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Who Controls Information Field in Kazakstan?

Kazakstan has 2,763 media outlets, the majority of which are print media, according to information of the Kazak ministry of information and communications. According to marketing researches, television is still the most popular kind of media. Domestic KTK channel is the most popular, with 13.8 per cent of rating. According to expert assessments, Russian TV channels are the most popular with the audience. According to some experts, the authorities have cleared the competitive media field from opposition players and lost control over public opinion.

Newspapers of Kazakstan. Photo: Yaroslav Radlovsky /tengrinews.kz
На русском Қазақша

The overwhelming majority in the general structure, 86 per cent, is print media, 11 per cent – electronic media, 3 per cent – news agencies. Some foreign TV and radio channels perform in the country, as well. According to official data, they amount to 270, 185 of which are Russian, 24 – British, 11 – American, etc.

According to Kazteleradio JSC, terrestrial-cable television covers 5-6 million people. Moreover, it’s significant that, unlike the majority of other countries, particularly, Russia, the Kazak television has managed to keep the young audience engaged. The average age of a TV viewer in Kazakstan is 36, whereas it’s 49 in Russia and 54 in Ukraine.

Public activist and political analyst Dossym Satpayev thinks that Russian media are the key players in the media field of Kazakstan. Despite the requirement of 50/50 Russian and Kazak-language content and the growth of demand for Kazak-language content, information security remains a challenge. According to him, Russian TV channels, including the ones with distinct propaganda orientation, broadcast in the country.

“Russian media influence on the conscience of some Kazakstanis is still powerful, which leads to the fact that some part of people “physically live in Kazakstan, but mentally live in Russia.” And this is dangerous. Especially after the Ukrainian conflict, when opinions of many Kazakstanis about the world and Kazakstan events are mostly shaped by the Russian propagandists. Moreover, the risks increase even more given that Russia has been actively using its media resources during hybrid wars. Lots of armies consisting of internet trolls, hackers have been formed to intervene into domestic political processes of other countries. Technically, Kazakstan can become a target of such attacks in future,” expert said.

According to him, even now Russian media make powerful information attacks on Kazakstan. For example, one of such attacks was made after the authorities had decided to introduce Latin alphabet instead of Cyrillic alphabet. Russian media have called in a “stab in the back.” Shortly before the Aktau-based Caspian Summit, Russia media had published fake news about Kazakstan’s alleged desire to provide its territory to the United States for military bases on the Caspian Sea.

According to Satpayev, it’s quite possible that some part of population would trust Russian media more than Kazakstani ones.

“This is because we see serious trust devaluation among people to the state, and to the coverage of state-affiliated media. They don’t have high credibility. Moreover, Russian media field is more diverse, and those who don’t want to watch an idiot box, watch other TV channels, can watch online portal, including opposition ones,” political analyst said.

A Helping Government Order

In recent years, the country’s policy of government order placement in the media has been sharply criticised. In order to influence public opinion, the government allocates funds to place information on TV channels, websites, in newspapers and on the radio. Thus, according to Legal Media Centre Public Foundation, in 2009-2012, the government order budget was 3.2 billion tenge per year, and then sharply increased. Thus, in 2013, it was 43.3 billion tenge, in 2014 – 48.6 billion tenge, in 2015 – 51.7 billion tenge. The largest awardees of the government order are state-run media outlets; however, non-governmental media resources also receive relatively small amounts.

According to the research carried out by BISAM Central Asia by order of the ministry of information and communications in 2016, basic rates of a government order are practically unequal to market rates. This is what makes a government order unappealing for non-governmental media.

According to Shavkat Sabirov, president of Internet Associations of Kazakstan, the government needs to support the Kazak-language content.

He noted that about 3 million people in the country speak only the state language, and their number is growing every year. The demand is high, yet content is small. Earlier, there was a state campaign on the development of the Kazak language on the internet. A lot was done, but no one thought of the need to develop content. The Kazak-speaking audience is interested in show business topics for the most part.

“The state has to support the Kazak-language content. The content placed under the government order needs to be diverse. Usually, a government order is placed on a handful of existing websites. However, there must be 20-25 resources. In addition to the placement of materials in Kazak language, the state has to think about creating additional platforms. Or it should provide material support to popular Russian-language outlets to make them open a Kazak-language editorial team. Here it’s very hard to develop a successful business model for the media because we have only 18-milion population, including 8-9 million users. Our country is geographically vast. To catch the interest of the audience, we need to publish regional news. The state should be directly involved in the establishment of the media, and business will continue this legacy over time,” Sabirov said.

Interests of the audience

According to journalist Denis Krivosheyev, who has worked in many outlets, the Kazakstani audience is not interested in global, political news.

“Not everyone is interested in global news. I am sure that over a half of population doesn’t even care about what’s happening abroad, unless it’s the news about floods or shootings. They have their own idols and interests. Many people just don’t want to or don’t have time to read this whole news flow.  For example, the major part in the north of the country doesn’t pay attention to domestic news because they use satellite dishes of Tricolor and NTV Plus. The quality of services there is higher and prices are much lower. Unfortunately, some of them don’t even know the name of the prime minister. They are oriented on Russia and gradually leave the country. They might be frightened with what happens in Kazakstan and it’s easier for them to turn a blind eye to it. But sometimes it doesn’t work out,” journalist said.

According to his estimates, the average number of views of a piece of news on the largest websites is 60-70 thousand per 18 million of population, regardless of language. In general, one piece of news published in various interpretations and various sources will reach only 1.5-2 million people, or 10 per cent of population. The majority of people, according to Krivosheyev, don’t care about news, especially domestic ones.

“I think the Kazak-language content amounts to one half of total content. The point is its informative value and quality. You can improve it by the advertising budget increase or investments, but both of them collectively are impossible or unacceptable. The volume of advertising is comparable to the audience, production costs almost the same in any country, which means that money available in the sector is not enough for a quality product,” Krivosheyev said.

As to the influence of foreign media, he said that every country promoted its own interests and initially focused on the audience. In his opinion, the state must determine for itself the purpose of the media and then think how to develop it further.

Only the strongest will survive 

Political analyst Dossym Satpayev thinks that the authorities are to blame for the drain of local audience to Russian media.

 “In Kazakstan, we can see that the authorities have created a big problem themselves: they have cleared the media field, thus reducing its competitiveness, and getting the rest of media hooked on government orders. There’s almost no opposition media player left. The competitiveness of Kazak media outlets has reduced significantly. The citizens don’t see any interesting players, so they will seek for alternatives in foreign media, first of all, among Russian outlets. When Kazakstan closes media outlets other than those affiliated with government orders, the authorities push the audience into other countries’ media,” he noted. 
According to the expert, the political elite concered about information security refers to the security from hard questions, investigations within the country. After all, the leadership of the country doesn’t control public opinion, and people don’t trust the authorities. Also he cited the article by Noam Chomsky “10 strategies of manipulation by the media”, where the author spoke about the trends, which we observe, unfortunately, in Kazakstan. For instance, the intellectual field is getting increasingly smaller due to the flow of low-quality entertaining content in many Kazakstan media outlets.

According to the expert, the authorities want to educate a mass of neo-ignorant people who can consume only low-quality media products with simultaneous decrease in cultural, educational and analytical programmes. Yet, it is a dilemma because there’s a delusion that the ignorant mass is easier to control. However, this mass can fall under any other influence due to the lack of critical thinking. And it becomes a fertile ground for any external manipulations, for spreading half-truth and fake news.

“A competitive media field should be created in the country without putting obstacles for local media. Only the strongest will survive in the market,” Satpayev said.

According to Sabirov, media in state language should develop in the country because no one else is concerned with the production of such content, while the demand goes up.

“The state should not only place government orders for a year, but also develop the systematic media support programme for years to come. There will obviously be the demand because the Kazak-speaking audience is all ours. The statistical data shows that the audience is active, writes comments, and they do care,” Sabirov concluded.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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