Press Freedom in Kazakhstan

Tuesday, 30 November 2010


When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the policy of Glasnost across all Soviet government institutions in the late 1980s, it marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Empire. What the policy meant that for the first time, the press would be able to disseminate uncensored information without fear of reprisal. The details of Stalin’s purges could be published for the first time; the previously hidden detail of endemic social problems could be printed in newspapers; and debates could be had and ideas shared with the Western world – legally. Gorbachev had pulled back the Iron Curtain and, if only momentarily, the Soviet Empire got its first authorised glimpse of democracy.

But 19 years have passed since the end of Gorbachev’s short tenure as President of the Soviet Union, and unfortunately the spirit of Glasnost does not live on. Today it is estimated that nearly 80 per cent of those living in the former Soviet Union still live under authoritarian regimes that deprive them of fundamental political rights and civil liberties. Tightly controlled news media, pliant courts and brutal security forces are prevalent characteristics. The last ten years in particular, according to an extensive survey by Freedom House, have constituted “a decade of democratic regression in the former Soviet Union”.

Nowhere is this more apparent than within the borders of Kazakhstan – where dissenters, journalists and human rights activists have been frequently and consistently repressed with zeal. Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s 70-year old president, is one of only two leaders in the former USSR who also held power during the days of communist rule. Nazarbayev presents himself as a man of democracy, often asserting his commitment to the “protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. In reality, however, he is a dictator committed more so than anything else to the protection and maintenance of his own power.

Glasnost, therefore, is far from the agenda in Kazakhstan. According to Human Rights Watch, independent journalists who criticize Nazarbayev’s government policies and practices face threats and harassment, prohibitive penalties for civil defamation and “antiquated” criminal penalties for libel. This year alone at least two independent newspapers have been shut under Kazakh government pressure, while examples of press repression are reported almost weekly by Almaty-based media monitoring group Adil Soz, reflecting the country’s position as 162 out of 178 in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

One newspaper in particular, Respublika, has faced repeated and well-documented harassment from the Kazakh government. In 2002, after having supported an oppositional political party (Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan), reporters from Respublika turned up to work to find the corpse of a decapitated dog outside their offices. Next to the dog was a note that read, simply, “This is the last warning”. The following day, their offices were burned down.

But Republika refused to be intimidated and continued to publish, often under a different name in order to evade the authorities. Banned from the printing presses, and faced with a $400,000 fine in 2009 for publishing an opinion piece critical of the government owned bank BTA, the paper is now self-published by dedicated staff using office equipment, maintaining a circulation of 19,000. They have also adopted social media such as Facebook and Twitter to get their stories out. But their website, which once reached approximately 33,000 people per week (a substantial figure given that approximately only 34.3% of Kazakhstanis have access to the internet), has been blocked internally by the government.

“We had a high readership and people were discussing things, sharing ideas and trying to take action…that was the reason they blocked us,” said Respublika reporter Yevgeniya Plakhina. “If our government doesn’t like the content, they just block it.”

Despite continuing to employ such draconian censorship measures, Kazakhstan has over the course of 2010 chaired the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – a 56 member intergovernmental organisation whose mandate includes a major commitment to “addressing and providing early warning on violations of freedom of expression.”

“It’s beyond ironic,” said Rachel Denber, acting Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “I think that there were real questions about Kazakhstan’s suitability as the chair of the organisation because of its deeply flawed human rights record. No country is perfect, but Kazakhstan really needed to do more before it had the chairmanship.”

It was felt by some, though, that giving Kazakhstan the opportunity to chair the OSCE would force the government to push through reforms. This was undoubtedly based upon a willingness to give the country’s leadership the benefit of the doubt. After all, when Kazakhstan made its initial bid for the chairmanship in 2007, then Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin had pledged at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Madrid that Kazakhstan would bring its media laws up to international standards. “We are going to incorporate various proposals into a consolidated bill to amend the Media Law,” he said at the time. Yet three years on, the pledge rings hollow.

“Tazhin promised in Madrid that we would stick to democratic laws,” said Plakhina. “But when Kazakhstan was chosen to chair the OSCE nothing actually changed. It got even worse… several newspapers were closed as a result of defamation lawsuits.”

Part of the problem, Plakhina believes, is Kazakhstan’s geographical location. The country is a corridor to Afghanistan and a key ally of coalition forces in the War on Terror. It is also home to the Caspian Sea, which contains oil estimated to be worth in the region of $12 trillion.

“We have oil, we have gas, we have other resources,” Plakhina says. “I think our rights and freedoms are traded for resources, traded for other political advantages that OSCE member countries are taking from us. Few of the OSCE members criticise Kazakhstan. That’s what really disappoints me.”

Later this week, Kazakhstan will end its one year term as chair of the OSCE by hosting the annual OSCE summit, on December 1 and 2. International security is set to form the dominant part of the programme, but human rights and media freedom issues will also feature. Human Rights Watch will present a statement at the summit that will “urge the OSCE to prevail on participating states to uphold their commitments to freedom of expression across the board,” and the British delegation – led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – will also raise human rights concerns.

“We continue to be concerned about freedoms of religion, expression, assembly and of the media [in Kazakhstan],” said a spokesperson for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who also praised the country for taking steps with its reform agenda. “We and international partners will continue to encourage the Kazakh authorities, both bilaterally and through key international organisations such as the EU and OSCE, to press ahead with reforms, many of which they themselves have identified as necessary.”

This will offer little reassurance for Plakhina and her colleagues at Respublika, though. For them there remains a sense of anxiety about what will happen when Kazakhstan steps back from the international scrutiny inevitably attached to the chairmanship of the OSCE. The newspaper, for instance, recently received an anonymous email informing them that after the summit they would be closed down once and for all.

“After the summit you will hear about a lot of bad things going on in Kazakhstan,“ Plakhina says. “We won’t any longer have to hide our human rights violations… things are going to take a turn for the worse. We are trying to increase awareness in European countries about what is going to happen, but there is not much hope. As long as Nazarbayev is president, nothing is going to change.”


This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/ryan-gallagher/decapitated-dogs-and-burning-bureaus-year-kazakhstan-did-democracy

Psychic TV

Sunday, 7 November 2010


At just after 1am on a Saturday morning, an emotional woman picks up her phone and dials a premium rate phone number. Moments later she is connected to a live television psychic, to whom she tearfully explains her predicament. Her partner has just left her, she says, and he told her he is never coming back. The psychic pauses for a brief second, takes a deep breath, and unleashes a stream of spiritual wisdom. “There’s going to be a time and space where you won’t get communication,” he tells the woman, “but I’ve got to say to you, he does come back.”

The example is just one of many that could be culled from an evening watching Psychic TV – a popular interactive television programme available on both SKY and Freeview. The show, which claims to have just under 30m viewers, operates under the discreet disclaimer that it is for “entertainment purposes only,” rendering it legitimate under Ofcom’s recently revised Broadcasting Code. But to spend a few hours glued to Psychic TV late on any given Friday night is to confirm not only that Ofcom’s rules are lax – they are also being heavily flouted.

At a cost of £1.50 per minute, viewers are offered “the truth” from “natural born psychic mediums” who claim they can communicate with animals, talk to the dead and even detail past lives. The trouble is, it’s all absolutely serious. The psychics are keen to present themselves as authentic, offering callers ‘validation’ that they are bona fide “the best psychics in Britain,” genuinely in touch with the spirit world. “Our job is to prove to you beyond all doubt, without making it fit, that what we are doing is real,” one psychic named Hazel Lee announces. “We change lives… and the next person we help could be you.”

Not one psychic on Psychic TV presents him or herself as a novelty act, offering a service solely for the purposes of ‘entertainment’. In fact, the psychics spend much of their time trying to convince the audience of their legitimacy, citing a range of credentials as proof. Some of them went to the College of Psychic Studies, we are told – an establishment that says it is a "beacon of light and learning for those seeking to explore a consciousness beyond matter" – while others were apparently visited by spirits as children or had their ‘gift’ passed down hereditarily. Whether it be “pinpointing the cause of medical and physical problems,” or “tuning into your animal's deepest thoughts” – Psychic TV can offer it all. But at what cost?

According to Ofcom, “while psychic services may give rise to concerns about moral harm, no evidence of such harm is known to Ofcom.” Research commissioned by the regulator even goes as far as to use adjectives like “informative”, “uplifting”, “inspiring”, and “insightful” to describe Psychic TV. Female viewers in particular, the research notes, often perceive the show as “trustworthy and supportive”. But not everybody would agree. During consultations in 2007, for instance, The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adopted a far more critical position. “Psychic reading channels raise significant harm and offence concerns,” they said.

The problem is that Ofcom, unlike the ASA, has been far too willing to overlook the huge moral and ethical questions raised by the existence of Psychic TV shows. It is part of their mission, they say, to protect against sharp practise and prevent misleading advertising. Yet their approval of a programme offering life changing ‘truth’ and advice drawn from ‘spirits’ at a price of £1.50 per minute suggests they have fallen asleep on duty. As a regulatory body serving the public interest, Ofcom must therefore reassess whether it is right, fair and decent that a for-profit business enterprise is given free rein to prey on the emotions, fears and anxieties of the lonely, lost and vulnerable.

Read Ofcom's response here.

This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/psychic-tv-consciousness-beyond-matter-and-ofcom

The Woolas Judgement

Saturday, 6 November 2010


It was during the general election campaign in May that it began: a tense political battle that would eventually go down in history for all the wrong reasons. Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas versus Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins, in a fight to the wire to win the notoriously marginal seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth.

Woolas, of course, went on to claim victory in the election – by just 103 votes – but the real drama was only just about to get started. In the aftermath of the election, Watkins filed a legal challenge to the result. Woolas had breached the Representation of the People Act (RPA), he said, because he had published several false statements about him in order to sway the electorate in his favour.

Central to the allegations was a claim that Woolas had tried to infer a connection between Watkins and extremist Muslims who advocated violence. Racial tensions run high in the constituency – which has a troubled history of inter-racial violence – and the implications were severe. Was a senior and high-ranking Labour politician using smear tactics against an opponent, while in the process potentially inciting racial hatred in a desperate bid to cling on to his seat?

It would be up to the judges to decide. A special election court was convened in Saddleworth, and there could scarcely have been a more incongruous setting for a trial of such historic significance. The first of its kind in nearly 100 years, it was to be set in a small Civic Hall in the confines of an idyllic Pennine town. High Court judges would travel from London, as would the national media, and all would watch closely as the dark underbelly of British politics was sliced open miles from the hustle and bustle of Manchester.

The court heard how emails were exchanged between members of Woolas’ campaign team. “Things are not going as well as I had hoped … we need to think about our first attack leaflet,” wrote campaign manager, Steven Green. "If we don’t get the white vote angry he’s gone,” responded Joe Fitzpatrick, Woolas’ election agent. An array of leaflets and newspaper-style materials were then promptly produced by the Labour team, approved by Woolas, accusing Watkins of trying to “woo” extremist votes, while Woolas himself was conversely presented as a tough on immigration candidate who had courageously defied extremist death threats.

Opinion was divided across the political spectrum. Many felt such tactics were simply part and parcel of electoral campaigning. “By-election hand-to-hand electoral combat can throw up trenchant exchanges and tricky campaign behaviour,” said Charles Kennedy of a similarly close-fought Saddleworth election in 1995. “One should not be too precious about this sort of thing.” Sitting in Labour’s Oldham office a week prior to the announcement of the Woolas verdict, Racial Equality First Director and lifelong Labour supporter Mohammed Tufail OBE adopted a similar position. Inflammatory leaflets werejust playing the game,he said. “Sometimes you put in nutty leaflets nobody takes seriously.”

Others, though, strongly disagreed. Among them were two High Court judges: Mr Justice Griffith Williams and Mr Justice Teare. Delivering a historic ruling in the Saddleworth Civic Hall, they found Woolas “guilty of an illegal practice,” for contravening section 106 of the RPA. “To say that a person has sought the electoral support of persons who advocate extreme violence, clearly attacks his personal character or conduct,” they said. “It suggests that he is willing to condone threats of violence in pursuit of personal advantage.”

The consequences, the judges made immediately clear, were serious. “Allegations of an illegal practice in elections,” they wrote in their full judgement, “have what are in effect penal consequences.” As such, the May election Woolas won by 103 votes was declared void, and he was barred from the House of Commons and any elective office for three years.

Some of us expected it, but the verdict still came as a shock. There was a collective gasp in the hall’s makeshift press gallery when the announcement was made, particularly when the words “election” and “void” echoed through the room. It was a historic moment and all present were acutely aware of it. Here was a former cabinet minister, a front bench MP, being found guilty of lying by two High Court judges in a Civic Hall in a serene Pennine town.

But the story has far from reached its conclusion. Woolas said after hearing the verdict that he would apply for a judicial review of the case, which could take months. Though it remains to be seen whether he will stick to his guns after the Labour Party confirmed they would not support his appeal – either financially or politically. Ed Miliband, who offered Woolas a position on the shadow cabinet just over a month ago, told Channel 4 News Woolas had now been suspended from the party. “The right decision is to suspend him from the party and to say we're not going to fund his further legal action,” he said.

Beyond Woolas, there is also a much bigger picture to be considered. If the judgement stands – which it most likely will – then there are potentially massive implications for politics on a national level. In the first instance, there is a danger that freedom of expression could be impinged. A paranoid self-censorship could result in overly sanitised, dull political campaigns lacking in fire or bite; there could be a “chilling effect” as Woolas' solicitor suggested.

Alternatively, the judgement may well serve as a timely reminder that there are some boundaries that cannot be crossed – that it is acceptable to push the line, to engage in rhetorical judo with opponents, but it is not legal to execute unfounded character assassinations, to spread lies or to incite racial hatred.

Or perhaps the repercussions will be limited, as legal experts have already predicted. Whatever the eventual consequences of the Woolas judgement might be, though, it is clear is that the trial – even if only temporarily – opened up the mechanics of political campaigning to public scrutiny, and that can only have been a good thing.

In essence, the whole dramatic affair was summed up in a few simple words quietly spoken by Elwyn Watkins in the moments after his historic victory. "Everybody is in favour of proper democratic debate, but that has boundaries," he said, standing outside the Civic Hall. “Politics has to be better than this."


This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/woolas-judgement

More coverage of the Woolas case by me appears in the FT: see here, here and here.