Kazakstan: Media Minister beleaguered; media language an issue

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Mar 21 13:28:20 UTC 2007

Kazakstans Beleaguered Media Minister

Journalists turn the tables on a minister they say is behind repressive
broadcasting and press laws.

By Gaziza Baituova in Taraz (RCA No. 487, 20-Mar-07)

A feud between the Kazak media and a government official they accuse of
restricting their liberty has led to the minister in question, Yermukhamet
Yertysbaev, apologising live on television. It is unusual for a cabinet
minister in Kazakstan to come off worst in an encounter with journalists
and non-government groups. It is usually the other way round - the
government has often come under fire from international watchdogs for
curbing media freedom. However, the lines are less clear-cut in this
latest dispute, The culture and information minister whose portfolio
includes wide-ranging controls over the press and broadcasters - had been
under mounting pressure from media associations in Kazakstan, culminating
in a letter they sent to President Nursultan Nazarbaev on March 13 seeking
Yertysbaevs resignation. The letter was signed by the free-speech group
Adil Soz, the Union of Journalists and the National Association of
Television and Radio Broadcasters.

The move came a week after media groups wrote to Yertysbaev himself asking
him to step down. The immediate cause of the dispute was an incident in
which Yertysbaev apparently stopped Yulia Isakova, a reporter with Era-TV,
from attending a government meeting on March 2. Five days later, Isakova
sued the minister on the grounds that her rights as a journalist had been
violated. She is asking for symbolic damages of one tenge. Money is
immaterial - what is important is that my professional honour was
slighted, she said.

Sholpan Jaksybaeva, executive director of the National Association of
Broadcasters, says the ministers treatment of the Era-TV journalist is a
slap in the face for the entire journalist profession. She continued, The
fact that Yertysbaev behaved like this in front of the cameras looks like
a public act of intimidation. Perhaps the minister was hinting to all
media if you criticise me, this will happen to you too! Yertysbaev denied
that he stopped Isakova coming to the meeting, saying he had merely
refused her an interview because Era-TV had lodged a formal complaint
against him.

This is just another campaign against me, Yertysbaev told the Liter
newspaper. Our ministry gave access [to the government meeting] to
everyone who wanted it, and at least ten 10 TV channels were present,
including journalists from Era-TV. However, this argument seems merely the
tip of the iceberg of a much broader conflict between the media and their
minister, in which all sorts of grievances are being aired. Era-TVs
official complaint against the minister centres on the distribution of a
new set of broadcast frequencies for provincially-based media in January,
which was decided at a meeting of a special government commission on
broadcasting rights, chaired by Yertysbaev.

As a result, Era-TV lost its old frequency because it failed to fulfill a
statutory requirement governing the proportion of programmes that should
be in Kazak rather than Russian. The frequency it got instead does not
reach as many viewers. In late January, the heads of Era-TV and Channel
31, another station which lost out, wrote to President Nazarbaevs office
alleging that the commission had broken or altered a number of its own
rules and displayed bias in its final choices. Yertysbaev disputed the
allegation, saying the meeting was perfectly in order.

We committed no violations.We discussed each application thoroughly. From
the start, a consistent decision was made not to give preference to
television channels which disregarded the [official] language policy in
their broadcasting, he told the Respublika newspaper. Apart from the
frequency issue, journalists in Kazakstan have other bones to pick with
Yertysbaev. The minister contributed many of the controversial clauses to
a media law passed by parliament in July 2006 which caused an outcry among
journalists, media managers, and free speech organisations. The amendments
they felt were retrograde include large fees to register a new media
outlet, mandatory re-registration if the organisation makes minor changes
to its business, and a ban on editors setting up new publications or
broadcast channels if their last one was shut down by the courts.

Yertysbaev has taken a tough stance on the media since he was appointed in
December 2005. He is seen as a loyal supporter of President Nazarbaev, and
many would argue that in pushing through the media law he was simply
pursuing his bosss wishes. This case gives us an indication of the
prevailing culture of this regime, said independent journalist Sergei
Duvanov. As Yertysbaev became the focus of the medias anger, the question
arose as to whether colleagues will stick by him and face down their
critics, or leave him to his fate.

As Duvanov noted, this is one of the first disputes of its kind to be so
widely known about.It has already drawn a wide public response, and is a
very serious matter, he said. Nikolai Kuzmin, political editor of the
Expert-Kazakstan journal, says this dispute is not really between the
government and the media, and is more about personalities. In this case,
the journalists are not unhappy with the ministers policies, they are fed
up with the minister himself. The conflict shows no signs of being a war
between the media-community and the state authorities, he said. In a first
sign that Yertysbaev would be left to face the music, Prime Minister Karim
Masimov used a March 11 cabinet meeting to tell the minister to explain

I began to receive enquiries yesterday and today from various media
outlets about relations between you and them, he told Yertysbaev. I want
to investigate this issue and make my own assessment, said Masimov. Im
instructing you to draft a memorandum to me in the next two days,
providing explanations to all the questions that I am being asked. Then,
on March 15, Masimov was appearing in a live phone-in on TV when a viewer
asked about the incident involving Yertysbaev and Era-TVs Isakova.
Instead of deflecting the question, Masimov rang up the minister and
suggested he apologise to the reporter. On the other end of the line,
Yertysbaev replied that he felt he had done nothing wrong as a minister,
but that he apologised to Isakova and all other journalists in a personal
capacity for anything he might have done.

Speaking before the phone-in took place, Dosym Satpaev, the director of
the Kazakstan-based Risk Assessment Group, predicted that President
Nazarbaev will follow the line taken by his prime minister when the matter
comes to him for review. On this matter, the head of state will be guided
not by statements from journalistic NGOs, but by how this information is
presented by Prime Minister Masimov, said Satpaev.

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Taraz. Staff at IWPRs news
agency project NBCentralAsia contributed additional reporting.



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