Kazakhstani media outlets are facing pressure from the government, as officials move to increase control over broadcasters, some of which played prominent roles in the factional mudslinging that followed opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev's murder. Among the clampdown targets is the media empire associated with President Nursultan Nazerbayev's daughter, Dariga.
Information and Culture Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbayev is leading the government campaign, frequently complaining that mass media outlets are abusing freedom of speech guarantees. In early May, for example, he threatened to revoke the broadcasting license of the KTK television channel. After Sarsenbayev's murder, "KTK has been exerting considerable pressure on the leadership of the country," Yertysbayev said in an interview published by the Epocha newspaper. [For background click here]. "Why should a private TV channel try to rule the country, to make personnel changes?"
"Everything that is broadcast on KTK is a blatant violation of the country's constitution, which says that citizens have the right to receive reliable information," Yertysbayev added.
A statement issued May 11 by the Congress of Kazakhstan's Journalists called for Yertysbayev's resignation. The group accused Yertysbayev of having an authoritarian style and of trying to restore censorship in television programming. Yertysbayev responded by accusing the congress of illegal activity. "I strongly recommend to journalists not to become pawns in a political game of my opponents," he was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency.
The first signs that the government would get tough with broadcast outlets came just weeks after Sarsenbayev's murder in February. [For background click here]. Yertysbayev announced in March that a new working group would prepare a report for Nazarbayev on media competitiveness, and within two months it would put forward proposals to modernize state broadcasting.
Three weeks later, the media overhaul began with the unceremonious sacking of Kazakhstan state television channel boss Galym Dosken. The move prompted a walk-out by journalists at the channel, which is 100-per-cent state owned. They were enraged by what they said was the minister's heavy handedness. Yertysbayev could not see what all the fuss was about. "A normal staff rotation has taken place," he told journalists on April 21. "In Kazakhstan only one person has guaranteed work up to December 2012 that is the country's president."
However, the staff was not convinced, and over 100 journalists handed in their resignations. The private KTK channel pointed to political rivalries as the key to the controversy, questioning whether Dosken's closeness to Imangali Tasmagambetov, the powerful mayor of Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty, was the real catalyst for his removal. "According to one theory, the reason for Galym Dosken's firing was his friendship with the mayor of Almaty. Minister Yertysbayev did not so much want to change the management as to get rid of a protégé of Imangali Tasmagambetov," KTK commented. Tasmagambetov a former prime minister - is an influential figure tipped as a potential presidential successor.
In a May 3 appearance in parliament, Yertysbayev, a close political associate of Nazarbayev's, claimed a shake up at the Kazakhstan channel was needed because its staff contained "members of a certain religious tendency with a most disputable link to Kazakh traditions and classic Sunni Islam, and still more with the policy of the state." Yertysbayev was referring to a nationalist religious group known as the "Sufis." Much of late has been made over this movement in the Kazakh press, which uses the term loosely to denote a religious group promoting Kazakh values and the use of the Kazakh language over Russian.
Reports that the "Sufi" movement was prevalent at the Kazakhstan channel have been in circulation for some time. Observers point to the predominance of Kazakh-language broadcasting over Russian as an indication that the channel pursues a nationalist agenda. However, channel officials say they are simply catering for a national audience, including the rural Kazakh-speaking areas that other channels do not reach. Yertysbayev insisted that religious extremism was a problem at the channel. "It is no secret to anyone that the company's former management permitted specific religious tendencies to exert an unreasonably strong influence on the state channel," he told the Vremya newspaper.
Such statements have prompted former staff at the channel to launch a lawsuit against Yertysbayev, claiming their right to freedom of worship has been infringed. They also plan to sue him for libel over comments made about their professional skills.
In late April, Yertysbayev turned his attention to the powerful Khabar media group, which was founded 10 years ago by Dariga Nazarbayeva. What Yertysbayev had in mind was total control, or as he put it in parliament on May 3; "one hundred-percent state control over the Khabar joint-stock company."
Yertysbayev invoked geopolitics to justify the move. "As a minister and as a citizen I am aware of information security matters for Kazakhstan, located between Russia, China and the Muslim world, and I think the state should dominate," the Kazakhstan Today news agency quoted him as saying.
Days after his announcement, a new chairman of the board was in place - Maulen Ashimbayev, the deputy head of the presidential administration. It was clear the minister meant business. The state currently owns 50 per cent plus one of the Khabar group's shares. Yertysbayev has pledged to use legal means to take over the remaining shares, owned by two legal entities whose identities have not been revealed.
Although Nazarbayeva resigned as chairwoman of the Khabar media group to stand for parliament in 2004, she stated in an interview with the Karavan newspaper this April that she still has links with it and it is this association that many see as the main motivation for the state takeover attempt. Accusations that Khabar, which controls a host of media outlets, has been monopolizing the media market go back several years. While serving as media minister in 2004, Sarsenbayev, the murdered opposition leader, was one of those leveling monopolization charges against Khabar, which ended up successfully suing him for libel.
In the polarized world of Kazakh media, political interest groups have been accused of using affiliated news outlets to achieve their own ends. Critics have also suggested that too many media outlets have become concentrated in the hands of the president's family. Earlier this year, for example, Nazarbayeva's 21-year-old son, Nurali, became head of the Shahar media group, which controls the youth-oriented Hit TV. The move prompted speculation that a media dynasty was in the making. Reports have linked Nazarbayeva's husband, Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliyev, to the Alma-Media group, whose holdings include Kazakhstan's most widely-read newspaper, Karavan, and the KTK channel.
While Nazarbayev had the full support of his daughter, the Khabar group's grip on the media may have been of no concern to the presidential administration. Now, however, times seem to be changing. Recent reports suggest that relations between Nazarbayev and his daughter have cooled since Sarsenbayev's killing, with observers suggesting that Dariga's perceived role in the media war that followed the murder may have incurred the wrath of her father.
Under pressure domestically and internationally following Sarsenbayev's killing, the government has woken up to the power of the media in shaping public opinion and the importance of who controls media outlets. Stamping the state's authority on the media has suddenly become a top priority.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.