President Nursultan Nazarbayev continued to consolidate his control over the media in anticipation of the presidential elections scheduled for 2000, upgrading the national press agency to the status of a ministry after a government reshuffle in October. Most disturbing, a highly controversial tender of broadcasting frequencies dealt a shattering blow to the burgeoning independent electronic media in the Central Asian nation receiving the most Western economic aid.

Starting in November 1996, communications officials used a variety of crude tactics (such as claiming "interference with air traffic control") to force unfavorable independent radio and television channels off the air in the capital. These tactics were replicated in the provinces, as provincial officials conducted hostile inspections of some broadcasting studios.

In December 1996, the government announced that it would hold a tender for broadcasting frequencies. The tender was not an auction, where the frequency was awarded to the highest bidder. Instead, the government Frequency Commission accepted applications and met with individual broadcasters to hear their arguments as to why they should be granted the frequencies. The cost of the license and the annual fees were extremely high by local standards, and substantially higher than equivalent fees in the region or indeed the world. Yet even those independent broadcasters who mustered the amounts required were denied licenses.

Not surprisingly, stations like TV M, which aired a popular political program called "Open Zone" providing a platform for the political opposition, were forced out of business by the tender. Independent station managers united in ANESMI, the Association for Independent Electronic Mass Media, called the tender unfair, unlawful, and politically motivated. They said it was designed to sweep the stage clear of any broadcasters who supplied critical news coverage and allowed commentary from opponents to President Nazarbayev – or for that matter, any who provided more professional public service and entertainment programs than state television and hence were more popular. ANESMI's charges were substantiated by the Prosecutor General and other officials concerned about the abuse of anti-monopoly laws and constitutional guarantees of equal rights for state and private property.

Following the government's success in clamping down on broadcasters in the capital, officials turned their sights to the provinces. In April, three popular channels in Akmola were suddenly told to shut off their transmitters. Startled viewers showered the stations – Efir, TSPR, and NTV-6 (which rebroadcast Russian-based programming) – with letters and telegrams, and station managers protested to the Prosecutor General of Kazakstan, who replied that an appeal of the administrative decision would be justified. In May, the Minister of Transportation and Communications held a tender for regional radio frequencies in seven provincial cities. Yet even in areas where only one commercial station applied to take part in the tender, the licenses were not awarded to independent broadcasters.

The effect of the tender has been to leave only four nominally non-state television channels in the capital of Almaty, where once eight feisty private channels flourished, and JUST three ostensibly independent radio stations. The winners of the tender included President Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva (owner of a partially state-run television company, Khabar, and a nominally private station, NTK), as well as other individuals related to the President by marriage or through political loyalties.

Independent broadcasters who rebroadcast Voice of America programs, have been silenced. Some stations have been able to make do with the UHF stations and retain a limited audience at considerable expense; others have begun to broadcast their programs over their still-existing radio stations.

Because of the high cost of print production and distribution, and the related low circulation, newspapers and magazines have far less influence than television. In some cases, print journalists have resorted to self-censorship – the result of criminal libel suits and other official harassment in the past.

Today, news stories on sensitive topics such as the disappearance of the former prime minister and the appointment of his replacement; coverage of considerable labor unrest and agitation for social rights; and the activities of Kazakstani and foreign oil companies are either absent from the news or covered in a biased fashion.

In January, Chris Gehring, a United States Agency for International Development contractor based in Almaty who directed the Central Asian programs of Internews, was murdered. Internews – a nonprofit organization supported by the U.S. government and private foundations such as George Soros' Open Society Institute – is devoted to increasing the broadcast capabilities of the independent television broadcasters of the former Soviet Union. Gehring had been assisting independent broadcasters who were contemplating a legal challenge to the tender. He was slain in his apartment on January 9, apparently the victim of a burglary. CPJ conducted an exhaustive investigation of the murder and concluded, as did Internews, that Gehring's death was not related to his work as a journalist or as a media trainer, nor to the political and legal issues surrounding the tender. Nevertheless, CPJ noted in appeals to U.S. government and Kazakstani officials that the murder had sent a shock wave through the foreign and domestic journalism communities, and continued to have a chilling effect on their work. CPJ urged that both governments make forceful public statements regarding the murder and the conviction of the suspects in order to dispel the rumors surrounding the case. Three suspects were subsequently arrested – with remarkable alacrity, as journalists' murders in the region often go unsolved. In an unusually speedy trial, the three were convicted and sentenced to the maximum 15-year prison term.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.