft media bill conform to international human rights standards.
“We are asking [international organizations] … not to interfere in our internal affairs,” Nazarbayev said on December 23, according to Eurasianet.org, a New York-based news Web site. “Nor do we want them to tell us which laws to adopt and which to reject.”
We are particularly concerned about the following articles in the draft media bill that media lawyers believe will be used to punish journalists and media outlets:
- Article 3.1 bans the media from engaging in “propaganda” and “agitation” without providing definition of these terms. Media lawyers believe that journalists could face up to five years in prison and fines of as much as 10 months of their salary for violating this article.
- Article 3.2 prohibits media outlets from revealing vaguely defined “state secrets.” Media lawyers believe that journalists could face up three years in prison and a ban on practicing their profession for violating this article.
- Article 17 authorizes courts to temporarily close media outlets for up to three months if they violate several articles in the draft media legislation.
- Both Articles 17 and 26 contain vague procedures for shuttering broadcast media outlets for up to three months when they commit their first violation and closing them permanently when they commit their second violation within the same year.
- Articles 29 and 30 transform independent broadcasters into tools of state propaganda by forcing them to publicize official government statements.
- Article 34 prohibits journalists from distributing information that is “contrary to fact.” Media lawyers believe that journalists could face up to three years in prison for violating this article. State-sponsored persecution of the independent media derails any prospect of democratization by denying citizens access to information about important political and economic developments in their country. A functioning democracy depends on the ability of individual institutions to balance and monitor each other. The current draft legislation gives extraordinary power to the courts–which are subject to political pressure–to thwart the critical role of the media.
Senator Abdykarimov, the potential adverse effects of the draft media bill are tremendous. In light of President Nazarbayev’s desire for Kazakhstan to play a leading role in promoting human rights in former Soviet republics as chair of the OSCE in 2009, we encourage you to work with the nongovernmental press freedom organizations to incorporate their concerns into the text. Your initiative to revise this draft media bill according to international standards would be a positive first step for the government and Parliament in embracing the process of democratization.
Thank you very much for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.