Kazakhstan’s journalistic community has long debated how to face the pervasive influence of Russian media in the Central Asian country. The topic has increased in urgency with the bitter international standoff between Russia and Ukraine, which is partly playing out on Russian television.
Russian state channels like Rossiya, NTV, and First Channel – which critics see as Kremlin propaganda tools – enjoy huge popularity in Kazakhstan, the Media Kurultai (an annual gathering of journalists in Almaty) heard on November 14.
This creates a national security threat to Kazakhstan, where viewers are swallowing their poisonous coverage about Ukraine, speakers told a panel on information security.
The public mindset in Kazakhstan is being shaped by Russian officials and TV presenters like Dmitry Kiselyov, who is well-known for his anti-Western tirades, opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov told the conference. This means Kazakhstanis end up “viewing events in Ukraine through the eyes of [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov or Kiselyov,” he said.
Yet Astana is itself pushing viewers into the arms of Russian TV, Kosanov argued, by controlling the Kazakhstani media so tightly that it becomes unattractive.
“The challenge to information security emerges from governmental policies,” agreed Adil Nurmakov, a journalism professor at Almaty’s KIMEP University. “It’s a vicious circle.”
“Now [government officials] have found themselves in a situation when they’re wondering why people are not watching Kazakhstani TV channels and why they’re not reading the Kazakhstani press,” Nurmakov told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the forum. “But there’s nothing to read and nothing to watch.”
Astana spends millions of dollars a year on media subsidies, with the lion’s share used to promote the administration’s messages through powerful state media outlets. Much of the subsidized coverage is aimed at generating a “feel-good factor” among Kazakhstan’s public, a new study has found.
State media subsidies have shot up in recent years, the research by the Legal Media-Center, an NGO, found, almost tripling from 8.8 billion tenge (some $57 million) in 2005 to 22.7 billion tenge ($147 million) in 2012. This year state subsidies will reach 35 billion tenge ($233 million) nationally, with a further 2 billion tenge ($13 million) allocated in the regions.
A total of 98 media outlets benefited from state subsidies in 2012, yet they were spread thin. Over half (51 percent) went to just three outlets: the two main state-owned national newspapers, the Kazakh-language Yegemen Kazakhstan (360 million tenge, or $2.3 million) and its sister publication, Russian-language Kazakhstankaya Pravda (290 million tenge, or $1.8 million). News agency Kazinform received 245 million tenge ($1.6 million).
The research, based on an analysis of official information received from ministries, found that much funding went on communicating information about the work of the state: 39 percent was spent on publishing material such as texts of laws and decrees and job vacancies, and another 37 percent on material covering domestic government policy and the work of the president, cabinet, and law-enforcement agencies.
All this week, CNN International, part of that “most trusted name in news,” has aired a series of reports on Kazakhstan. But what looks to the unsuspecting viewer like more of CNN at its finest appears in fact to be sponsored advertisements paid for by none other than Kazakhstan’s oil-rich government.
The spots are part of CNN International’s “Eyes On” series. Pay close attention and only the one-minute promo for the series ends with an announcement, "In association with the following," leaving the viewer to try to read two logos on screen. One is clearly Samruk Kazyna, the state fund that owns all state assets. The other, particularly fuzzy, logo is the Astana Economic Forum, the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Both link to a page promoting Astana's bid to host Expo 2017.
Most of the spots are quirky, soft-core reportage and travelogue sprinkled with carefully framed shots of the glitziest parts of Astana and Almaty. Topics include economic diversification, transportation infrastructure, skiing, and dating games. CNN International offers no coverage of labor strikes, human rights abuses, nascent violent insurgencies, violence against women, or any other diversions from the narrative of relentless growth and limitless opportunity.
As reported by RFE/RL this week, Turkmenistan is for the first time broadcasting the European football championships to local viewers.
Now, state broadcasters are hoping to build on that precedent by securing the rights to European Champions League -- the continent’s premier club-level contest -- which is also hugely popular among local sports fans.
Viewers have in the past relied on their trusty satellite dishes to view that competition, usually picking up games beamed from Tajikistan, whose television stations are typically less precious about the legal niceties of broadcasting rights.
The country’s only sporting newspaper, “Turkmen Sport,” recently ran an article headlined “A Gift of the Hero President,” explaining that Turkmenistan has become a full-fledged member of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU). The article explained that this has given Turkmenistan the option to relay the Euro 2012 championship -- an achievement the article predictably attributes to a presidential order.
Full ABU membership, according sources at the state broadcaster, guaranteed Turkmenistan rights to Euro 2012 for the nugatory sum of $20,000. No information is available about the cost of ABU membership fees.
The broadcasting of the competition on local television has been perhaps most keenly welcomed in the provinces, where people are less likely to have satellite dishes and where such equipment is either not readily available or too expensive.
While there is obvious appeal to hearing sports commentary in one’s own language, RFE/RL does fairly note that the quality of local commentators may leave something to be desired:
The Russian and Turkish channels -- ORT, Rossiya, and TRT 1 -- have professional TV hosts adept at giving compelling play-by-play commentary.
Newspaper owners around the world worry obsessively about circulation figures, but Turkmenistan’s state media is getting around that problem by forcing government workers to buy subscriptions.
Mandatory attendance by state employees at horse races and concerts to celebrate national holidays has been standard for some time now, so this practice is only part of the bigger picture.
Turkmenistan has no independent media, and the state newspapers and magazines that are published are to a great extent exercises in praising the policies of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Perhaps for that reason above all others, they are not overly popular in their own right.
In what appears to be an exercise to compensate at least partially for the outlays involved in producing print publications, government workers are, as of the second half of 2012, being obliged to take out subscriptions.
So, for example, people working in schools and universities will now have to commit to buying at least four newspapers and one magazine, which should include the capital city government’s newspaper, “Ashgabat,” and education workers’ newspaper, “Mugalymlar Gazety” (Teacher’s Newspaper).
Perversely, postal service workers, who have access to all the newspapers in the country -- at the workplace anyway -- are being made to spend at least $17.50 twice a year on publications they could have already read.
The forced subscriptions drive has yielded most returns for weekly newspaper “Turkmen Dili,” (Turkmen Language) which costs around $1 for six months and has 117,500 subscribers. It popularity may have more to do with its cheapness than anything.
By way of comparison, the only available Russian-language newspaper, “Neutralny Turkmenistan,” has a circulation just over 49,100.
The mudslinging against the favorite in Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming presidential elections on October 30, Almazbek Atambayev, shows little sign of abating.
Kyrgyz-language newspaper Uchur reheated allegations on October 13 that Atambayev is profiting from the illegal drug trade, but not without adding some piquant and typically (for Kyrgyz-language newspapers) outrageous and unsourced allegations.
According to the Uchur report, the Russia media has turned on Atambayev and exposed his alleged involvement in the drug trade. It is not clear to which Russian publications Uchur is referring and there is little evidence of any truth in their claim. So far, it seems the slurs have only gained traction on a handful on dubious local news websites and Internet forums. (In fact, on October 10 Atambayev was received in Moscow by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which looks suspiciously like an endorsement.)
The campaign appears to be the brainchild of a group that calls itself the Association of Free Bloggers and Journalists of Kyrgyzstan, which no prominent blogger in the country has confessed to ever having heard of. The only figure identified as having any association with the group is one Bakit Djailibaev, who spends most of his time on Facebook taunting actual bloggers and posting links in favor of rival presidential candidate Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a conservative from the Ar-Namys party.
Bishkek's investigation into June’s ethnic violence seems more about fingering easy blame - and buttressing nationalist fantasy - than uncovering truth. Members had previously agreed to release their findings on September 10, but it looks like they couldn't wait.
Provisional President Roza Otunbayeva established the National Investigative Commission on July 15 to research the June ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that left at least 370 dead and more than 2,000 wounded.
Zhypar Zheksheev, a member of the commission, suggested we foreign journalists have blood on our hands because we were poking around in the South before most of the violence started. Our presence in May, for example, demonstrates we knew the ethnic violence would occur.
“We have instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to review the date of publication [of these foreshadowing articles] and to evaluate their content. In addition, we intend to find out who accredited and invited these media outlets and how they learned in advance about how and what will happen in reality,” he said on August 17.
With all due respect, Mr. Zheksheev, it didn’t take a genius to see the place was imploding. In fact, here’s a story from May 19 about ethnic violence in Jalalabad.
Zheksheev is continuing a tired narrative blaming the foreign press for being, we hear ad nauseam, “anti-Kyrgyz.”
Nationalist press interpretations of the recent violence in southern Kyrgyzstan are adding to tensions throughout the country. Coupled with the refusal of both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to assess their hate, these reports make peace seem increasingly elusive.
Kyrgyzstan's legislation prohibits the incitement of ethnic hatred, but the weak central government has not stopped the distribution of the chauvinistic editorials and reporting in the Kyrgyz-language press. Certainly, Uzbek Internet portals are distributing hateful messages, too, but most Uzbek media outlets have closed following the June violence.
In the Kyrgyz media, the xenophobic opinions generally follow three inter-related themes:
1. The violent events in April and June 2010 endangered Kyrgyz statehood. Bigger and more powerful states (read: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) will “swallow up” Kyrgyz land. The Kyrgyz must fight for their state.
2. Preserving Kyrgyz statehood requires the titular ethnicity - the Kyrgyz - to assume their "deserved preeminent status" in the country. Ethnic minority involvement in politics and the economy must be limited because the recent events indicate their representatives (i.e. Uzbeks) are unreliable: ethnic minorities did not shed blood toppling the authoritarian Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April. Rather than work with the Kyrgyz toward building Kyrgyz statehood, the ethnic minority representatives sought political autonomy and language privileges, such narratives attest.
3. The main perpetrators of the June 10-15 violence are Uzbek community leaders and they must be punished severely.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government is trying to influence coverage of the recent violence to promote its version of events. Such behavior is unsurprising anywhere. But something very similar has been going on in international media coverage since the start, only with a different bias and a degree of conformity (collusion even?) that gives the illusion of authoritativeness.
The rough narratives are as follows.
Kyrgyz Interim Government: “It is clear that the roots of the conflict are the provocations organized by armed militants and criminal elements to promote the interests of the political forces that support them.”
(Read: "See, the previous regime is made up of devils intent on destroying Kyrgyzstan at any cost. We are building a new nation and this will be an essential verse in our foundation myth.")
International media parachuting in: “This is an old-fashioned Central Asian pogrom, genocide, a brutal act of ethnic-cleansing, the slaughter and rape of Uzbeks by rampaging Kyrgyz mobs.”
Is this a deliberate editorial policy? An “if in doubt, exaggerate” approach born from guilt over previous failures to recognize and prevent genocide, most obviously in Rwanda? Or simple sensationalism and lazy journalism from editors that don’t understand Kyrgyzstan, but know their readers don’t either? Either way, it is hard to defend.