Kazakh free press is being censored into oblivion, but was it ever really free to begin with?

So, last week a court in Kazakhstan banned Stan.tv from operating on the charge of extremism — and in a few weeks, Astana shall ascend to the UN Human Rights Council. There’s a full-on censorhip tsunami sweeping the country, taking out news agencies, websites, broadcasters, political parties and even the US Peace Corps, and one way or another, it seems the epicentre of the earthquake is in the 2011 Zhanoazen riots. Of course, I don’t want to diminish the huge concern the world should have about this situation, but at the same time, I don’t want us captured by illusion…

So, last week a court in Kazakhstan banned Stan.tv from operating on the charge of extremism — and in a few weeks, Astana shall ascend to the UN Human Rights Council. There’s a full-on censorhip tsunami sweeping the country, taking out news agencies, websites, broadcasters, political parties and even the US Peace Corps, and one way or another, it seems the epicentre of the earthquake is in the 2011 Zhanoazen riots.

Of course, I don’t want to diminish the huge concern the world should have about this situation, but at the same time, I don’t want us captured by illusion either. “Free press” in Kazakhstan has always been a flexible, philosophical concept. As Freedom House (and others) note, “Kazakhstan’s media outlets are privately owned but firmly under the control of major financial groups affiliated with the regime.” In other words, the media is under the control of national elites, and what we on the outside see as “opposition” is frequently just disagreements and feuds between them (not to mention the fact that opposition and independence are not the same concept). This situation includes several of the agencies that have been recently drowned.

We should never forget that few regimes are as skilled at the spectacle of neo-liberalism as Kazakhstan’s. The “opposition” voices that shall survive this tsunami will be those pre-selected/pre-filtered, thereby giving a veneer of modernization to the country. And in the aftermath, they shall all be sounding the same cry as on Kazakhstan’s official new holiday, 1 December, “First President’s Day”, proclaiming: “One Country! One Destiny! One Leader!”

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1 comment Show discussion Hide discussion
  • Nice to see you back on the site. However, I think your post has some problematic presuppositions.

    On the one hand, I would point out that your theory about a clash of elites is just as applicable in the American mediascape as in the Kazakh one. Consider: CNN versus Fox News (Turner versus Murdoch). On the other hand, there can be real differences of opinion between these elites.

    Meanwhile, although I definitely agree that “opposition” and “independence” should not be confused as being the same concept, this distinction still overlooks the problem — the universal problem — of funding for media. There is no fullproof way to ensure the independence of a media outlet. Privatization opens the door to one kind of bias, government-sponsorship to another.

    Also, Kazakhstan is an avowed “guided democracy” (cf. “From Democratization to ‘Guided Democracy’” by Archie Brown). To what degree that is just a rouse for corruption is highly debatable. I, for one, am torn: I see it as very dangerous, but at the same time, I’m receptive to the argument that the government is sincere in its paternalism, and sees such control (right or wrongly) as the road to long-term stability and some kind of recognizable modernization. Consider the arguments that Alima Bissenova makes on The Registan (cf. “Kazakhstan’s elections: aspirations for democracy amidst expectations of paternalism”), concluding:

    “Nazarbayev has usurped huge power but the majority of people in Kazakhstan continue to support him, and by association his party, precisely because they see that a concentrated power is needed to ensure order and stability and to provide solutions to the social problems of the day. The ruling elite and, perhaps, Nazarbayev himself, however, hope that this power which is now concentrated in the figure of Nazarbayev can be institutionalized and subsequently inherited not just by the next president (like as happened, for instance, in Turkmenistan) but by an institution, such as a parliament or a ruling party, which would be supported by the people in the same way that Nazarbayev himself was supported.”

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