With their country consistently ranked near the bottom of international press freedom indexes, Kazakhstan’s political movers and shakers make unlikely lodestars for the global media ecosystem.
Nonetheless, pronouncements about the state of the local and international media have been coming thick and fast. That is in part because Kazakhstan has just held its annual Eurasian Media Forum, the brainchild of presidential daughter and leading lawmaker Dariga Nazarbayeva.
But even before the three-day jamboree got underway on May 22, Dariga’s 77-year-old father, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, had been airing his preoccupations about journalism’s potentially negative influence on national stability.
This theme was reprised in a May 24 speech at the forum made on Nazarbayev's behalf by Information Minister Dauren Abayev, who channeled the authoritarian leader’s insight about how only “correct, reliable information” and the “checking of fake news” could preserve what he referred to as “classical media” in an increasingly hostile information age.
Nazarbayev has had recalcitrant media on the mind of late. Last month, he complained loudly about outlets “finding deficiencies in some region or other and beginning to stir things up.” One particular gripe seems to have been reporting on the floods in eastern Kazakhstan in April. Journalists prone to sensationalism “need to be firmly put in their place,” he said.
Such comments are discouraging at a time when Kazakhstan’s bleak media environment is getting only bleaker.
On May 22, more than two dozen organizations working on freedom of expression signed a petition calling on Astana to put a stop to practices intended to silence the press. The statement registered special concern about legislation criminalizing the “dissemination of deliberately false information,” which activists say is so loosely formulated as to leave reporters wide open to punitive lawsuits.
The most recent high-profile targets of legal action have been popular news website Ratel.kz and the Kazakhstan affiliate of Forbes.
Privately owned Ratel.kz, which was a rare bright light among local news websites and was famed for its investigative reporting, is currently blocked, as are its affiliates. Both it and Forbes ran into bother for reporting extensively on the business interests of Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, a wealthy former finance minister, who initiated punishing lawsuits.
Nazarbayev’s public irritation could be a green light to authorities to crack down on what remains of the critical press in the country, an art in which they are well versed.
More difficult, however, is controlling reports about the country originating outside its state borders.
At a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 14, Nazarbayev called on media in the two countries not to engage in whipping up unnecessary diplomatic rows — not to “make elephants out of flies,” the Russian language equivalent of making mountains out of molehills.
A month before the leaders’ informal meeting, Vladimir Solovyov, the host of a shouty evening political talkshow on Rossiya state television, registered disappointment at Kazakhstan’s decision not to side with Moscow in an Syria-themed UN Security Council vote.
Kazakhstan, which sits on the Security Council as a non-permanent member, had just refused to condemn airstrikes against Syria by United States, Britain and France, in accordance with a Russia-proposed resolution on April 14.
“Is there something in our relationship with Kazakhstan that I don’t know about?” asked Solovyov, implying that Astana was being overly pro-Western in its diplomatic positions. Rossiya is widely watched in Kazakhstan and is popular among the Russian-speaking population.
Another media flareup, this time resulting from a report carried in privately owned news website Nezavisimaya Gazeta, drew an even sharper official response.
The article, titled “Astana has destroyed the foundations of Caspian security,” cited experts claiming, on the basis of nothing at all, that Kazakhstan intended to host U.S. military bases on the Caspian Sea.
Kazakhstan’s embassy in Moscow took the unusual step on April 26 of labelling the widely republished article “fake news,” while explaining that cooperation with Washington in the Caspian was part of long-standing transit arrangements linked to the military effort in Afghanistan.
Speaking at Nazarbayeva’s media forum, Almaty mayor Baurzhan Baybek appeared to echo Nazarbayev's sentiments, bemoaning the fact many contemporary media use their power to drive countries and cultures towards conflict, rather than away from it.
But Kazakhstan’s government is often less bothered by press scaremongering when it fits within its own narrative.
Such was the case in 2016, when a news presenter on a channel partly financed by the government strongly implied — without saying as much — that nationwide protests with implications for the regime might have been financed by Washington.
This outlandish theory was backed up amateurishly with close-up, grainy video footage of unidentified hands stuffing dollars into the trouser pockets of indistinct figures. Unsurprisingly, the report angered protesters and proved a hit on social media, where it was thoroughly mocked.
These days though, journalists and their audiences have a new foe to face down – internet trolls.
Nazarbayeva, who once suggested teens should be given show-and-tell demonstrations of disabled children — or “freaks,” as she called them — as a salutary reminder of the dangers of premarital sex, is concerned that people might be exposed to content from dishonest, thoughtless and callous individuals.
“Simplified access to the Internet opened the way not only for talented people who want to express themselves, but also conmen, criminals and propagandists of all kinds,” Nazarbayeva warned at the forum.
The type of would-be troll Kazakhstan is most worried about are the ones in the anti-government crowd. In December, President Nazarbayev signed off on amendments to the media law forcing local media to impose real-name registration on users wishing to comment under articles, thereby exposing websites and their visitors to reprisals for negative feedback.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.