- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

ASTANA, Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is due to assume leadership next year of an important international body set up to foster dialogue between East and West on topics including human rights. But its record on freedom of expression remains poor and there remain significant concerns about its upcoming stewardship of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Since Kazakhstan gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the unchallenged leader and former Soviet Politburo member, has controlled the media through censorship and oppressive media laws, quashing any effective opposition press.

Although the Kazakh government has offered pledges of reform, watchdog groups, such as the International Press Institute (IPI), regard these actions as largely cosmetic and part of a public relations campaign directed at the European Union and Washington.

A 2008 report by Reporters Without Borders ranks Kazakhstan 125th out of 173 countries in terms of press freedom.

The Kazakh leader has himself admitted shortcomings.

“In a poor society torn by social antagonisms, it is impossible to attain the model of a liberal and pluralistic press,” Mr. Nazarbayev told the Eurasian Media Forum in 2003.

Six years later, despite oil wealth and political stability, media liberalization appears stalled. Most privately owned media remains in the hands of major financial groups with links to relatives of the president and other members of the ruling elite.

The Kazakh government has consolidated its state-owned media holdings, establishing a media oligarchy with a prominent role for Dariga Nazarbayeva, 46, the president’s daughter.

She is the founder and chairwoman of the Khabar Broadcasting Agency, Kazakhstans largest TV company. It is the first satellite television channel and one of the major media networks in Central Asia. The company also owns radio stations, several newspapers and the news agency, Kazakhstan Today. The opera-singing media maven also serves as the leader of the Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan, an independent public association of Kazakh media organizations, and serves as chairwoman of the annual Eurasian Media Forum, based in Kazakhstan.

“There are only five independent media out of a so-called 3,000 represented in the country. The state control of the media ensures that no corruption information reaches the general public,” said Bulat Abilov, head of an opposition party called Azat or “Freedom.”

A successful businessman engaged in international trade, he underwrites several opposition newspapers, including Svoboda Slova, “Freedom of Speech.”

In a further attempt to crack down on freedom of expression, Kazakhstans Parliament has passed a law that classifies all Internet expression - including blogs, personal Web pages in social networks, comments and chat room messages - as mass media. The measure permits blocking any online resources perceived as violating Kazakh law without consulting a court.

“Although we are a regulator and oversee the technical administration, our office does not formally block sites; it is the responsibility of the Web site to observe the laws,” said Kuanyshbek Yesekeyev, chairman of the Information Technology and Communications Agency.

The government has already blocked access to a number of opposition Web sites.

Still, the country has reporters who regularly test the limits.

Gennady Benditsky has written scores of articles about corruption for a popular independent weekly Vremya, “Time.”

“This new Internet law does not impact me since I can still find all the necessary information on the Internet,” Mr. Benditsky said.

A few years ago, he was acquitted of criminal defamation charges after he accused the director of a government fund of embezzlement. However, Mr. Benditsky warns that “the state can easily use the law to shut down Vremya.” The weekly was established about a decade ago and has a circulation of 150,000.

Other reporters have not been so fortunate.

In recent years, Reporters Without Borders has requested an investigation into the death of Batyrkhan Darimbet, editor of opposition weekly, Azat.

Barbara Trionfi, an adviser on press freedom to IPI, told The Washington Times that “the IPI is seriously concerned about Kazakhstans ability to hold OSCEs chairmanship and therefore lead an organization comprised of countries that, in becoming members, have committed to ensure full respect for human rights and abide by the rule of law. Kazakhstans respect for freedom of expression and media freedom is far from fulfilling OSCEs proclaimed standards; its government has consistently failed to carry out reforms urged by the OSCE itself, such as the decriminalization of defamation and the abolishment of media licensing requirements.”

Kazakh Secretary of State Kanat Saudabayev responded, “We are not rejecting that criticism outright [but] we are moving … along the way of further democratization, of building a greater democracy here; and, we are all for a multiparty system.”

Despite intimidation and violence against reporters, young Kazakhs continue to study journalism.

“Weve had students from Kazakhstan,” said Maia Mikashavidze, dean of the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.

“This year, we will graduate four students. I have a very high opinion of their professional qualities. If and when they are given leading roles in their countrys media, they are capable of inspiring and steering colleagues to practice free, fair and fact-based journalism.”

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