Kazakhstan's beleaguered Media Minister

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Mar 28 14:16:12 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 (www.iwpr.net)

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 himself. 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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