Independent journalists in Kazakhstan feel under assault these days. Literally and figuratively.
On one hand, more regulations are in the works that could enable the authorities to more closely police what reporters produce. Meanwhile, a number of media workers have in recent weeks been targeted with physical intimidation.
Officials are eager to play down the idea that they are enemies of the free press, though. Their concern, they insist, is that the wider public is increasingly in danger of being fed with instability-fueling lies and disinformation.
In January, the Information Ministry unveiled proposed changes to the legislation that regulates how the media operates. An explanatory document attached to the mooted amendments alludes to the global “geopolitical situation” and the need to shore up the country’s information security.
“The saturation of the media space with a huge amount of data and the emergence of new media [has] created a situation in which it is difficult to distinguish between verified information and fakes, the dissemination of which is done to a significant extent by new media,” the note reads.
It was not spelled out, but it was clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and its concomitant investment in spreading its propaganda globally, is what the authors of that language had in mind.
In making its pitch, the Information Ministry argued that its amendments would make the Kazakh media scene "competitive and free" and better able to resist malign outside influences.
Media freedom advocates in Kazakhstan aren’t buying it.
“The threat to our information sovereignty is not imaginary, but this bill does not in reality offer any protection,” Diana Okremova, the head of the Legal Media Center foundation, told Eurasianet. “The document does not even touch Russian propaganda channels, which will continue broadcasting in Kazakhstan without any problems.”
Sure enough, Russian state-run and state-aligned television stations, which have since the start of the war in Ukraine broadcast virulently anti-Western content from morning till night, are readily available on many local cable providers and are popular, particularly among older, Russian-speaking viewers.
The Information Ministry’s plans focus instead on expanding their powers to make determinations on content across a whole array of media formats, from old-school newspapers to online publications and social media.
Tamara Kaleyeva, the founder of Adil Soz, a foundation for the promotion of free speech, argues that the government is trying to give itself new ways to censor journalistic content in the interests of “preventing violations.”
Under the proposed regulations, when alleged violations are detected, their creators will have to delete them or face consequences that have yet to be specified, Kaleyeva told Eurasianet.
The drafters of the legislation have pleaded with critics to wait until the bill is finalized and have promised that feedback will be taken into consideration. Zhasulan Umiraliyev, director of the State Media Policy department at the Information Ministry, said the amendments will also be subjected to the scrutiny of international experts.
“According to regulations, before [the bill can be] submitted to parliament, it is necessary to submit it to a number of relevant examinations, including by sending them for review to international organizations,” Umiraliyev wrote on Facebook.
An updated version of the legislation is expected sometime this month.
One set of mooted provisions in the overhauled media law lays down rules of conduct for journalists operating in “extraordinary conditions.” It is specified that this can include anything from natural and man-made disasters to border conflicts or any other kind of hostilities. In those situations, only journalists that have undergone specialized training are permitted to report in sensitive zones. They will furthermore be required to travel with an escort and coordinate their work with officials.
Alisher Mukanov, a representative from the Information Ministry, has said this is designed for the safety of journalists themselves and the state.
“Coordination with government agencies is necessary so that the media do not accidentally give out, for example, the position of a troop deployment or leak information about anti-terrorism techniques,” Mukanov has been cited as saying by Vlast news website.
Okremova of the Legal Media Center said this would give the government free rein to exercise censorship at times when the public is most in need of transparent information.
“You could, under this abstract wording – ‘extraordinary conditions’ – include any catastrophe occurring due to the negligence of officials,” she said.
Journalists are also bristling at apparent plans to bring in press cards. The government-issue cards would authorize holders to attend official events and conduct formal interviews with state representatives – and, conversely, potentially deny those privileges to anybody without the cards.
As currently envisioned, the cards would be given to reporters meeting a number of criteria: formal training as a journalist, three years of work experience, full-time employment with a media outlet, and no criminal record.
Kazakh officials have cited international precedent in going down this road. Okremova objects that those models are typically authoritarian states.
“With the help of press cards, the authorities of Azerbaijan and Turkey restrict the access of objectionable journalists to information, which has generated a lot of criticism from both domestic journalistic communities and international organizations,” she said.
Independent journalists complain that what the draft bill fails to do is provide them with protection from a more present danger. In the last few weeks, several reporters have been subjected to acts of intimidation, threats and hacking attacks.
In the most recent incident, independent journalist Daniyar Moldabekov was on February 22 assaulted by an unknown individual at the entrance to his apartment. Moldabekov, who has worked for Eurasianet among other publications, has said the attack may have been in reprisal for his reporting,
The authorities are at pains to demonstrate that they are taking firm action on this spate of assaults. Numerous people arrested on suspicion of involvement in the incidents have said they were hired by unknown persons over the internet. Victims, several of whom have reported critically on the circumstances around the deadly political unrest that tore through Kazakhstan early last year, have expressed skepticism that the government is serious about catching the real culprits.
Asset Matayev, a member of the board of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan, has called via his Telegram channel for heightened punishments for people found to have put journalists in danger. Legislation tailor-made for journalists, possibly envisioning prison sentences of up to six years, should be adopted, he wrote.
Kaleyeva expresses a strand of cynicism now shared by many independent journalists. Where the government is insisting that it is simply trying to inoculate the media sphere from false information, she sees a familiar attempt to control the message.
“Officials are now introducing the concept of reliability of information and [threatening] legal repercussions for deviations from this norm,” she said. “And reliable information, from their point of view is, of course, what has been obtained from official sources.”
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.