According to Freedom House, the press and the internet in Kazakhstan are “not free”. In the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2016, Kazakhstan ranked 160th out of 180 countries. RSF (2016b) explains the restrictive regulatory environment by “paranoia and desire for control” of the “Leader of the Nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev who was elected the first president of Kazakhstan since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and re-elected in 2015 with almost 98 per cent of the vote securing a fifth term in office. The Kazakhstan’s politics is dominated by a small group of political elites led by the Nazarbayev family. Government corruption and the president’s family are taboo subjects in the press and social media (Freedom House, 2016a, 2016c).
As in Russia and Belarus, Kazakhstani media landscape is dominated by the government and its allies and lacks of independent sources offering diverse viewpoints. Media licensing and regulation are overseen by government ministries and committees such as the Committee under the Ministry of Culture, Information and Sport and the Committee for Communication, Informatization and Information under the Ministry of Investment and Development (Freedom House, 2016b; OSCE 2015: 15). It is accordingly not surprising that state-owned media and government-friendly private media outlets promote government’s point of view. According to Freedom House (2016b), before the presidential election held in 2015, private media even “received official ‘recommendations’ for preelection coverage that were designed to bolster public confidence in the incumbent leadership”. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE, 2015: 2) noted that, due to the lack of comprehensive analytical campaign coverage and critical public debate, the voters could not make a well-informed choice. Election observers also reported that the coverage of the campaign was imbalanced, clearly favouring the incumbent president: the coverage of Nazarbayev in TV was approximately twice as much as of other candidates, and it was overwhelming positive, featuring support from citizens (ibid.: 16-17).
Article 20 of the Kazakhstani constitution guarantees “the freedom of speech and creative activities” and prohibits censorship. However, these rights are severely restricted in practice, and privately owned and oppositional media face censorship and are steady repressed by the government (Freedom House, 2016b; RSF, 2016b). “It is difficult to consider the Kazakhstan legislation on mass media to be liberal, it is more likely a kind of stopper for journalists. There are a lot of norms which forbid and very little which grant rights”, said one of the participants of the survey conducted by the International Centre of Journalism MediaNet (2013: 76).
In 2015, a freedom of information law was passed. Although the new law has shortcomings, Dunja Mijatovi, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the OSCE, praised it as a “major step toward greater transparency and accountability of public bodies” (Freedominfo, 2015). She also said that a number of commendable provisions in the law align Kazakhstan’s legislative framework with international standards, while some of them remain “vague and restricted in scope, which could weaken the law’s overall effect” (ibid.). How well the legislation is implemented in practice, remained unclear at the beginning of 2017, but the NGO International Foundation for protection of speech Adil Soz (2017) noticed 167 cases of refusals and restrictions of providing of information of public interest to the journalists in 2016 (200 in 2015).
Defamation is a criminal offense, whereby “truth is not a defence in defamation cases” (Freedom House, 2016b). The law against the spreading of false information (Article 274 of the Criminal Code) is misused to detain and prosecute critical journalists. In 2015, at least 18 people – among them journalists of the independent online portal Nakanune.kz – faced arrests, imprisonments and heavy fines. Watchdogs widely criticized this legislation and demanded the Kazakh government to “cancel the provisions of the law regarding ‘defamation’ and ‘spreading false information’, close criminal cases against the journalists immediately and cease their obstruction of the work of independent media outlets” (Savchenko, 2015). OSCE (2015: 15) also characterized the special protection of the president, his family and various public officials by the Criminal Code as “contrary to international standards”.
As in Russia, online media, including blogs and web forums, are regulated as regular mass media by the Law on Communications. Thus, websites and communication networks can be closed or temporarily shut down by prosecutor general without a court order based on vaguely worded criteria such as harm to individuals, society or the state or incitement to “extremist” activities. Foreign journalists also face difficulties by accreditation due to vaguely worded rules and restrictions (Freedom House, 2016b; OSCE, 2015: 15). As OSCE (2015: 15) concluded, “numerous sanctions, including closure of media and blocking of access to websites, has resulted in limited editorial independence and a media environment where political pluralism is virtually absent”. Journalists who participated at the MediaNet survey (2013: 76) criticized the Kazakhstani media legislation for “uncertainty and inflexibility”: “There are too many prohibitions and limiting things which do not allow journalism to move to a high level”.
According to OSCE (2015: 15), there are more than 2.500 media outlets registered in Kazakhstan, including around 250 TV and radio stations and more than 1.000 newspaper titles (BBC, 2013). However, the real circulation numbers are difficult to obtain, because they are not required to be available for the public. Most of the outlets are privately owned, but, as mentioned above, the leading media are partly or wholly owned by the state or powerful authorities. Members of the president’s family and their associates often control publishing houses and own broadcast outlets (Freedom House, 2016a). For example, Khabar Agency, a major media outlet in Kazakhstan, was founded and controlled by the daughter of Nazarbayev and partly owned by her husband, but its ownership has not been completely clear at all times.
TV is the most popular news source in Kazakhstan and “the most tightly controlled” (Freedom House, 2016b). The state’s official TV channel is Kazakhstan-1. The other influential channels are Khabar and Yel Arna. The most important private TV channels are Astana, Eurasia and Channel 31. The largest state-run broadcasting network is Kazakh Radio. There is also a number of private Kazakh- and Russian-language radio stations, and all of them are broadly supportive of the government.
The leading state-owned newspapers are the government-backed Kazakhstanskaya Pravda published in Russian with a weekly circulation of approximately 500.000 copies and the government-owned Egemen Kasachstan published in Kazakh with a weekly circulation of approximately 650.000 copies. Both provide only positive coverage to the government’s policies and actions. Further influential private newspapers which are supportive to the political and business elite are the Russian-language Wremja (approx. 380.000 copies) and Liter (approx. 160.500 copies) as well as the Kazakh-language Aikyn (approx. 202.600 copies) (Federal Foreign Office, 2016). As mentioned above, these circulation rates are not necessarily valid. “State-owned publications tend to bump up these numbers to create a [false] impression of their prominence and popularity. In reality, though, these numbers are achieved through the mandatory/enforced subscription, and their circulation is small”, said Diana Okremova, an expert from the Astana-based NGO Legal Media Center (Emrich et al., 2013: 25). Many newspapers, TV channels and radio stations develop their online presence, establish websites, use social networks and provide live-streaming, though the depth and quality of the content vary from outlet to outlet” (ibid.: 41).
As Diana Okremova said, there are no truly independent national print publications in Kazakhstan anymore (Emrich et al., 2013: 25). Respublika was the main oppositional newspaper which reported on government corruption and was a mouthpiece of a sworn enemy of Nazarbayev – Mukhtar Ablyazov. The editorial office of Respublika was raided and searched, publication was suspended and the newspaper was ordered to closure in 2012. “Officially, the closure of Respublika along with seven sister titles and 23 news websites, plus another opposition newspaper and a satellite TV station, is for ‘propagating extremism’, inciting unrest and urging the overthrow of the government”, wrote Stewart (2012) on Daily Mail. The media watchdog RSF (2012) said that “the pretext of combatting extremism” is used by the government to “launch an unprecedented offensive against its critics”. As a result, so RSF, “pluralism would quite simply cease to exist” in Kazakhstan. Therefore, dozens of leading opposition media outlets, including all influential independent newspapers, were banned for “extremism” and closed down in December 2012. Over the next years further media which carried critical content were banned, and all new oppositional newspapers are inevitably closed within a few months. Opposition-leaning outlets Pravdivaya Gazeta, Assandi Times and ADAM bol remained closed at the beginning of 2017.
Due to the growing economic uncertainly and small advertising market, many media largely depend on state financing (OSCE, 2015: 15). According to Freedom House (2016b), the government has a control over all of the country’s printing presses, and even private print media are forced to rely on state subsidies. In some parts of Kazakhstan still persists the Soviet-era practice of “compulsory subscriptions to state-run newspapers”: public offices and schools are required to subscribe to certain publications. Due to the financial crisis, the state became the largest advertiser and influences the media market through the practice of “goszakaz”, the state procurement of media services (comparable with “state informational contracts” in Russia). So, “generous contracts are awarded in exchange for a pro-government editorial line” (Emrich et al., 2013: 7).
Rebroadcasts of foreign-produced programming are limited to 20 per cent of a total airtime by law. This legislation burdens small stations which are not able to develop their own programs (Freedom House, 2016b). The law also restricts the foreign ownership of Kazakh outlets to 20 per cent. Despite the restrictions in rebroadcasting, Russian media, mainly Russian TV channels, enjoy high popularity and can be received via cable or satellite (BBC, 2013; Freedom House, 2016b; OSCE, 2015: 15). Popular independent online sources based abroad, such as the global video-sharing website Vimeo or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Kazakhstan, were temporarily blocked in 2015.
Media access and consumption
According to the Ministry of National Economy (2016: 5), in 2015, almost every Kazakhstani household (99.3 per cent), both in urban and rural areas, owned a television set and used it through terrestrial broadcast, satellite and cable reception. In 2015, during a normal day, 83 per cent of Kazakhs watched TV, 45 per cent used online media, 38 per cent listened to the radio, and only 12 per cent of the population read newspapers and magazines (TNS Central Asia, 2015). According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (2016), in 2015, 71 per cent of the population used the internet. The internet penetration continues to increase and the affordability and speed of the internet access are being improved. A majority stake in the largest service provider Kazakhtelecom is held by the government (Freedom House, 2016b, 2016c).
As mentioned above, among Kazakhs, television serves as the main source of political information. It has been and remains the dominant platform for news consumption, while radio is primarily focused on entertainment (Emrich et al., 2013: 6, 29; OSCE, 2015: 15, 23). Data provided by MediaNet confirmed this: the majority (35 per cent) of Kazakhstani citizens get information from TV, nearly one quarter (24.4 per cent) primarily use the internet and only 3.7 per cent prefer newspapers and magazines. 36.9 per cent of the population combine two or three sources, mostly TV and the internet (Tengrinews, 2012). Television is also the most trusted media among Kazakhs: according to a MediaNet survey, in 2012, 44.7 per cent of Kazakhs trusted information they receive from TV. The level of trust to other information sources was much lower: internet-based sources – 17.4 per cent, newspapers – 14.5 per cent, radio – 4.7 per cent and magazines – 1.8 per cent (ibid.). A respondent of the MediaNet survey (2013: 71) said that readers and viewers understand who lobbies whose interests and, therefore, the trust to the mass media “has been shaken”.
As in Ukraine and Belarus, language of broadcasts and publications is an important issue. Kazakhstani media exist in “parallel worlds”: they are not just reporting in both languages – Russian and Kazakh – but are also mainly reporting on different issues, discussing different problems and reflecting different concerns at different professional levels (MediaNet, 2013: 63). Although Kazakh is nowadays more prominent in all public spheres, “Russian still appears to be the language of preference for most media consumption” (Emrich et al., 2013: 24).
One of the main problems in the Kazakhstani media field is a “staff deficit and unprofessionalism of journalists” (MediaNet, 2013: 75). MediaNet survey participants named the principal reasons behind this increasing problem: “the low educational level, limitation of the professional activity of journalists [...] by information work and shortage of professional development programs for reporters and editors” (ibid.). The experts also said that “in higher educational institutions students receive insufficient knowledge of the modern journalism requirements and realities, and the graduates of education institutions are actually re-educated when start to work in editions” (ibid.). A closer cooperation between high schools and media workers could help educational institutions to update their programs and make them more practice-oriented than accented on theoretical preparation.
Approximately half of all participants in the MediaNet research (2013: 75) attended training programs. In course of their work, reporters and editors have a great demand for re-training, professional development and, in particular, development of competence in the legal sphere, because they usually don’t know how they can protect themselves in case of filing lawsuit against them. Some organisations, such as the International Centre of Journalism MediaNet, implement several projects and training programs for the journalists’ qualifications upgrade. However, journalists consider training programs offered by NGOs to be insufficient: “The trainings conducted by the non-governmental organizations, are often more suitable for the graduates of high schools than for professional journalists, so it turns out, that if you have an experience, you attend the trainings only to exchange, share some knowledge but you receive almost nothing” (ibid.).
How much is a journalists’ work worth? Tulegen Askarov, a long-time financial journalist, said: “The biggest problem in HR policy in media businesses today [...] is how much to pay a journalist, because he is not only a journalist now. He has become a blogger, a photographer, and a cameraman at the same time” (Emrich et al., 2013: 58). According to Askarov, a good journalist with five years of journalistic experience and multimedia skills might expect $1.000 or even $1.500 in Almaty. Younger technology-savvy journalists have a considerable advantage over their elder colleagues who are sceptical of digital tools or younger ones with no training in technology. There is also a gap between journalists who work in large urban areas and those from small and medium-sized towns (ibid.: 58-59).
Journalists’ working conditions
Nursultan Nazarbayev is since 1990 on the list of Predators of Press Freedom published by RSF (2016b: 26). Independent journalists and editorial offices in Kazakhstan face attacks and arrests. “Lawsuits, violence and interrogation by the security services are common”, while media pluralism is “completely dead” (ibid.). OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović describes the situation for media freedom and freedom of expression as “deeply worrying” (OSCE, 2016). Although only one journalist was killed since 1992 (Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2017b), 96 journalists in Kazakhstan were convicted, arrested and imprisoned in 2016 (Adil Soz, 2017). Threats of legal actions, loss of job, loss of financing and earnings from advertising, substantial penalties and other forms of pressure and intimidation lead to self-censorship, limit the freedom of speech and restrict journalists’ ability to report freely (Freedom House, 2016b; OSCE, 2016; OSCE, 2015: 15; MediaNet, 2013: 70). Almost all reporters and editors who participated at the survey conducted by MediaNet (2013: 69-70) consider self-censorship of Kazakhstani journalists to be one of the main problems in this sphere. They also told that media workers usually have a list of persons and themes that should not appear in publications or on TV and keep in touch with state authorities for correction of materials. One respondent explained the reason of the self-censorship: “The censorship exists in such a form when proprietors, editors, publishers, journalists – everybody perfectly understand the consequences of the publication of one or another material”.
At the beginning of 2017, police arrested Zhanbolat Mamay, an outspoken government critic and editor of the independent newspaper Sayasi kalam/Tribuna, one of the last critical media outlets in Kazakhstan. “Kazakhstan’s authorities have systematically cleansed the country’s news media of dissenting voices, and the arrest of Zhanbolat Mamay is one more step in that direction”, said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator (CPJ, 2017a). Therefore, most charges against journalists are baseless and retaliatory, and cases are politically motivated, because people in power are not satisfied with the reporting on their activities. There is no professional journalists’ union which would be responsible for the assertion of the journalists’ labour rights. However, there are more than 15 NGOs who “proclaim their mission to be the assistance of the development of freedom of speech and mass media”, for example, the International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech Adil Soz (MediaNet, 2013: 66).
Other considerable problems facing Kazakhstani journalists, editors and reporters are the access to information and bureaucracy. Despite the laws on mass media and public service, receiving information from state authorities remains extremely difficult: “State bodies do not observe the time established by the law and sometimes absolutely ignore inquiries from editions or provide formal replies which cannot be used for preparation of a material” (MediaNet, 2013: 73). The MediaNet survey pointed out unequal work conditions for journalists: While authorities usually refuse to work with critical and oppositional outlets, they willingly answer the inquiries of state editions, not being afraid of a critical or negative coverage. “Written inquiry to the state authorities is a losing matter; they will answer too late or provide incomplete information. Though, it depends on the question: praising can be received right now, they may even call to make personal interview, but the problem question will cause suspicion and fear” (ibid.: 74), said a media expert.
Journalists’ role perceptions and reputation of media and journalism in society
Accroding to MediaNet (2013: 71), journalists in Kazakhstan “extremely rare act as analysts and experts predicting development of events”. As noticed by international watchdogs, they cannot freely report on political, economic and public issues due to the pressure by the authorities. Kazakhstani reporters and editors hold the same view, but some of them see the problem in their own journalism culture: “Editorial bodies are afraid to outrun some limits which they established by themselves. Many journalists do not have such culture – to ask questions, they write only what speakers say” (ibid.: 69). A media expert also said: “Journalists of the public mass media do not need to be occupied with their professional duties, i.e. search for the truth, and submit unbiased materials. They only have to follow the instructions of their management and give positive materials about the government, authorities, officials. Therefore, the journalists professionally degrade” (ibid.: 67). Kazakhstani journalists have often been criticized by public organizations, authorities and citizens for “infringement of the elementary ethical standards” – for example, screaming headings and offensive or immoral photos (ibid.: 78). In 2012, the government introduced Code of Ethics for Journalists which was described as “an instrument of self-discipline for journalists, a moral and ethical standard for journalists that helps reporters and mass media earn society’s trust and respect” (Radio Free Europe, 2012). However, independent journalists considered the code to be “a new tool to control media outlets through self-censorship among journalists” (ibid.), and some respondents of the MediaNet survey feared that authorities may misuse the Code of Ethics to hinder journalists from their professional work and to suppress unflattering reporting (MediaNet, 2013: 78).
“It is a long time that mass media is not the authority among people” (MediaNet, 2013: 71), said an interviewed expert. Many respondents claimed that the audience of mass media in Kazakhstan is passive, doesn’t require the improvement of quality of analytical information and is interested only in current affairs. As already discussed in the section Media offers/Media access and consumption, the media consumers understand who represents and serves whose political and economic interests, and, therefore, Kazakhstani media don’t enjoy the public confidence. One respondent also noted the difference between urban and rural areas when it comes to trust in mass media: So, the media trust to a large extent depends on education, workplace and living standard of those who are considered as the objects of influence. As a result, people in the cities are more critical, while in regions media are traditionally trusted (ibid.: 72).
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- Committee to Protect Journalists: Kazakhstan
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- International foundation for protection of freedom of speech Adil Soz
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- Wikipedia: Kazakhstan
Recommended Citation Form
Daria Gordeeva: Kazakhstan. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. http://mappingmediafreedom.de/kazakhstan (access date)
Protests in Kazakhstan 2016. Source: BBC News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ib7EkJD08e4