Kazak Broadcast Bill Seen as Curbing Media
By Alexandra Kazakova
Media experts and journalists in Kazakstan are increasingly alarmed about new legislation that they fear will lead to even greater state controls over TV and radio.
A round-table debate held in the Kazak capital Astana on September 12 and 13 was the final opportunity for media representatives to argue their case against the new law before it goes before parliament in October.
The meeting, organised jointly by Kazakstan’s National Association of TV and Radio Broadcasters, the media support group Adil Soz, the Soros Foundation in Kazakstan and the OSCE, was dominated by talk of what will happen once Kazakstan shifts to digital broadcasting in 2014.
The law provides for a monopoly operator that will control all frequencies. This role is to go to the state broadcaster Kazakteleradio, which was merged with telecommunications company Katelco earlier this year in anticipation of the bill.
Both broadcasters and media rights groups warn that the result will be a sector completely monopolised by the state, and that this will not only stifle entrepreneurship, undermine competition, and leave consumers with less choice, but will also restrict media freedom.
Officials say the bill is designed to support locally-made television and radio broadcasting, promote the production of Kazak-language programming, shield children from adult-content media, and introduce the use of sign-language output.
In 2009, Kazakstan’s media law was changed to make internet content subject to the same controls that apply to conventional print and broadcast media. The latest bill will further regulation of TV and radio. The digital switchover is seen as just a convenient pretext to do so.
“If this [law] is passed, we will be completely dependent on the Kazteleradio company – technically, financially and editorially,” Sholpan Jaksybaeva, head of the National Association of TV and Radio Broadcasters, said at the meeting.
Before they learnt of the bill’s implications, broadcast companies had been hoping the switchover would mean they would inherit the same frequencies as they have now, only in digitised form.
Instead, private broadcasters will find that their licenses to use analogue frequencies are redundant, and they will need to apply for new digital rights from Kazteleradio.
For many national broadcasters, the licensing fee – averaging 100,000 US dollars – was only the start of a substantial investment programme in technology and infrastructure for their stations.
Hardest hit of all will be the regional broadcasters, many of which are likely to face closure. These smaller local stations provide an important source of information for people living outside the main cities. It is doubtful whether they will be able to afford new licensing fees, or the cost of other requirements such as ensuring 50 per cent of their output is in the Kazak language. Many of them currently survive by rebroadcasting foreign TV programmes, mostly Russian.
The bigger players, meanwhile, will absorb the costs of the additional requirements envisaged in the bill by passing them on to the customer, according to Olga Didenko, a lawyer with the Internews media development group.
Tamara Kaleeva, head of media rights group Adil Soz, notes that commercial satellite and cable TV providers will face additional regulation from local government as part of the new law.
“The bill contains a lot of additional obstacles for TV and radio companies, and there is virtually nothing there about the state providing them with support,” she said, adding that the same applied to the way the 50 per cent Kazak-language rule was to be implemented.
Didenko said, the process by which digital licenses were awarded had raised questions, given that there are already concerns about corruption and opaque government in Kazakstan.
Jaksybaeva said it was worrying that Kazteleradio had failed to respond to requests for information about the process it would be using to allocate digital frequencies.
“No one knows how many broadcasting licences will be awarded, how many channels will be placed on these frequencies, what the terms will be or how much it will cost,” she said.
Addressing the round-table event, the deputy minister for communications and information, Nuray Urazov, indicated that the ministry was unlikely to accept recommendations for fundamental changes to the major points contained in the bill.
But broadcasters and media activists are determined to continue their campaign, including after the bill goes before parliament. Their calls are being backed by international organisations which are concerned about the impact the bill will have on media freedom.
In a crittique of the bill, the London-based free expression group Article 19 said it lacked adequate sufficient safeguards to protect the rights of individuals and broadcasters, and noted that it omitted mention of matters such as media pluralism, editorial independence, and equal treatment of broadcasters.
Alexandra Kazakova is IWPR country director in Kazakstan.