As Kazakhstan's annual Eurasian Media Forum opened in Almaty on April 27, officials seemed keen to showcase the Central Asian nation's qualifications for chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But civil society activists ended up seizing on the occasion to publicize alleged violations of free speech.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev opened the forum -- organized by his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva -- by portraying Kazakhstan as a stable role model for a region reeling from political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Kazakhstan is confident in its strengths and ready to support other countries in our region," he told participants in his opening speech.
Attendees leaving the conference hall later saw a different side of Kazakhstan. Some witnessed a scuffle between security guards and media freedom activists with pink-framed sunglasses perched on their heads. The activists also carried placards in both English and Russian with the slogan "Remove Rose-Colored Glasses." The glasses and the placards sought to call the international community's attention to complaints about Kazakhstan's media environment.
Tatyana Trubacheva, editor of the independent Golos Respubliki newspaper, and Yevgeniya Plakhina, a journalist from the newspaper (one of several publishing under the Respublika brand), distributed an appeal outlining alleged violations of media freedom in Kazakhstan, including threats against reporters and restrictions on access to broadcast media and the Internet. In this light, the appeal said, "Kazakhstan does not have the right to be the [OSCE] chair."
Security guards manhandled Plakhina into an elevator as they attempted to remove her from the venue. As she was being bundled away, she called out: "Freedom of speech is being violated in our country!" She was soon allowed to rejoin the protest, which dispersed peacefully. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Earlier, inside the forum, Trubacheva had raised the issue of access to printing facilities: since September 2009, publishing houses have declined to publish Golos Respubliki, and journalists have been printing copies on office equipment in a practice reminiscent of "samizdat," the Soviet-era method of copying and distributing material to evade censorship. "[Publishing houses] are afraid of reprisals from the power structures," Trubacheva told the media forum. "We believe we are being persecuted for political reasons."
Recently appointed OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic told reporters she hoped the printing "ban" would soon be lifted.
Kazakhstan was awarded the OSCE chairmanship for 2010 despite misgivings about its press freedom record. Top officials in the Nazarbayev administration insist the government is committed to freedom of speech.
The OSCE has repeatedly called on Astana to decriminalize libel, which some observers believe has become a tool for curbing criticism of government conduct. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many are also concerned over decreasing Internet freedoms. Sites blocked in Kazakhstan include LiveJournal, where Rakhat Aliyev -- Dariga Nazarbayeva's former husband who fell foul of the authorities in 2007 -- runs a blog, and Blogspot, where human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis -- imprisoned last year on charges of vehicular manslaughter after a trial criticized as flawed -- recently started blogging. Respublika's online forum has also experienced access problems recently, which Plakhina associates with user comments posted after the unrest in Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Nazarbayev used the media forum to recall Kazakhstan's role in mediating the Kyrgyz crisis. He also promoted the need for an Astana-hosted OSCE summit later this year. OSCE officials, meanwhile, are watching to see how Kazakhstan lives up to its commitments to the organization.
"I will continue to talk to all relevant parties in order to build my assessment and in order to remind the Kazakh government that it is crucial to deliver in the human dimension area, especially in the light of the possibility for a summit [in Astana]," Mijatovic told EurasiaNet.org at the media forum. "The Kazakh chairmanship should show the will, and has this noble role in setting the example for all others to become a lot more professional." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Editor's Note: Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.