As well as the usual problems journalists get when they expose corruption or criticise President Nazarbayev, the media was the victim of power struggles inside the regime. Three opposition journalists died in suspicious circumstances and coverage of the August 2007 parliamentary elections was biased.
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Kazakhstan’s economic growth depends heavily on exports of oil and natural gas, which benefits only a small part of the population, so media exposure of corruption and embezzlement brings reprisals against journalists.
The independent twice-weekly paper Uralskaya Nedelya, which had been under pressure from the authorities since it ran a series about official corruption in July 2006, faced serious problems in January 2007 about where to print as the regime put great pressure on printers who had signed contracts with the paper. Many of them gave in and the paper did not appear several times. It was also ordered to pay 300,000 tenge (€1,600) in damages to a metallurgy firm it had accused of using public money for a private project. Before the paper could appeal, the money was deducted from the paper’s bank account, in open violation of the law that says damages are not to be paid until all legal procedures have been completed.
Also in January, a journalist from the news website kub.kz, Kazis Toguzbayev, was given a two-year prison sentence, along with probation, for posting an article accusing the regime of protecting the killers of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev, which the justice ministry found insulting to the dignity and honour of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The media a victim of the president’s family settling their scores
Power-struggles and score-settling in the president’s family had heavy consequences for the media in 2007. In May, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliev, the Kazakh ambassador to Austria and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), was dismissed and an international arrest put out for him. He was accused of running a gang and ordering the kidnapping of top officials and an employee of Nurbank, of which he is part-owner. He was arrested and freed on bail of more than €1 million. He said he was hounded from the moment he told Nazarbayev he wanted to stand in the next presidential election.
Aliev’s disgrace affected the media outlets he owns. The weekly Karavan (print and online versions) and the TV station KTK were ordered to shut down in May by a commercial court in Almaty. The two offices were closed by police and the editors were arrested a few days later. Access to the website of the news agency Kazakhstan Today, owned by Aliev’s media group Alma Media, was then blocked by the national telecommunications firm Kazakhtelekom.
Pressure quickly spread to media outlets that had reported on Aliev’s misfortunes. Three websites that carried articles about Rakhatgate were hounded before being blocked by Kazakhtelekom. Inkar,a web-based radio station that broadcast an interview with Aliev, was cut off for a few days in October, when several opposition papers, including Svoboda Slova, Respublika and Vsgliad, which had reported the case, were harassed by the authorities, with broken contracts with printers, tax inspections and searches by treasury police.
Three independent journalists - Saken Tauzhanov (of news websites zonakz.net, dialog.kz, and kub.kz), Yuri Halikov (TV station CTC), and Tolegen Kibatov (TV station Oytar) - died in suspicious road accidents in 2007. Regional press freedom organisations urged the authorities not to rule out murder. At least seven independent or opposition journalists have died in similar circumstances in recent years.
Salavat Bolgonbaev and Almaz Oralbaev were jailed for respectively 16 and 17 years on 30 April 2007 for the murder of French journalist Grégoire de Bourgues, found dead in his apartment in Almaty on 2 August 2006. A third suspect was still being sought. They allegedly killed him during a burglary that went wrong. De Bourges had been in the country for three months doing an advertising feature ordered by the Kazakh government from the firm SML Strategic Media.
Biased coverage of parliamentary elections
The 18 August 2007 parliamentary elections, overwhelmingly won by the president’s Nur-Otan party (which now holds all the seats), confirmed the authoritarian relations between the regime and the media.
Media coverage of the elections, which were criticised as undemocratic by the OSCE, was heavily influenced by the regime, with many examples of pressure, self-censorship, violations of the electoral law and biased articles praising the government and attacking the opposition. Reports about the president’s party on the state-run TV stations Kazakhstan 1 and TV Khabar were all positive and far more common than those about other parties.
On election day, Kazakhstan 1 showed a one-hour documentary glorifying Nazarbayev in violation of the electoral law banning any election day campaigning (article 27.2). The biggest opposition party, the ANDSP, was very poorly covered (just 3-4% of election coverage). Distributors of opposition newspapers reported massive purchases by strangers to prevent them reaching the general public. The state-run TV stations several times refused to show ANDSP campaign clips titled “It’s time to give the country back to the people.”
All this did not prevent Kazakhstan, which ranks 125th out of 169 countries in the Reporters Without Borders worldwide press freedom index, from being chosen to chair the OSCE in 2010.