Kazakhstan’s pre-election media war

Joanna Lillis
14 November 2005

The wave of revolutions across post-Soviet states in 2003-05 – from Georgia through Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan – has understandably made many leaders in the region nervous. It has also given rulers like Kazakhstan’s president since 1991, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ideas about how to avert a similar calamity in his vast central-Asian fiefdom. As Kazakhstan faces presidential elections on 4 December, the Astana authorities are making strenuous efforts to avoid the fate of Eduard Shevardnadze, Leonid Kuchma and Askar Akayev.

The most recent pre-election incident is also the most worrying: the murder on 12 November in the old capital Almaty of former minister for emergencies turned political dissident (and advocate of the group For a Fair Kazakhstan), Zamanbek Nurkadilov. If it is not yet clear whether the killing has a political dimension, it adds to the sense of unease already generated by the Kazakh regime’s strenuous efforts to prevent the election becoming an opportunity for real change in the country.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of central Asia:

Nathan Hamm, “Andijan and after: what future for Uzbekistan?” (May 2005)

Deniz Kandiyoti, “Andijan: prelude to a massacre” (May 2005)

David Coombes, “A different kind of revolution in Kyrgyzstan” (June 2005)

Anora Mahmudova, “Uzbekistan’s window of opportunity” (July 2005)

Hamish Nixson, “Afghanistan’s election world” (September 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The media battlefield

Kazakhstan, the largest of the central Asian states impelled into independence by the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, is an authoritarian state tempered by a degree of openness and diversity: opposition newspapers, and the existence of a Russian minority numbering around 5 million (in a population of 15 million), creates space for dialogue and criticism absent in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

But as the elections approach the Kazakh government’s political hegemony has to be won rather than taken for granted, and it is taking no chances (even to the extent of responding to “insults” from foreign comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen). The main TV channels have been hammering the message that revolution in other post-Soviet states means social chaos and economic collapse. The clips are accompanied by a slogan cleverly attuned to both Kazakh and Russian audiences: “This does not suit us” for Kazakh-speakers, and “We are superior to this” for Russian-speakers.

This is only one skirmish in a wider media war against the threat of a Georgia (rose), Ukraine (orange) or Kyrgyz (yellow) “colour revolution”. Every evening the message is insistently conveyed: the state-owned Khabar TV devoted most of one weekly news programme to the topic, and its Zheti Kun documentary programme spent almost an hour “revealing” the fruits of revolution in the three countries to be poverty, crime and political instability.

The potency of the message is that it draws on elements of a post-revolution reality that western governments and media – as Anatol Lieven has recently pointed out in the International Herald Tribune – routinely ignore (see “Where have all the revolutions gone?”, 28 October 2005). There is little doubt too that it finds a welcome reception among many Kazakh citizens. The problem is that it is unrelentingly one-sided and refuses to offer the viewers the objective information that could allow them to form their own conclusions.

A space of freedom

At the same time, Kazakhstan does offer more scope for expressing opposition views than its Uzbek, Turkmen and Tajik neighbours to the south. The print media presents a diverse range of views including many critical of the government. Yet this freedom is qualified by periodic legal manoeuvres to censor, halt distribution or even close the opposition press. One publisher’s refusal in September to print six opposition-minded newspapers – though any political motive was vigorously denied – was only halted after journalists went on hunger strike and an alternative publisher was found.

Gulzhan Yergaliyeva, editor of Svoboda Slova, told the OSCE central Asian media conference in Almaty on 13 October that the six newspapers concerned had been harassed for several months: their distribution stopped by traffic police, held up at railway stations, and – if they managed to reach the point of sale – having their vendors intimidated by state security officials and “persuaded” not to offer them to customers.

The harassment continues. An edition of Svoboda Slova, in which it reported the business interests of one of the president’s daughters, Aliya, was seized, and a court ruled that the Juma Times’s 3 November edition had insulted the honour and dignity of the president – an offence in Kazakh law. This was the second time that editions of these newspapers had been confiscated since the beginning of October. Meanwhile, Soz reported on 11 November that 25,000 copies of the Epokha and Nagyz Ak Zhol newspapers had mysteriously “disappeared” from a train taking them to the west of the country. The newspaper reported that railway staff had said the newspapers had been “thrown out of the carriage, and part of the consignment had been … burnt”.

Kazakhs’ cyber-resistance

The amorphous nature of the internet makes it more difficult for the authorities to control – a lifeline for brave citizens in the more repressive central-Asian states, but valuable too for opposition and independent-minded Kazakh journalists. But the very freedoms of the net make the Kazakh government determined to employ ever more sophisticated methods to limit its power and reach. At the same OSCE media forum, Yuriy Mizinov of the well-known Kazakh opposition site Navigator, detailed some of these: blocking sites, slowing access to them, hacking them and manipulating domain names.

The latest state tool, said Mizinov, is patents. A recent case was launched charging Navigator with stealing the name it has been using for several years. The site countered by moving to a new address outside the .kz domain, but Mizinov has since been forced by the courts to give up the Navi / Navigator element of its domain name altogether (in Cyrillic or Latin alike) and has been obliged to move yet again. Yuriy Mizinov predicts that moves outside the .kz domain will become more frequent as the authorities seek to enforce tight control over it.

The deputy media minister Ardak Doszhan told the OSCE conference that no such methods were to his knowledge employed by the authorities.

The colours of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s constitution, media law and electoral legislation formally set out equal access to the media for election candidates. But in practice, opposition candidates’ access to the broadcast media is proving to be extremely limited. In recent days, the controversial CIS Election Monitoring Organisation (CIS-EMO) has expressed concern about TV reporting of the election; its observer Stepan Novoselchan was quoted in Soz as telling a news conference on 11 November: “I am extremely surprised at the position adopted by TV channels, which are giving the majority of their airtime to one candidate – Nursultan Nazarbayev.”

The death of Zamanbek Nurkadilov and the restrictions on Kazakh media indicate that Kazakh citizens face major challenges as the presidential election approaches. Nursultan Nazarbayev may care about his image in the eyes of the world, but current evidence suggests that he and the government he leads care more about keeping hold of power than seeing Kazakhstan move towards genuine democracy.

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