Kazakhstan: Parliament Debating Controversial Media Bill

The draft bill has sparked an outcry among media advocacy groups, which argue that the proposed changes would make Kazakhstan's legislation one of the most restrictive in Central Asia.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media watchdog this year listed Kazakhstan among the less media-friendly countries in the world. Kazakhstan ranks 119th among 167 nations the group has reviewed and is listed among the countries "where journalists have the toughest time and where government repression...prevent the media from operating freely."

Delayed Debate

In a statement posted on its website after today's parliamentary vote, the Almaty-based Adil Soz (Right Word) media-rights group lamented that critics of the draft bill could not block it and that the only thing they could achieve was to delay the next parliamentary hearing until October 20.

The group has said it believes that the proposed amendments would represent "a step back to stagnation and totalitarianism."

Adil Soz coordinator Tamara Kaleeva told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the draft bill, if adopted, would make Kazakhstan's media environment look like that of Turkmenistan -- which ranks 165th in RSF's annual report.

"Ideally, [the government] would like to bring us closer to Turkmenistan, where there are four television channels -- I watch them regularly -- which all praise the 'Rukhnama' and its author [President Saparmurat Niyazov]," she said. "I think this option suits [Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet] Ertysbaev."

Even if Kaleeva's comments seem exaggerated, it remains that the government says the bill aims at preventing what it describes as "abuses of freedom of speech."

Opposition To Media Bill

In a letter recently sent to parliament, Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov said the draft also seeks to sanitize the media environment in a country where only about 4 percent of the 7,000 registered media outlets have any "real influence" on public opinion.

Ertysbaev is coming under increased pressure (RFE/RL)

Ertysbaev is coming under increased pressure (RFE/RL)

With the exception of government members, few in Kazakhstan support the proposed changes. Sholpan Zhaksybaeva, the managing director of the nongovernmental National Association of Broadcasters, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the bill bodes ill for the country's media environment.

"The amendments proposed by Ertysbaev could make things significantly worse [not only] for the broadcasting market, but also -- I am sure -- for the print-media market," Zhaksybaeva said. "It must be noted that those amendments do not [directly] concern the work of journalists. They aim at making the life of media outlets much more difficult by increasing the number of their [legal] obligations."

The draft amendments seek to bar editors of periodicals who have been closed by a court order to work in the same capacity for any other publication. They also oblige each media outlet to have a deposit of tens of thousands of dollars prior to beginning operations.

If adopted, the changes would also introduce a fee for registration applications and increase to six from the current three the number of reasons for denying a media outlet official registration.

Even the official Journalists Union is critical of the draft. The union's chairman, Seitkazy Mataev, today accused the culture and information minister of relentlessly seeking to muzzle the country's media ever since he was appointed to that post in January.

"Every single day, [Ertysbaev] takes his baton and assaults us," he said. "I don't understand why. Probably someone is forcing him to do that."

The controversial bill has further soured relations between Ertysbaev and lawmaker Darigha Nazarbaeva, the eldest daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the leader of the Asar (All Together) party.

Criticism From President's Daughter

Addressing reporters in Astana on June 6, Nazarbaeva described the draft media bill as undemocratic.

"Apparently the president has not made this draft law a priority and we don't understand why [the government is in] such a hurry to have those reactionary amendments brought to the existing media legislation," she said. "We all believe this would represent a great, great step back."

Although Nazarbaeva resigned as chairwoman of the powerful Khabar media group to run for parliament two years ago, she is still believed to control it.

Former presidential adviser Ertysbaev, whom many in Kazakhstan believe remains Nazarbaev's right-hand man, suggested last month that the government take over Khabar. It currently owns 50 percent-plus-one-share of the group.

The Congress of Journalists, which is headed by Nazarbaeva, has counterattacked by demanding Ertysbaev's resignation.

Ertysbaev today implicitly accused the president's daughter of manipulating those who criticize him for advocating changes to the media legislation. "And you, whose orders are you fulfilling when you attack the information minister?" he said. "You wouldn't by any chance be fulfilling the orders of a particular elite group which used to monopolize the overwhelming majority of electronic media in our country? Here is the main obstacle to our efforts to develop freedom of speech and a civilized media environment."

Ertysbaev's comments are likely to add fuel to speculation that the media-bill controversy reflects a deeper factional struggle within the country's ruling elite -- namely between the president and his daughter -- whom many in Kazakhstan believe has greater political ambitions.

http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1068978.html

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