President Nursultan Nazarbayev strengthened his government’s control
of the news media amid a political crisis driven by the February assassination of prominent opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbayev. Ten low-level government officials and security agents were soon charged and convicted in the killing, but members of the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol party said government involvement reached much higher. As questions swirled, the administration signaled plans to limit Internet access, and authorities arrested a critical online journalist who covered the case. The government also consolidated national television ownership and imposed new regulations on print media.
Information Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbayev told the opposition weekly Vremya in July that his ministry would draft a bill to systematically block access to politically objectionable Web sites, calling it one of “the main priorities of state policy.” Though the administration began drafting systemwide regulations, the details were not immediately disclosed, according to international and local press reports. Such a measure would broaden and codify the government’s existing efforts, which now involve the targeted blocking of Web sites in the name of national security. The Almaty-based media foundation Adil Soz quoted Yertysbayev as saying that “online journalism threatens state security and uses defamation and lies of the lowest sort.”
On August 28, Almaty police put the government’s words into practice by charging Internet journalist Kaziz Toguzbayev with insulting the honor and dignity of the president, a criminal offense. Toguzbayev wrote two articles in May and April for the news Web site Kub alleging that only high-level government officials could have carried out the Sarsenbayev killing. Toguzbayev faced up to three years in prison in the case, said Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights lawyer.
In May, Yertysbayev announced the government would assume management of the Khabar television station, which it jointly owned with private shareholders that included the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga, according to international press reports. No timetable was set for the move, which would make Khabar the third government-controlled national station, along with Kazakhstan and Yel Arna. “The state should dominate domestic TV broadcasting,” Interfax Kazakhstan quoted Yertysbayev as saying. The move came amid a rift between Nazarbayev and his daughter, who had been accumulating media holdings and occasionally breaking with official government positions.
One division arose over the popular comedic character Borat, the “Kazakh reporter” who lampooned society in a movie and other performances. Nazarbayev famously condemned the caricature, threatened to sue, and blocked video clips of the performances, while his daughter said the aggressive stance merely drew attention to the character. The government softened its position after the film’s U.S. release in November. Roman Vassilenko, a spokesman for the Kazakh embassy in Washington, said the Cultural Ministry would not interfere if private movie distribution companies wanted to show the film in Kazakhstan, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Most citizens get their news from television, but newspapers and other publications have traditionally been a source of information that is more critical of the government. In the summer, parliament passed and Nazarbayev signed into law a measure giving the state broad power to close independent and opposition media outlets on the merest of technical violations.
The measure broadens the grounds on which the government can deny registration to news outlets, and it requires re-registration for news outlets that make even slight administrative changes, such as the addition of a staffer or the alteration of a mailing address. The government’s record over several years shows that such requirements are used as a pretext to deny registration to independent and opposition media outlets, to harass them, and to close them. The measure was heavily criticized by local and international press and human rights organizations, including CPJ.
The new law also stipulated that no media outlet can be registered if it uses the same name, in full or in part, of a media outlet previously closed by a court, and it bars editors of previously shuttered media outlets from working in similar positions for other publications. The restrictions are significant because Nazarbayev’s government has a long record of using politicized lawsuits, tax inspections, and criminal investigations to close critical news media. The opposition newspaper known most recently as Aina Plyus, for example, has been suspended several times by authorities for alleged technical violations, forcing it to publish under several different names, Adil Soz reported.
Nazarbayev and his allies also used behind-the-scenes techniques to obstruct print media. The country’s biggest printing company, which is run by Nazarbayev’s sister-in-law, Svetlana Nazarbayeva, refused in January to print seven Almaty-based opposition newspapers. Local press freedom groups said that the company, Dauir, told the editors of the weeklies Svoboda Slova, Epokha, Apta.kz, Soz, Pravda Kazakhstana, Pravo.Ekonomika.Politika.Kultura, and Azat that it would not renew their contracts, which expired on January 1, 2006, because it was changing equipment. Adil Soz President Tamara Kaleyeva said Dauir resumed printing the papers after an interruption of a few weeks.
In September, CPJ urged U.S. President George W. Bush to raise concerns about Kazakhstan’s deteriorating press freedom record when he met with Nazarbayev in Washington. White House spokesman Tony Snow called oil-rich Kazakhstan “an important strategic partner in Central Asia” and said that the two leaders had a productive discussion that focused on energy trade and regional security. In a joint statement, the U.S. and Kazakh leaders said that they “reaffirm the importance of democratic development, and are committed to accelerating Kazakhstan’s efforts to strengthen representative institutions that further invest its citizens in the political process, such as an independent media, local self-government, and elections deemed free and fair by international standards.”
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan for 17 years. He gained a third term in a December 2005 vote that international observers said was marred by media and vote manipulation.
Two prominent journalists were attacked in 2006. On April 23, Kenzhegali Aitbakiyev of Aina Plyus was assaulted as he was walking along a street in Almaty. Aitbakiyev, who suffered a broken jaw and nose, a concussion, and heavy bruising, had been assaulted just a month earlier, according to international press reports. Aina Plyus Editor Ermurat Bapi said he believed the attack was connected to Aitbakiyev’s work, Adil Soz reported. Aina Plyus was one of the few local publications that covered the so-called “Kazakhgate” affair, which entailed allegations of bribe taking by Kazakh officials from U.S. oil companies.
On April 13, Yaroslav Golyshkin, editor of the independent newspaper Versiya, was attacked on the porch of his home in the northeastern city of Pavlodar by two unidentified men, who severely beat him. Versiya is well-known for its investigative reporting on crime. Both Golyshkin and his father, Vasily Golyshkin, founder of the paper and a well-known journalist, said they believed the attack was in retaliation for an article about the kidnapping of a financial police officer who investigated organized crime, Adil Soz reported. Nothing was stolen from the victims in either of the attacks. No charges have been filed in either case.