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Kazakhstan17 August 2007

Press freedom violations mar bid to hold democratic elections

Kazakhstan is supposed to stage model legislative elections tomorrow as it aspires to hold the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s rotating presidency in 2009 with the support of most European countries. But no election held in this central Asian republic since independence in 1991 has been considered free and fair, and this campaign has been marked by interference in both state and privately-owned media.

The elections are being held more than two years ahead of schedule under a constitutional reform that is supposed to favour democratisation and, in particular, more opposition representation in the lower chamber (Majilis), in which the opposition currently has only one seat. So they are seen as holding out hope of an evolution in the regime headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“Despite statements of support for democracy, there have been many press freedom violations,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The readiness of the European governments to overlook all the shortcomings in the richest of the central Asian republics is culpable.”

Culture and information minister Ermukhamet Ertysbayev told the OSCE permanent council in Vienna on 26 July that plans were under way to liberalise the media and that these would include an end to the requirement for electronic media to register, an end to the requirement for journalists to identify their sources during trials, and the decriminalization of defamation.

Nonetheless, the authorities often abuse the laws governing media activity and opposition access to the media is limited. The Social Democratic Party (OSDP), one of the two opposition parties taking part in the elections, complained of a “media blockade” on 24 July after four TV stations refused to broadcast its election campaign spots.

The excuse cited by the TV stations was the fact the people appearing in the spots had not given written permission for the broadcasting of their images. Even after the videos were edited so that the faces were blurred, the OSDP still failed to get them broadcast. They illustrated the disparities in living standards in Kazakhstan and ended with the slogan, “One country, two destinies.”

A televised debate between leaders of the OSDP and the ruling Nur Otan party on Channel 31 on 9 August was heavily edited, eliminating the OSDP’s harshest criticism of the political system and the details it gave of its programme. Channel 31 director Armanjan Baytassov, who moderated the debate, called the editing “tendentious.” At the behest of information minister Ermukhamet Ertysbayev, the version of the debate that was broadcast ended with statements of support for the ruling party.

After making space available to the opposition, the newspapers Svoboda Slova and Tasjargan reported receiving complaints from their provincial distributors that copies were seized by plain-clothes men identifying themselves as members of the state security services. The same distributors are regularly threatened by officials with withdrawal of their licences.

In-fighting within the president’s entourage has also had negative consequences for some media such as the weekly Karavan, owned by the president’s former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev. Fired from his post as ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna in May 2007, he is under investigation for the kidnapping of bank executives.

As a result, Karavan cannot be printed, it has received an eviction order, and its editor, Alexandre Soukhov, has not been able to go to own his office. A new weekly also called Karavan was launched at the end of July in violation of the law banning the registration of two publications under the same name. Nonetheless, the creation of the new Karavan, which is identical to the previous one but is pro-Nazarbayev, was endorsed by the information ministry

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