Mukhtar Kul-Akhmet, minister of culture and information, hailed the legislation as protecting the "rights and professional interests of journalists," but local media analysts called it a cosmetic measure that would do little to lift the onerous restrictions facing the press in Kazakhstan.
The legislation, drafted by the Ministry of Culture and Information with some input from media representatives, would eliminate duplicative registration procedures for electronic media and the requirement that all news outlets re-register with the government each time top staff or postal addresses changed. But all media outlets would still be required to register, leaving the government an effective tool to control the news. CPJ research over several years shows that registration requirements have been used as a pretext to block and harass independent and opposition media outlets.
The measure would decriminalize libel and insult, but only as they pertain to the media. Tamara Kaleyeva, director of the local press freedom group Adil Soz, noted that criminal libel and insult laws would remain intact. The measure simply deleted specific references to media, leaving unclear how authorities would enforce the new standards. Nor was it clear whether the government would consider bloggers and other online journalists to be media.
"The government wants the West to believe it is changing its attitude toward the media, yet it absolutely failed to bring any structural changes to the national legislation," Kaleyeva told CPJ. "Journalists are still in danger and are subject to harassment from state agencies."
The bill also addresses some narrow issues, allowing journalists to use recording devices without permission and to pursue court appeals when denied government information, the news agency Kazakhstan Today reported.
Kazakhstan secured its bid for the OSCE chairmanship in late 2007, but was urged by member nations to liberalize media and electoral laws. Addressing the November 2007 OSCE Ministerial Meeting in Madrid, Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin promised to bring media laws up to international standards by addressing criminal defamation and registration laws. In a July address to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev reiterated the government's plan to remove excessive bureaucratic hurdles, while making clear that his government would keep a tight rein on coverage of national security and ethnic issues.
Along the way, the administration rebuffed proposed media legislation drafted by a group of local press freedom advocates and media experts. In January, Prime Minister Karim Masimov acknowledged the document contained worthy ideas--such as diversifying media and protecting intellectual property rights--but claimed that the plan would require government funding that was not budgeted. Media analysts suggested the administration was using the question of government funding as a pretext to turn aside the proposal.
In its 2008 Media Sustainability Index, the Washington-based International Research and Exchanges Board, a nonprofit research and media training group, concluded that broadcast media were essentially controlled by the state. "Control by local authorities and self-censorship by journalists ensure that the news is similar and basically reflects the state's interests," the report said.
To further extend its control over media outlets, the government in March bought up privately held shares in the media holding company Khabar, which owned the broadcast television channels Khabar and Yel-arna, the satellite channel Caspionet, and the radio station Khabar. The stations cover most of the country. The holding company had been co-owned by state and private interests.
The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) said the sale of Khabar shares had been conducted in a secretive auction by the Kazakh Stock Exchange. Adil Jalilov, director of the Almaty-based journalism center MediaNet, told IWPR that the sale had been "designed to ensure that the current president's maintenance of power, or a handover of power, is smooth and surprise free. It's being done to prevent the unexpected."
In power since 1989, Nazarbayev appeared firmly entrenched. He can seek re-election when his current term ends in 2012; parliament voted in 2007 to exempt him from presidential term limits. (Term limits would apply to a successor, although no likely candidate has appeared on the scene.) The latest parliamentary elections, in 2007, resulted in a one-party legislative body. Only Nazarbayev's party, Nur Otan, held seats.
Authorities also moved to control information on the Web. In April, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) said Kazakh authorities had blocked domestic access to its Web site. RFE/RL and media groups called on Kazakh authorities and KazTelecom--the main Internet provider in Kazakhstan and throughout Central Asia--to restore the service. RFE/RL said access to the site was restored in June after a seven-week interruption.
The news Web sites Zonakz, Geokz, Inkar, Kub, and Pozitsiya were inaccessible in Kazakhstan throughout the year. In October, Internet users in Kazakhstan reported that a popular blog service, LiveJournal, was also blocked. Government critics said they believed the blogging site was blocked because of critical articles posted by Nazarbayev's former son-in-law, Rahat Aliyev, who left the country in 2007 in the midst of a divorce and a bitter dispute over his bank and media holdings. KazTelecom disputed assertions that it was involved in blocking LiveJournal.
No developments were reported in the case of Oralgaisha Omarshanova, an investigative reporter who disappeared in Almaty in March 2007. A reporter for the Astana-based independent weekly Zakon i Pravosudiye (Law and Justice), Omarshanova had just written an article detailing deadly ethnic clashes between Chechen and Kazakh residents. The article identified instigators of the unrest and described their alleged connections to the government and local businesses, Adil Soz reported.
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