Reports of widespread media bias are raisings doubts about the fairness of Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections on September 19. Despite regulations meant to ensure equal media access, television coverage continues to heavily favor pro-presidential parties, while opposition candidates struggle to gain access to the airwaves.
Media monitoring conducted by the non-governmental organization Elections and Democracy illustrates the case for concern. The report shows pro-presidential parties have increasingly dominated television news coverage of the campaign.
Within the first few weeks after the campaign season's official August 30 kick-off, for instance, Otan (Fatherland), the party endorsed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, was the subject of roughly 22 percent to 30 percent of all television news campaign reports, while Asar (All Together), the party headed by Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga, received 15 percent to 24 percent of the coverage. By contrast, the centrist party Ak Zhol (Bright Path) received between 11 percent and 18 percent and the main opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) less than 8 percent. One notable exception to this trend: the commercial station Channel 31, which provided the roughly balanced coverage of the parliamentary race, according to Elections and Democracy.
Unequal television coverage of political parties is nothing new for Kazakhstan. In the 1999 parliamentary elections, nearly 60 percent of all campaign stories were dedicated to Otan.
A new election law passed this spring was supposed to prevent a repetition of that scenario with a requirement that the media provide equal coverage of all parties during the official campaign season. But the final regulations, critics contend, were released late in the campaign process and thus could not be effectively enforced.
Several factors drive Kazakhstan's lopsided media coverage. First, the national media is a "party press," in which almost every media outlet has a party affiliation. DCK and Ak Zhol do not control TV stations and, therefore, are at a disadvantage in terms of television coverage. The TV market is almost fully monopolized by Otan and Asar, the country's two largest political parties. For instance, Khabar, run by Dariga Nazarbayeva, and KTK overwhelmingly favored Nazarbayeva's Asar party, giving its candidates more than half of their coverage time of political parties. The two stations' coverage of Ak Zhol, a sometime partner for presidential initiatives in parliament, was generally negative.
In July, Dariga Nazarbayeva temporarily stepped down from the management of Khabar to focus her energies on Asar's campaign, but some opposition members say her influence over programming remains considerable. On September 8, a 40-person protest staged by the DCK-Communist Party bloc occurred in front of Khabar's headquarters to demand equal candidate access to the state-funded station. In late August, DCK candidate Marzhan Aspandiyarova filed a lawsuit against Khabar and Nazarbayeva for similar complaints.
At the same time, many well-known broadcast journalists are also running for office. The election law requires these journalists to refrain from covering any election in which they are candidates, but television stations have nonetheless continued to feature them in their reports on candidates running for office. Critics contend that this serves as an indirect form of party endorsement. For example, two prominent Asar candidates, Artur Platonov and Oksana Vassilenko, both former KTK journalists, are still included in the station's news broadcasts, only now as "candidates."
Political parties also control Kazakhstan's newspapers, and more prominent parties are often affiliated with several, but the government's presence there is less concentrated. As a July 23 National Democratic Institute report stated, "The printed press is diverse, but has a limited circulation, which places a greater burden on broadcast media."
One of the few areas in television coverage where all ten of Kazakhstan's parties have received equal access has been televised debates. Though the OSCE has criticized the debates' 50-minute format as "restrictive," the exchanges have been accessible to all parties and broadcast on state-run TV. After pressure from non-governmental organizations, political parties and various international bodies, three additional debates have been broadcast on Kazakhstan 1 and Khabar TV.
In-fighting between Otan and Asar has occasionally complicated coverage plans for television stations that support the Nazarbayev administration. Whereas in 1999, all media outlets were pro-Otan, the appearance of Asar has split coverage, with Nazarbayeva's party proving an active competitor for airtime with Otan. The result has been television coverage of only those parties with which a station is affiliated.
In Almaty, for instance, on September 6 the cable network Alma-TV stopped broadcasting the Yuzhnaya Stolitsa station. Supposedly, "technical reasons" prompted the cancellation. However, Alma-TV is affiliated with Dariga Nazarbayeva's media holding group Alma-Media, while Yuzhnaya Stolitsa tends to favor Otan.
In general, pro-presidential parties are much better financed than their competitors - a situation that allows these parties greater access to advertising. Though election advertising may seem cheap by US standards, in a country with an estimated per capita income of $1,914, television spots require deep pockets. A one-minute ad on Khabar, a national broadcaster, costs $2,000, while the Astana TV station ASTV charges about $2,200 for a two-minute ad. The bill run up by an aggressive ad campaign can mount quickly: the DCK leadership has already accused Asar of spending about $10 million on its parliamentary campaign, well in excess of campaign spending limits.
As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the attention allotted to well-financed, well-connected parties also stems in part from journalists' own lack of income. Reporters routinely write paid articles ordered by candidates to strengthen their position or discredit their opponents. Such articles are not labeled as advertising. In the words of one local media observer, election season in Kazakhstan is when journalists can "really profit from their jobs."
In addition, there have been reports of local officials meddling in media coverage. In the Northern Kazakhstan oblast, for example, the Department of Internal Politics sent a letter requiring newspapers to publicize an Otan write-in campaign. According to the free speech watchdog Adil Soz, the letter described the required format and layout of the desired features and instructed journalists to write about the "functioning of the party as a highly respected organization."
Olivia Allison is a researcher on a fellowship, currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. She is studying media developments in Central Asia.