Media Fears as Kazakstan Heads for Unelected Presidency
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||19 January 2011|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Media Fears as Kazakstan Heads for Unelected Presidency, 19 January 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4d411534a.html [accessed 23 July 2014]|
Media rights activists in Kazakstan have voiced fears about attempts to muzzle the press ahead of a referendum on allowing President Nursultan Nazarbaev to rule unelected for the next decade.
The warnings come after police in Almaty seized the bulk of copies of the Golos Respubliki newspaper, due to appear on January 14 just as parliament ruled on the referendum bill.
The paper's editor-in-chief, Sergei Zelepukhin, and other editorial staff were detained by police and then released without explanation. Police in Almaty refused to speak to IWPR about the incident.
Zelepukhin told a press briefing the same day that the confiscated edition included a supplement called "Say No to the Referendum".
Assuming voters in the referendum, expected some time this spring, approve the plan, a presidential election due in 2012 will be shelved and Nazarbaev, who has been in power since Soviet times, will stay on until 2020.
The proposal for a nationwide vote on extending the president's term was initiated by a group led by university rector Yerlan Sydykov, which ran a campaign that gathered over five million signatures in favour of it, far more than the 200,000 needed to trigger a referendum. There were numerous allegations that people were coerced into signing.
President Nazarbaev vetoed the bill, but it went forward to parliament nevertheless and was passed unanimously. Now he has asked the Constitutional Council to rule on whether the legislative amendments should stand; its final decision should come in a month's time.
Nazarbaev's critics believe he is making a show of opposition to a referendum that would strengthen his position because he aware it will be seen by the international community as a setback for democracy.
According to Zelepukhin, an additional reason for seizing the Golos Respubliki print-run may have been an advertisement for a programme to be broadcast on the opposition satellite television channel K-Plus about James Giffen, an American businessman who advised President Nazarbaev during the Nineties.
Giffen was indicted in the United States on charges of paying around 80 million US dollars in bribes to top Kazak officials in return for operating licenses for major western oil companies. The seven-year trial ended in November with Giffen walking free after pleading to a tax misdemeanour.
Rozlana Taukina, head of the media rights group Journalists in Trouble believes the action taken against Golos Respubliki marks the beginning of a campaign to silence the media ahead of the referendum.
"The country's top leadership, which is against having mechanisms for handing over power, has decided to embark on eliminating those opponents which influence public opinion, above all the press," she said.
Taukina said now that another opposition-minded newspaper, Vzglyad, was facing bankruptcy thanks to a libel case, it seemed to be Golos Respubliki's turn.
Tamara Kaleeva, who heads Adil Soz, a media support group, agreed that media outlets critical of the authorities might soon be extinguished.
"There's a harsh campaign of pressure under way in this country," she said. "This latest action by the authorities is quite simply stamping out pluralism in the media."
Golos Respubliki's anti-referendum stance is one of the few notes of protest voiced in the print market, most of which is controlled by the state itself or by business interests close to government. Public protests against the referendum have largely been confined to an online petition and some localised actions by opposition groups and civil society activists.
Artur Nigmetov is a journalist in Kazakstan.
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.