Going digital, playing politics

ALMATY | In 1997, Kazakhstan’s government seized control of the television and radio airwaves in what was widely regarded as a politically motivated process to stifle opposition voices.

Within a year, 20 of the country’s 48 commercial television stations had closed, either because they lost a bid for a frequency, could not afford to bid, or were not allowed to do so. Most of those that survived had to make deals with local authorities. The big winners were KTK and NTK, owned by government allies, including the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Dariga Nazarbaeva. The government closed 13 stations to allow KTK and NTK nationwide coverage, although other frequencies were available.

Kazakhstan plans to convert to digital broadcasting in four phases: major cities in the ongoing first phase, then regional cities, border areas, and smaller towns, aiming for 95 percent coverage by 2015.

Broadcasters felt not only overpowered but outwitted.

“The problem is that we were playing checkers, and all of a sudden we discovered that the government was playing chess,” media activist Rozlana Taukina said.

Fifteen years later, as Kazakhstan gears up for the switchover to digital television and radio, “history may be repeating itself,” says Sholpan Zhaksybaeva, executive director of the National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters. Commercial broadcasters are battling the government over frequency allocations and registration rules that may exclude regional stations and reduce the number of foreign channels on cable systems. Broadcasters fear that the so-called technical transition to digital is a cover for a spectrum grab under which government voices will dominate the airwaves.

Zhaksybaeva feels ready to play the game this time. With the growth of the economy and advertising, the broadcasting sector has expanded. According to government statistics, 63 TV and 42 radio stations are on the air; there are 147 cable and six satellite operators. More than half the population can receive over 30 over-the-air TV channels, and cable systems have expanded in urban areas.

For the past four years, Zhaksybaeva has been rallying private broadcasters, speaking at national and international conferences, and lobbying for changes in law and regulations.

“I cannot keep silent because the future of broadcasting is at stake,” she said.


Under the International Telecommunication Union treaty, signed in Geneva in 2006, Kazakhstan will switch from analog to digital broadcasting by June 2015. The government has budgeted 51 billion tenge ($340 million) to Kazteleradio, a government corporation, to build satellite uplinks and downlinks, microwave and relay stations, and other infrastructure.

For over-the-air broadcasting, viewers with analog sets will need a receiver and antenna costing about 14,000 tenge($90) to receive the basic free package of 35 TV and seven radio channels. The government has promised to provide receivers free of charge to “socially vulnerable populations.”

According to Kazteleradio board chairman Abay Kadraliev, digital broadcasting will help the country overcome its “information inequality.” Currently, about a third of the population in rural areas receive only two government TV channels – Khabar and Kazakhstan-1. Digital television, Kadraliev says, “will improve the quality and availability of information services and increase the competitiveness of domestic TV.”

Kazteleradio’s corporate strategy calls for bringing digital television and radio to 95 percent of the population by 2015. In the first phase, 23 percent of the population is scheduled to go digital by the end of this year. So far, politics as much as population appears to be driving the strategy.

First to be served are three of the four largest urban areas – Almaty, the adjoining cities of Karaganda and Temirtau, and Astana, together with almost 900,000 households – and the centrally located city of Zhezkazgan. However, in western Kazakhstan, the major population centers of Aktau, Atyrau, and Uralsk have been passed over in favor of Zhanaozen. That city was the scene of the bloody December 2011 police crackdown on striking oil workers and protestors in which 14 people were killed and more than 70 detained.

Until recently, according to Seytkazy Mataev, the chair of the Kazakhstan Union of Journalists, the isolated town was off the broadcast map, not even reached by the national channels.

“People received all their information from a satellite channel, K-Plus, which is considered an opposition channel,” he said.

Now Zhanaozen, with just 25,000 households, will be one of the first communities to receive a digital TV package where government views dominate.

The 42-channel basic package includes all 20 national channels, government and private. The main battleground is over the 13 channel slots (almost one third of the package) allotted to regional stations of Kazakhstan-1.

Currently, most of these simply rebroadcast the national service and tack on one hour of local programming a day. “The quality is low, much weaker than the private TV stations,” Zhaksybaeva said. Kazteleradio says digital TV will allow the regional branches to broadcast 14 hours a day, but gives no indication of what will fill the airtime.

The losers are the commercial stations, most of which consistently beat Kazakhstan-1 for ratings and have strong advertiser support. In a November 2010 survey of about 500 viewers in four regional cities, commercial stations consistently rated higher than the local Kazakhstan-1 stations.

In Kostanay, 98 percent said they watched the Alau channel regularly, versus 24 percent for Kazakhstan-1; in Uralsk, it was 97 percent for TDK-42, 29 percent for the state-run broadcaster. The government stations fared better in Semey and Shymkent but still lagged behind their commercial rivals. Ninety-three percent said they wanted the commercial stations included in the basic package; 87 percent considered them an essential source of information on regional issues, and 60 percent rated their coverage as more objective than that of government channels.

If the current package is adopted, most commercial TV stations will effectively be off the air. Viewers in Shymkent, the third largest city in the country, will be able to watch Kazakhstan-1 local programming from all parts of the country – from Uralsk in the far northwest to Oskemen (Ust Kamenogorsk) in the far northeast – but not the popular local Otyrar TV. Viewers in the fourth-largest city of Karaganda will see the same line-up, but not Channel 5, which has built a solid reputation for critical reporting on local issues.


The popularity of commercial stations does not impress government decision-makers. At a July 2010 meeting with broadcasters, the then-Minister of Communications and Information Askar Zhumagaliev complained that commercial programming was “at the level of a roadside shashlik [kebab] stand.” “Who needs such stations?” he asked. A vice-minister suggested commercial stations “find their place on Internet or cable.”

“It was a big shock,” Zhaksybaeva said. “After that, we formed a working group including media NGOs, the Association of Cable Operators, and another broadcasters’ association to start campaigning.”

Zhaksybaeva and Mataev serve on the frequency allocation commission, created after the December 2011 passage of Kazakhstan’s broadcasting law. According to an analysis by the London-based media monitor ARTICLE 19, the law gives the government broad “command and control powers in the broadcasting field,” without judicial or independent oversight. It contains no provisions for fair and equal treatment of broadcasters, or protection for editorial independence. “Giving these powers to the government,” said the report, “opens the door to arbitrary political interference and political control.”

ARTICLE 19 recommended the commission be made accountable to the public, not to the government, through a multi-party body such as the legislature. Instead, it is under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Information. Most of its members represent government ministries and agencies. “The minister decides who gets a license and who doesn’t,” Zhaksybaeva said.

“Many stations bought licenses that cost $150,000 to $200,000,” Mataev said. “Now those licenses don’t matter. And the stations will not be reimbursed. It’s not fair.”

Kazteleradio chairman Kadraliev claims private stations with “good content” can apply to the commission to be included in the basic package, although no criteria are specified. Zhaksybaeva fears that even if stations such as Kostanay’s Alau and Uralsk’s TDK-42 make the cut, they will not last long. The government is planning to launch at least two more national channels in the next year and will demand slots.

“I’m sure the government representatives on the commission will vote to throw the regional channels out,” she said.

“The paradox,” Mataev said, “is that new channels emerge that no one knows about.” One example is 24KZ, recently launched by Nazarbaev.

“We don’t see it because it’s only on digital satellite TV,” he explains. “What is to be said of the regions, if I can’t watch it here in Almaty? When a new channel is launched, it should be watched. Otherwise, what’s the point of launching it?”

Regional commercial stations may survive, but only as part of a second-tier pay-cable package, struggling for audience and advertising revenue. Viewers, while saying they want to watch the commercial channels, have become accustomed to receiving “free” TV. In the 2010 survey, more than half the respondents said they were not ready to pay to watch regional and local channels.

Foreign networks, including popular channels such as Russia’s NTV, the BBC, and the Discovery Network, also face restrictions. Under the broadcast law, they must re-register by March 2013 and face an end-of-year deadline to pay a new fee for the right to submit applications. Cable operators pay the foreign networks for rebroadcast rights but will be forced to drop them if they are not re-registered or do not meet new restrictions on broadcast advertising content, including a ban on beer and tobacco commercials.

As with digital TV licensing, re-registration is not merely an administrative or technical process. The broadcasting law allows the government to ban any channel that contains “war, extremist, or terrorist propaganda,” violates state security, incites ethnic or religious hatred, or contains pornography. The restrictions, according to ARTICLE 19, are “very broadly defined and give room for indiscriminate refusals to register foreign channels. It is a question of time before such an unchecked power is abused to prevent criticism of government.”

Meanwhile, many Kazakhstanis are unaware of the upcoming digital switchover. “The viewers don’t know anything because no one tells them anything,” Mataev said.

Digital broadcasts have already begun in Almaty, but few people can watch them. Kazteleradio claims receivers are available in household appliance chain stores and through authorized dealers, but several major stores in Almaty do not have any in stock and do not even know when they will be available. When digital TV arrives, some viewers may find they have no TV at all.

David Mould is Emeritus Professor of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University (U.S.A.) and a freelance journalist. With additional reporting by Dinara Bekmagambetova, a journalism student at Kazakh National University. This article was originally post at tol.org



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