Anton Morozov: Will Marat Tazhin be able to overcome failures in Kazakhstan’s information policy?
“The outcome we need to see is a change in the model of political communication along the lines of power, the press, and the public from one-sided to two-sided. That is, the state should respond to public inquiries and not only communicate to the public via the press.” – expert Anton Morozov, writing specially for CABAR.asia, discusses the problems of Kazakhstan’s information policy.
The most striking recent development in Kazakhstan’s personnel policy was Marat Tazhin’s return to the Presidential Administration (PA). He had previously served as Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the Russian Federation. The vast majority of experts linked his appointment to the post of deputy head of the PA, whose position is traditionally responsible for the ideology with which chronic failures in the information and ideological sphere of the country have developed according to his predecessors.
There is also an opinion that Mr. Tazhin will become the “architect” and developer of the new relationship model between the various branches of government, for which a working group has been created. That option is more than plausible, but we will try to focus on the subject stated in the title, information policy. The blunders in this area have been extensive, for which we would like to draw attention to.
One mistake, two mistakes
The first issue raised should be the situation involving changes to the Land Code, which occurred in the spring of last year. Characteristically, the legislative provision to increase the term of leasing land to foreign entities from 10 to 25 years, called “political seething,” had been adopted in the Land Code in 2014. Major efforts and funds were allocated towards informational support of the initiative. However, the sharply negative reaction of the Kazakhs in relation to the introduction of the nuances in the market turnover of agricultural lands has shown that all informational efforts were like a house of sand and did not bring about the desired result.
This resulted in unauthorized protests, intense emotions from the public, the resignation of two ministers and one vice-minister, and the convening of the Public Commission, as well as a moratorium on amendments to the Land Code. And the cherry on top was the creation of a new Ministry of Information and Communications. It was assumed that this rehabilitated body, responsible for information policy, would help to remove problems in this area. But, as subsequent events showed, we miscalculated.
Recently, this was clearly demonstrated as a result of the adoption in December 2016 of the Law “On introducing amendments and addenda to some legislative acts of Kazakhstan’s countering of extremism and terrorism” whereby citizens must register at places of temporary residence. This will impact those simply wishing to visit other places, travel, and long-term patients seeking treatment in another city. Citizens lacking registration shall be fined 16,000 tenge. Law-abiding people of Kazakhstan, due to reasons for not living at their place of residence, have flooded the PSCs (public service centers) with staff struggling to cope with the influx of registrants.
This situation takes on a distinct flavor because around that time legislation was adopted allowing citizens of foreign countries to stay in Kazakhstan without registration for up to 30 days. Also, this policy was not without its tragic consequences. While waiting in line for hours, two people seeking temporary registration died. This gave rise to a bitter joke that not a single person died from terrorism in Kazakhstan in 2017, but this law killed two.
However, it should be noted that the controversial bill was discussed in Parliament with the involvement of civil society institutions. Moreover, a number of public figures had given it a negative opinion. Yet, it was beyond the scope of media attention and the public. But the social tensions could have been avoided by conducting an informed information policy for the public. But it was not. We offer to try to understand – why?
In our opinion, this is due to a complexity of reasons. Firstly, the information management system, the foundations of which were formed in 2010, is ineffective. This system involves, first, the state control over the press’ activities by means of legislative and financial instruments, and secondly, the leading role of the state and quasi-state structures in the creation of informational events. It was assumed that this model would be effective in targeting the direct flow of information, focus public attention on relevant topics, and “dissolve” the unwanted “white noise” news, i.e. frivolous stories and mainstream information events. First, such an approach has been more or less effective, but today it has become apparent that its resources are exhausted. The state in the era of the web 2.0, when the number of information sources is enormous and the boundaries between the media space of states is conditional, is having difficulty in controlling the ideological sphere based on the old model.
However, despite this, the model continues to be used. As a result, the situation in the information and ideological sphere looks to fair no better. Moreover, its use, among other things, has led to the following negative consequences. It has contributed to low motivation of the media to release competitive products due to the presence of clear ideological frameworks, as well as a certain “stripped” information field of foreign media products while expanding the system of the state social order. There is also a lack of quality information products along with the inability of the media to meet its demands. The situation is complicated by the fact that Kazakhstan is objectively in the Russian cultural and information space, and active consumers of information (via satellite and cable TV, Internet) can always compare the quality of Kazakh and Russian products.
Lastly, though not the most visible, is potentially the most destructive and dangerous result. The same information white noise inevitably strengthens the media’s entertainment features. But imposing images of mass consciousness in the media is not conducive to the development of cognitive skills in a person’s ability to produce new, original ideas and innovation. “Klipovoy thinking” leads to intellectual degradation. In the long-term, it is fraught with irreparable losses of human potential. But the most depressing situation deals with the professionalism of the journalistic community. It is not that everyone having a social media account can be considered, and according to the current law in fact, a journalist. Sometimes they are horrendously ignorant of outstanding journalists writing for TV and newspapers. Some young journalists are not even able to write reports without a press release.
Of course, this is due, primarily, to the degradation of the education system as a whole, and, consequently, of journalist schools. For example, in 1985 the Soviet Union was training journalists in about three dozen universities. At the same time, in Central Asia, there was only the KSU Faculty of Journalism. Then, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there subsequently originated an avalanche in the creation of journalism schools whereby there were more than 70 in Kazakhstan alone by the 2000s. It is natural that the country did not have such a large number of professional instructors, which resulted in thousands of semi-literate, non-professional graduates.
The only thing that is laudable is the technological aspect. Here the situation is not so bad off. With the commissioning of the national terrestrial digital television broadcasting network and the launch of digital satellite broadcasting throughout the country, Kazmedia has become the main technological platform for Kazakh TV. This was achieved by OTAU’s launch of the KazSat-3 satellite into space orbit.
The barbed needle of the state social order
In recent years there have been several thrilling events in Kazakhstan’s media community in addition to the appointment of M. Tazhin. There was the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the head of Kazakhstan’s Union of Journalists, Seitkazy Mataeva, and his son Aset, head of the news agency KazTAG, on charges of embezzling state funds and large-scale tax evasion. Another news story tinged with criminality was the arrest of Bigeldy Gabdullina, chief editor of Central Asia Monitor and radiotochka.kz, who is accused of extorting budgetary funds for officials in favor of media control. Apart from the fact that both of the accused are well-known journalists in the country, these two things are united by another factor, which is that they are, in one way or another, linked to the state social order for highlighting the priorities of state policy.
The state social order is an instrument that financially incentivizes the media to conduct editorial policy favorable to the government. In fact it is the money that the editorial office receives from the budget in exchange for loyalty to the authorities. At first glance it looks logical, “he who pays the piper calls the music”, but in fact the music is outdated, uninteresting, and rather monotonous such as press releases of government agencies and strongly curtailed and censored texts of government officials’ speeches. We will not go into the legal details of these criminal cases. We only note that the journalistic community is more inclined to believe that contact with the state social order, as they say, is at your own peril.
But the main danger state of the social phenomenon is not even this, but that heavy critique causes editorial boards to lose the incentive to produce quality content. This has the most direct impact on the competitiveness of domestic media in general. Moreover, the efficiency of such intervention is very low and was demonstrated by the citizens’ reaction to changes in the Land Code and migration law. Despite the criticism and negative evaluations of the state social order by representatives of the media community, the authorities continue to actively use this tool.
According to the Ministry of Information and Communication’s website, the budget plan follows the “Implementation of the State Information Policy” program (Table 1). In the subsequent three years, state social order will budget more than 130 billion tenge, or more than $400 million! Note: $1 = 331 tenge
Table 1: Budget Plan for the program “Implementation of the State Information Policy”
By the way, M. Tazhin, who was secretary of state in 2013, drew attention to the fact that the verification of the “utility” of materials and themes emerging within the state social order is quite problematic. To remedy the situation, he proposed a series of measures, including formulating state social contracts based on media popularity ratings, but realized they were unable to do so.
In this regard, it is interesting to look at what the methodology for assessing the effectiveness of the state social today is (Table 2).
Table 2: Budget Plan for sub-program “Allocation of the State Information Order”
The table shows that a quality assessment is lacking concerning the volume of materials. The justification for the sub-program is that, “it plans for the implementation of the state information policy for outreach to ensure the priorities of state policy, the strengthening of political stability, the growth of competitiveness within the national information space, the improvement of the state language’s status, and the production of higher quality domestic products.” We have seen it is quite strange to evaluate, for example, measures aimed at strengthening political stability via broadcast hours and print publishing.
However, this practice is to be continued. Moreover, the trend can be traced towards institutional reinforcement. For example, there is a discussion draft of the law “On the establishment of a non-profit fund ‘The State Fund for Media Development’”, which will take over the state order’s distribution functions and evaluate the effectiveness of the fund’s uses. The question of the evaluation procedure, however, remains open.
All these factors have put a number of serious challenges on the state information-ideological machine. The disadvantages inherent in this system have resulted in negative trends developing in the media sphere, first of all, and the stagnation of the media in ideological, substantive, economic, and personnel terms. Such a condition carries potential risks, as it can generate a serious long-term crisis in the Kazakh media as acute as a political struggle in the country or geopolitical confrontation. In the ideological field, this process can be expressed in serious changes in political attitudes and predilections of society, attitudes, ideological stereotypes, and electoral preferences.
Government measures do not solve one of the main issues, which is creating competitive domestic content. Without this, Kazakhstan is vulnerable to external information sources. The outcome we need to see is a change in the model of political communication along the lines of power, the press, and the public from one-sided to two-sided. That is, the state should respond to public inquiries and not only communicate to the public via the press.
To generate this model, it is necessary that the media become a real socio-political institution acting as the feedback mechanism from the public to the state. This cannot be achieved without the transfer of state support for individual media sources to state support in creating a competitive environment within the country for the development of all media. This is the only way to restore public confidence in the press.
 Okremova, Diana. “The Wide Scope of Media Responsibility Paralyzes Kazakhstani Journalism.” CABAR.asia, December 20, 2016. http://cabar.asia/en/diana-okremova-the-wide-scope-of-media-responsibility-paralyzes-kazakhstani-journalism/.
Author: Anton Morozov, Ph.D., political scientist (Almaty, Kazakhstan).
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Cabar.asia.