On Press Freedom in Kazakhstan
Former Kazakh autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev may have left office, but he has cunningly left a legacy in the country which will keep him clear of media critiques – for now.
As long ago as 2005 (a mere 16 years into the then president’s tenure) the UN General Assembly reaffirmed democracy to be “a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.”
To Western ears, this is to an extent self-explanatory. Naturally, we’re thankful to the media for exposing presidential scandals, instigating social reform and generating political debate.
It is a far cry from Kazakhstan – an ambitious Central Asian country which claims to hold lofty ambitions to be a pioneering democracy and yet suppresses access to information.
Freedom House, the well-established think tank, continues to classify the country’s press freedom status as ‘not free.’ The law currently prohibits insulting the president, the president’s family, and other senior officials.
In December 2012 Nazarbayev set out Kazakhstan 2050 Vision. He mapped out an ambitious strategy to make the country one of the 30 most developed democracies in the globe.
It was a bold declaration – especially for a totalitarian Central Asian country – but nonetheless, eye-catching.
It is now 2019 and new laws continue to be introduced to tighten the government’s grip on power. Not only that, these laws will continue to protect the outgoing president’s immunity and will be relevant beyond after Nazarbayev’s resignation, as he still holds crucial positions of power, including as head of the country’s powerful Security Council.
Somewhat ironically, a key priority outlined in the country’s 2050 Vision was to ‘strengthen the statehood and development of Kazakhstan’s democracy.’ This appears, again – to many – a plausible and sensible aspiration (the vast majority of the thirty wealthiest countries are indeed democracies). The reality and the direction of travel, however, could not be more off point.
News websites continue to be blocked, journalists are detained, and the internet is closely controlled with mass surveillance. As a result, dissenting voices continue to be lost and silenced by the tightening grip of the media. As a consequence of the various laws aimed at cracking down on freedom of speech, the Open Dialogue Foundation lists 37 cases of politically motivated prosecutions in Kazakhstan.
The main opposition national newspapers were all banned in 2013. Those that remain are frequently fined, affecting their ability to operate effectively. New independent newspapers are inevitably shut down within months.
In 2014, a court issued a cease publication order to the small-circulation Assandi-Times newspaper, saying it was a part of the Respublika group. Human Rights Watch said at the time this displayed ‘the absurd the lengths to which Kazakh authorities are willing to go to bully critical media into silence.’
In another case, independent opposition journalist Zhanbolat Mamay was arrested and jailed for money-laundering charges, which were considered widely to be trumped-up charges. Unsurprisingly, national and international human rights groups have called for his release.
In May 2017, an Almaty court dismissed a complaint regarding alleged ill-treatment in his pre-trial detention. This is despite his reporting that he had been beaten by fellow detainees and further allegations (later confirmed by his lawyer and members of the National Prevention Mechanism against Torture). The outcome? The authorities are yet to carry out a thorough and impartial investigation into the allegations.
Yet more legislative changes which took effect in 2017 have aggravated this situation further by undermining the legal basis of investigative reporting and access to state-held information. For example, journalists are now required to obtain consent for the publication of private or commercial secrets without providing any clear definition of what information is considered to constitute such secrets.
It is not just confined to domestic media. In one of the worst cases, reports alleged that the Kazakh state-owned printing company, Dauir, refused to continue publishing the biweekly international newspaper Vremya Po as it was critical of the regime. Local sources within Kazakhstan confirmed that the motive for the refusal to print was due to the paper’s insistence on covering a corruption scandal in the country after it reprinted articles from Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal.
It is widely expected that Dariga Nazarbayeva, the outgoing president’s eldest daughter and currently chair of the Senate, will eventually succeed her father. One has to question her democratic legitimacy if she does take over. Any president who wants to adhere to the principles of a genuine democracy needs to be prepared to be held to account in a number of different ways. If Kazakhstan is to really reform, it must reverse its tireless persecution of the media. Without a free media, it will never be a democracy.