Grigory Mikhailov, a Regnum editor formerly based in Kyrgyzstan, attending a conference in 2016. (Photo: Facebook account, Sergey Kozlov)
Russia’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan has in a startling break from custom declined to come out in defense of a Russian reporter expelled from the country.
Unprecedented might be putting it too strongly, but for the Russian Foreign Ministry to willingly throw a reporter for a Kremlin-supporting news outlet under the bus is a notable development.
Andrei Krutko told news website Vesti.kg on March 13 that Grigory Mikhailov, a formerly Bishkek-based editor with Regnum website, had violated migration agreements between Russia and Kyrgyzstan.
“Also, we pulled up all our documents, and we have no record of Grigory Mikhailov ever being registered with us. It turns out that we had no legal record of his presence. For all five years in which I have been in Kyrgyzstan, Mikhailov never came to a single [embassy] event,” Krutko said. “It also turned out that he was not accredited with the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry or with the government.”
Krutko said Mikhailov’s situation was entirely analogous to that of the tens of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens deported from Russia for violating similar rules and that there was no evidence of any political motives in the case.
Any perceived mistreatment of Russian government-friendly journalists overseas — immaterial of the mitigating circumstances — typically provokes fiery protests from the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, but the response here has strayed from the regular script.
Regnum’s reaction to Krutko’s remarks has been indignant.
Spare a thought for Tajikistan’s state-employed journalists.
For the best part of a couple of years, it is independent reporters that have felt the pain amid an ever-intensifying wave of pressure from the authorities. Now, employees with state broadcasters and print media are feeling the pinch as the government cuts budgets.
The state budget for 2017 envisions a 20 percent cut in expenses for state media.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, earlier this week reported that while journalists can now expect to continue getting their salaries paid by the state, the expense of per-story fees have to be met by the outlet itself. Journalists in much of Central Asia typically are paid by volume of work done rather than being given a set monthly rate. As a rule of thumb, reporters in Tajikistan are believed to earn around half their monthly income on the basis of volume of work produced.
Ozodi said official state media was allocated around 100 million somoni ($12 million) in 2016. Of that total, seven-tenths went to TV and radio, with the remainder going to print outlets. Around 10 TV stations, seven radio stations, 110 print publications and the Khovar national news agency are funded with that money.
Media experts predict the drop in financing is likely to lead to an increase in the practice of forcing government employees to take out subscriptions of state-run newspapers and magazines. Also, EurasiaNet.org has learned that private companies are being pressured into placing adverts in state media, thereby providing another source of revenue.
There were times when things were better for state media workers. Back during the 2013 presidential elections, the authorities made the possibly strategic decision to keep staff onside by hiking salaries across the board.
The editor a prominent newspaper has received a suspended five-year jail term after confessing to charges of fraud.
The specialized inter-district criminal court in Astana on January 24 ruled to allow Bigeldi Gabdullin, the 61-year old chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website, to be released from custody and for a freeze of his assets to be lifted.
Gabdullin was detained in mid-November on what investigators said was the suspicion that he was using media under his control to intimidate officials into paying him money to avoid negative coverage.
While the journalist has escaped prison time, his criminal record means he will be denied the right to hold office in local government departments for a period of up to 10 years. He will also be denied the right to relocate from his current place of abode without prior permission from the authorities.
Several high-ranking officials gave testimony as injured parties during the trial. The Kazakhstan edition of Forbes magazine reported prosecutor claims that Gabdullin threaten to publish defamatory material about the head of Zhambyl region, Karim Korkebayev, the deputy mayor of Astana, Yermek Amanshayev and Energy Minister Kanat Bozumbayev among others unless they provided his publications with contracts under a system known at the state order. That system is used by the government to finance state media or place articles about state policies in nominally independent media.
Press freedom advocates had initially cast Gabdullin’s case as another instance of state pressure on the media.
The lawyer for a prominent journalist arrested last year on charges of fraud said on January 11 that his client had admitted his guilt and returned funds he is accused of earning through intimidation.
Bigeldi Gabdullin, the 61-year old chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website, was detained in mid-November on what authorities said was suspicion of using media under his control to intimidate officials into paying him money to avoid negative coverage.
The officials targeted in this scheme allegedly lobbied for Gabdullin to receive government contracts through a system of media subsidies known as the state order. The objects of the claimed blackmail operation later had positive articles about them appear in the media, investigators claimed at the time of Gabdullin’s arrest.
Gabdullin’s lawyer, Amanzhol Muhadmedyarov, said at a pre-trial court hearing on January 11 that his client was cooperating with the investigation and helping to clarify the circumstances of his alleged crime. The journalist has compensated the injured parties to tune of 20.6 million tenge ($62,000) and pleaded to be spared prosecution in exchange for repenting for his offense, Muhadmedyarov said.
One of the people allegedly targeted for extortion by Gabdullin spoke in court to confirm that he had received the compensation and said he wished to drop charges.
A number of websites long blocked in Uzbekistan have been made available for internet users in the past few days, just the latest development in an apparent wave of liberalization sweeping the country.
Among the outlets whose websites can now be viewed without use of proxy servers are the BBC, RFE/RL’s Uzbek service (Ozodlik), Moscow-based Ferghana.ru and EurasiaNet.org. Perhaps even more strikingly, blocks on the websites of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan opposition group have also been lifted.
Quite what prompted the authorities to adopt this measure is not yet known. And the permissiveness has not been universal.
The editor of opposition news website eltuz.com, Germany-based Umida Niyazova, said most of the formerly banned sites became available for viewing on December 29.
“But our site is still blocked. It will take a week or so before we can draw any conclusions [about what is happening],” Niyazova told EurasiaNet.org.
eltuz.com is a particularly popular resource for its regular output of topical and controversial news stories, much of which focus on the everyday problems of people in Uzbekistan. The website is also well-known for its coruscating caricatures of political figures.
Uzbek political analyst Rafael Sattarov was doubtful that the websites of independent media or opposition movement would remain unblocked for long in Uzbekistan.
“The websites for Ozodlik or the BBC have not always been blocked in Uzbekistan, and as far as the international organizations are concerned, what is most likely is that the special services have simply changed the jamming system,” Sattarov said.
Aimira Shaukentayeva appearing to react to a question from Russian interviewer Vladimir Posner.
A state-controlled TV channel in Kazakhstan has waded into a fresh scandal involving a famous Russian interviewer that has seemingly led to the departure of one of its best-known anchors.
Late last week, effete First Channel Eurasia newsreader Ruslan Smykov breathlessly told viewers that he had a startling announcement to make — his colleague Aimira Shaukentayeva had been interviewed on an illustrious Russian news show. As sensations go, it was a decidedly unimpressive intramural media affair, but state media in Central Asia unashamedly relishes in the attention of outsiders.
In the purported interview, Vladimir Posner, best remembered in the West for his involvement in a landmark series of televised discussions in the 1980s between audiences in the Soviet Union and the US, appears, courtesy of some editing trickery, to be flattered by the opportunity to finally meet Shaukentayeva.
This was the first clue something wasn't quite right. Shaukentayeva may be well known in Kazakhstan for her arch news-reading style, heavily accentuated pouting and near-Kabuki-level makeup, but she is a nonentity beyond the country’s borders. The brief trail of the interview set up by Smykov shows Posner and Shaukentayeva exchanging some generic niceties and little else.
The faked interview looks at worst like an oddly pointless prank perpetrated, like most of First Channel Eurasia’s news output, at the expense of the unwitting viewers and for the amusement of its creators. Sources at First Channel Eurasia confirmed to Today.kz that the interview was indeed a “joke” — not that this was made at all clear from the outset.
All the same, the forgery provoked howls of indignation.
Tajikistan’s hasty decision to revoke accreditation for six journalists working for RFE/RL’s local affiliate, Radio Ozodi, has sparked broad dismay, including from the US government.
The cancellation of the reporters’ accreditation followed publication on Radio Ozodi’s website of a story about one of President Emomali Rahmon’s daughters, Rukhshona Rahmonova, being nominated to a plum post in the Foreign Ministry.
In customary fashion, the Foreign Ministry called Radio Ozodi warning them to pull the article, but the broadcaster refused, precipitating the reprisal.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent described the Tajik government’s action as a “blatant attack on our ability to do our jobs as journalists.”
“This is an abuse of an administrative procedure for political purposes that we expect to be reversed without delay,” Kent said in a statement on the RFE/RL website
RFE/RL has said this is not the only recent instance of Tajik authorities trying to force content off its website. Earlier in November, the authorities demanded the broadcaster pull a news item about a statement posted on the US Embassy website warning of a possible imminent terrorist attack on the border with Afghanistan.
This pressure forms part of a systematic campaign of intimidation against Radio Ozodi.
“The Service’s website has been blocked since September, 2015, requiring users to employ alternative means to access it. Radio Ozodi journalists have been portrayed as being ‘unpatriotic’ and damaging the country’s image in official media, interrogated by security service agents, and proffered ‘friendly advice’ by authorities to avoid problems,” RFE/RL said.
“We have a great show tonight!” (Applause and cheers). “And our first guest tonight is Kazakhstan’s president and leader of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev!” (Wild applause and cheers).
No, this is not the opening to a recent edition of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but it is pretty much what was said over at his Kazakhstani imitators on Late Night in the Nurlan Koyanbayev Studio.
A trailer posted on the Koyanbayev show Facebook page on November 29 has offered a glimpse of what appears to be the latest wheeze by the Nazarbayev entourage to make the ageing authoritarian leader seem to more relatable and down-to-earth.
Such populist antics are, of course, old hat for television viewers in the West, who have become used to seeing their presidents and prime ministers pop up in popular shows for some light banter.
Even before he ascended to the US presidency, Barack Obama energetically courted the housewife vote by appearing on The Ellen Degeneres Show and performing a dance. Ever since taking office, Obama has routinely cropped up in comedic talk shows, drawing criticism from some quarters that he was demeaning the office of the president.
Politicians tend as a rule to keep away from comedy shows for fear of falling prey to mockery, but Obama has done the circuit in relatively certain knowledge he would likely face only gentle ribbing at most.
Starting from next year, international television stations wishing to broadcast in Kazakhstan will have to register a representative inside the country, under new rules announced this week by Information and Communications Minister Dauren Abayev.
The rules are being introduced to even the playing field for local broadcasters, who complain at having to compete with foreign rivals unbridled by domestic legislation.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have long been waging a rearguard battle against popular international television broadcasters available to local viewers through cable packages. In July, laws came into force requiring foreign television stations to black out their advertising output — a measure intended to protect local broadcasters’ ad revenue. That law had been adopted in October 2015 and was due to take effect the following January, but its implementation was delayed amid protests from cable operators, who complained they lacked the technical wherewithal to enforce the rule.
Foreign content dominates the airwaves in Kazakhstan. As Abayev has pointed out, cable companies currently air up to 150 channels each, of which around 70 percent are foreign. They are, however, necessarily exempt from multiple domestic restrictions, such as those requiring a certain amount of content to be in the Kazakh language and on what constitutes suitable advertising material. Many channels advertise goods and services not registered and licensed in Kazakhstan, and some of the advertisements, such as those for alcohol, are in outright breach of broadcasting regulations.
Kazakhstan’s anticorruption agency says it has detained the chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website on suspicion of fraud — another in a widening array of arrests of journalists in the country.
The National Anti-Corruption Bureau said in a press release on November 15 that Bigeldi Gabdullin was using media under his control to attack government officials by publishing articles about them. According to investigators, Gabdullin later sought money from the officials in exchange for desisting from negative reporting about them.
The officials targeted in this scheme allegedly lobbied for Gabdullin to receive government contracts through a system of media subsidies known as the state order. The objects of the claimed blackmail operation later had positive articles about them appear in the media, investigators claim.
Gabdullin is accused of targeting the government of Zhambyl region with this approach and pressuring it into paying him 10 million tenge ($29,000). Seven state bodies were blackmailed by Gabdullin in this way, anticorruption officials said.
Gabdullin is being held in a detention facility in the capital, Astana, pending investigations. Neither Gabdullin nor his representatives have commented on the accusations against him so far, but Radiotochka.kz has said it is continue to operate as normal.
This marks the second high-profile arrest of a journalist within the past year in connection to the state order — a contentious arrangement that media experts say undermine the development of a sound and independent media landscape. The system was established in 2010 and consolidated funding for government-friendly outfits. State media outlets get expenses covered through the system, while private sector peers are required to compete for allocations.