Analytical materials / Kazakhstan

Diana Okremova: The Wide Scope of Media Responsibility Paralyzes Kazakhstani Journalism

20.12.2016

“The State is determined to continue to strengthen its control of the media by increasing the amount of the budgetary resources allocated to it. Under these circumstances, mass media will remain a propaganda instrument but not an independent, competitive business in anyway. This state of affairs is not conducive to the appearance of new, independent media due to the inequality of market forces,” – expert Diana Okremova identifies the problems facing the development of the Kazakhstani media sphere in this CABAR.asia exclusive.

img_8035Like many others, the Kazakhstani media market continues to experience all of the delights of the economic crisis. A decrease in ad revenue, rapid internet penetration throughout the country, increasingly tighter media regulation, and a persistent desire on the part of the State to control the process through budgetary allocations – all of these factors have led to a unstable and unpredictable atmosphere that is problematic for the healthy development of the media.

According to the Ministry of Information and Communication, there are 2,763 media outlets in Kazakhstan, of which 86% are print publications, 11% are electronic publications, and 3% are press agencies. In numeric terms, there are 1,156 newspapers, 1,269 magazines, 169 television channels and radio stations, 108 cable television providers, and 8 satellite television providers. There are 15 websites registered as online publications. Additionally, there are 270 registered foreign television channels and radio stations, 185 of which are Russian, 24 are English, 16 are French, 11 are American, and 7 are Turkish.

okrem-1According to TNS Central Asia, the advertising market in 2016 was worth 37 billion tenge ($105.7 million). Moreover, experts predict that this market will further contract by another 10%. Tatyana Startseva, the director of TNS Central Asia, predicts that advertisers will decrease their ad buys in print publications, because only 2% of Kazakhstani citizens are interested in traditional media. Television remains the most in-demand form of mass media with internet coming in second, but the internet’s rise has stagnated after continued growth over the course of many years.  Facing difficult financial conditions, the media is not exactly averse to receiving money from the state budget.

The issue of state regulation of mass media has always been quite complicated. In recent years, the government agency responsible for the national information space has changed multiple times. At first, the press was regulated by the Ministry of Culture and Information and later by the Agency for Communications and Information. After yet another reshuffling, the media found itself in the hands of the Ministry of Investment and Development (The Committee for Informatization, Information, and Communications), but halfway through 2016 a new ministry appeared in Kazakhstan – The Ministry of Information and Communications. All issues related to the formation and implementation of national information policy, information security, and informatization have been placed under the jurisdiction of this agency.

In 2010, President Nazarbaev signed a document that sought to define a strategy for national media development over the next ten years. The primary objectives of the “Information Kazakhstan – 2020” program are improving the effectiveness of the state administration system, improving access to the information and communication infrastructure, creating an information environment conducive to the socio-economic and cultural development of society, as well as developing the domestic information space.

The indicators identified as key by the Government are also quite interesting. These indicators include, for example, Kazakhstan joining the ranks of the top 35 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business report, increasing the number of Kazakhstani internet users to 75% of the population by 2020, digital broadcasting coverage growing to 95%, electronic media in Kazakhstan representing 100% of the total number of registered outlets, the share of the population satisfying their basic information needs with domestic mass media should reach 64% by 2017 and 70% by 2020, and increasing the ad revenues of state-owned media by 35% in 2017 and 50% by 2020.

At first glance, it is possible that these aspirations might appear logical and praiseworthy, however the approach to their implementation raises questions. Before you can properly analyze this situation, you must first understand the system of state financing of the media in Kazakhstan.

Billions in False Support

42 billion tenge ($120 million) from the national budget is allocated every year to supporting and developing mass media. It is quite difficult to understand the essence of this financial distribution as 90% of it is allocated as direct financial contributions, without any competition, by “state order”. The lion’s share of this money is allocated to the operating costs of two state-owned television and radio corporations, “Khabar” and “Kazakhstan. Eight other media outlets, including some newspapers and television channels, receive direct financial support in this manner. The remaining 10% is distributed throughout the country among newspapers, magazines, and local television networks in a competitive manner. Another two billion is left for regional mass media. Each local akimat organizes competitions for the implementation of state information policy. This process repeats itself year after year with a relentless increase in the amount of money allocated.

This system is regularly criticized by the public for a number of obvious shortcomings. First, the process is completely closed at all levels from the allocation of funds to the accountability of recipients.  The decision of how much money is allocated to a given media outlet receive is decided deep in the depths of the Ministry without involving the public or any outside experts. Although this is not a question of thousands but of billions of tenge annually, there are no publicly available reports on how these resources are being used.

Second, there is no system for the monitoring and evaluation of the funds disbursed. For example, if a newspaper writes an article about the “ever increasing optimism of Kazazkhstani society”, then how can we discern whether or not the customer’s objectives have been met? It is important to note that much of what is on offer from the Ministry and akimats is public relations. These are all variations on the theme of improving the image of Astana, law enforcement, the Government, etc, i.e. the implementation of information policy in fact is reduced to the self-promotion of officials in the press. If you add the forced subscriptions imposed on state employees, then the situation appears truly insane: the taxes people pay are made available to the media to promote government officials, and then the people pay for subscriptions to these very media outlets.

But this is not simply a problem of the irrational use of the national budget. State purchases are an excellent method for controlling the media and buying the loyalty of journalists. This is the reason that there is an observable annual growth in the amount of money alongside the number of media outlets fulfilling state orders.

Another issue is economic in nature. The value of the advertising market is 37 billion tenge, but the sum total of all state media buys is 43 billion. This means that the state is the primary advertiser and media controller. As such, there is no normal competition within the mass media, because practically everyone is dependent on state budgetary allocations to varying degrees. As a result we have a boring, monotonous media market, where the rules are dictated by the state. Meanwhile, in speaking of developing the national media space, the Ministry does not invest money in developing the industry but allocates funds to concrete newspapers and television channels. Naturally, there is an environment devoid of stimulus for the creation of new media outlets or the development of the market.

Figure 1. The distribution of budgetary funds for the implementation of state information policy among the various regions of Kazakhstan, 2015 (by millions of tenge)

okrem-2source: “Legal Media Center

As such, all the arguments against this obviously untenable system run up against the Ministry’s position that mass media would simply not survive without the support of the state. Furthermore, an emphasis is placed on the necessity of promoting patriotism and imparting values that commercial channels motivated by profit will simply not do. Officials say nothing about the public interest and political programs devoid of any criticism for state agencies and dedicated to continuously praising the Government. To put it harshly but honestly, the mainstream media simply spends the money they receive without putting in the effort to produce high-quality and attractive content.

Law As Fear

Increasingly harsh legislation is yet another problem facing Kazakhstani mass media. Within the country libel, slander, and invasions of privacy are considered criminal offenses. Recently, another article was added to the Criminal Code – the dissemination of false information that leads to a disruption of public order. Guzyal Baidalinova, a journalist from the website nakanune.kz, was convicted of violating this law. It must be noted that cases of this sort often are colored by politics and are aimed at silencing objectionable publications or journalists.

Defamation claims in Kazakhstan are a widespread phenomenon that often lead to damages for pain and suffering and emotional distress large enough to shutter publications. Unfortunately, there is nothing in current legislation that recognizes concepts such as “public interest” or “public figure”, so high-ranking officials and parliamentarians often file lawsuits against journalists. Moreover, there is no statute of limitations, which means that lawsuits can be filed against the media for a publication 10, 20, 30 years after the fact.

The law against “the incitement of national, religious, social, class and interethnic hatred” has become one of most commonly used sections of the Criminal Code and is actively employed to prosecute both journalists and bloggers. There were 88 cases brought to trial in 2015 and four convictions in the first 8 months of 2016. The definitions and terms remain obviously blurry and vague, which results in an inability to foresee what could possibly lead to a criminal case.  A close examination of the texts also suffers, because there is no firm understanding of when speech truly incites hatred or is simply an exercise in free speech. “Inciting social discord” is a truly Kazakhstani innovation that can be applied at will to any controversial statement.

Prohibitions on “calls to terrorism or extremism” and “calls to separatism” are no less commonly applied sections of the Criminal Code.

The processes at play in the internet also deserve separate discussion. According to Kazakhstani law, and and all internet resources, be it a blog, online chat, or an e-commerce site, have been classified as mass media since 2009. Subsequently, the majority of criminal charges have not been filed against journalists but against average internet users. Moreover, the incitement of various forms of hatred and the propaganda of terrorism and extremism are the leading charges filed in these cases.

It is also worth mentioning the capriciousness with which state agencies regulate the internet. Because it is physically impossible to control all internet content, random internet users are targeted. If we were to analyze the entirety of the Kazakhstani internet for hate speech and bring perpetrators to trial, then a significantly large segment of the Kazakhstani online community would end up in court.

The subject of the frequent blocking of websites cannot go without comment. Before 2014, blocking a site could only happen by court order, but in April 2014 Article 41-1 was added to the Kazakhstani Law “On Communications”, which set forth legal procedures for the so-called “extrajudicial blocking” of a website by order of the Kazakhstani General Prosecutor and their deputy. In January 2016, this authority was also granted to a relevant state agency (The Committee for Communications, Information, and Informatization, now the Ministry of Information and Communication). In this way, there was an expansion of the list of agencies with the power to apply “extrajudicial blocks”.

As a rule, state agencies block websites with illegal content – pornography, alcohol advertisements, propaganda for extremism and terrorism, etc. However, there are moments in which a website is blocked without anyone claiming responsibility. These are often the websites of independent outlets that publish information considered objectionable by the powers that be.

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okrem-4What Is Next?

Currently, in the halls of the Ministry of Information and Communication there is active consideration of proposed amendments to media legislation. All interested journalists, NGOs, media experts, and legal experts being involved in these discussions is an undeniable plus. While some amendments are truly commendable, the media community is categorically opposed to some aspects of other amendments.

Some of the positive aspects include the easing of legal responsibility for violation in a given publication (including the closure of a publication and confiscation of all issues until a fine is paid). The drafters of these amendments also suggest a ban on media publishing images of child victims of criminal acts. This legal norm does have a certain logic, because there have been recent incidents in which photos of abused children were published. This caused obvious harm to the child in question, who became an internet and television “celebrity” against their will. Yet another moment that the media wholeheartedly supports is allowing the advertising of beer and wine (at night on television and on the inner pages of newspapers).

That being said, there were significantly more downsides in the document, and these downsides are quite contradictory. For example, journalists are now obliged to verify the accuracy of information they receive (which is currently considered a journalist’s right). There is also a requirement to receive the written permission of a subject to publish personal information that is not publically available. This formulation likely stems from a desire to protect officials from an active press and eradicate investigative journalism as a genre.

One of the most disputed aspects is the right to respond and refute. The Ministry suggests that the media be held responsible for publishing denials of an individual that disagrees with a given piece of content without a court order. Considering that concepts like “fact”, “opinion”, and “value judgments” are very vaguely interpreted in Kazakhstan, this item is superfluous and violates the principle of free speech.

After considering these aforementioned aspects, one can reach a less than optimistic conclusion. The State is determined to continue to strengthen its control of the media by increasing the amount of the budgetary resources allocated to it. Under these circumstances, mass media will remain a propaganda instrument but not an independent, competitive business in anyway. This state of affairs is not conducive to the appearance of new, independent media due to the inequality of market forces.

The proposed amendments to media legislation have positive aspects, but underlying problems remain in place. The wide scope of media responsibility paralyzes Kazakhstani journalism because of the incredible difficulty facing investigative journalism caused by severe legal restrictions.

Under the guise of providing for the information security of the citizenry, this desire to control the entire process is spreading to the internet as well. Despite the internet being the freest segment of the society, the number of criminal cases indicates that freedom of speech is regularly suppressed.

As a result, even with its well-developed electronic government, acting legislation on access to information, and the excellent technological equipment available to mass media, Kazakhstan traditionally holds last place in various ratings of freedom of speech. Until the state elects to loosen its grip and give the media a measure of freedom, this situation is unlikely to change.

Author: Diana Okremova, Director of the “Legal Media Centre” Public Foundation (Astana, Kazakhstan)

The position of the author does not necessarily reflect the position of the CABAR.asia editorial board

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