Celebrating World Press Freedom Day

Speeches Shim

Monday, May 3, 2021
World Press Freedom Day

Few steps forward and few steps back – Kazakhstan media advocacy organizations discuss freedom of speech.

On May 3, world over, we celebrate World Press Freedom Day. To learn about the freedom of speech and journalists’ rights in Central Asia, USAID’s partner, Internews, interviewed three media advocacy organizations in Kazakhstan to understand the challenges journalists face and what work is being done in the region to improve the situation.

Gulmira Birzhanova, Lawyer, Legal Media Center Public Foundation

There are both positive and negative changes in the freedom of speech in Kazakhstan. On the positives, libel is no longer criminally liable, it is now an administrative offense. Also, in 2015, the government adopted the law on access to information, a significant step forward. In general, consequently, there are fewer lawsuits. Additionally, the influence of the Internet and the protection of rights online have also been strengthened over the years. “Not only journalists but also bloggers come to us now. We don’t distinguish between journalists and bloggers, if there’s a violation of freedom of speech, we help,” says Gulmira Birzhanova, a lawyer at the Legal Media Center Public Foundation, a Kazakhstani non-governmental organization (NGO), working in the field of mass media, legal protection, and training journalists. 

However, there are some negative aspects as well. Now, journalists are charged not with libel, but with other, more serious articles of the criminal code: extremism, dissemination of knowingly false information, incitement of religious, ethnic, and class division.

In addition, according to the ratings of international organizations, the situation with freedom of speech on the Internet in Kazakhstan is complicated. “The issue of adopting a new media law is being discussed now; the ministry already has a concept. We expect that organizations like ours that help journalists defend their rights will be allowed to participate in this process.” 

“Our mission is to develop a high-quality and professional press in Kazakhstan through comprehensive training for journalists and the promotion of interests of the media community,” says Gulmira.

In 2004, Diana Okremova and Gulmira Birzhanova established the Legal Media Center in Kostanay. In 2008, the organization moved to the capital of Kazakhstan to expand the scope of its activities. Today, the Legal Media Center is the only media NGO in Nur-Sultan working with journalists and the media.

There are not a lot of media lawyers in Kazakhstan; only a couple of people for the entire country consult on this area of law. “Now, with the support of Internews Network, we have a project under which we teach young lawyers the basics of media law. Besides, for the third year now, we have been running a project for the lawyers of media editorial boards in Kazakhstan and Central Asian countries. In the coming months, we will be releasing online lessons on media law. We also, together with the Supreme Court, train and educate judges.

The Legal Media Center Public Foundation is supported by the USAID-funded Central Asia Media Program, implemented by Internews. 

Igor Brattsev, Director, International Journalism Center MediaNet

2020 and 2021 have created unprecedented challenges. Kazakhstan is in a state of instability: the COVID-19 pandemic, existing and perceived economic and social problems, have forced the state to make swift and effective decisions. This has affected the observance of civil rights and political freedoms, primarily freedom of speech and expression, the right to a fair trial, freedom of movement, and privacy.

Difficulties with access to information have arisen, especially when journalists request inconvenient information from government bodies. “In such a situation, most information is now created and disseminated on social networks and messengers,” says Igor Brattsev, Director of International Journalism Center MediaNet, an NGO founded by a group of Kazakhstani journalists in 2004.

“However, when consuming and distributing content, audiences do not use critical thinking. People often react emotionally rather than logically, perceive manipulative or false information, and replicate it, further distorting the information background. This particularly exasperates accountability and, consequently, leads to tightening of control and limiting the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of information,” adds Igor.

International Journalism Center MediaNet supports civil society in Kazakhstan and Central Asia by strengthening the capacity of independent and objective media, forming critical thinking, and responsible media consumption, developing media literacy, and countering misinformation. 

Its key projects today are the Media School (more than 1,700 alumni), media literacy projects, the fact-checking project Factcheck.kz, and the online platform Expert Public Space that facilitates public discussions with experts from civil society in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. In 2020, when the infodemic began, MediaNet launched a course on media and information literacy Media ME! for the public.

The USAID’s Central Asia Media Program supports MediaNet in development of a Media and Digital Literacy Textbook for high school students - the first locally-created source for teaching media literacy in high schools of Kazakhstan.

Baktygul Burbayeva, Executive Director, KazMediaNetwork

KazMediaNetwork is a new public association registered in February 2021 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. “Our mission is to create a platform for discussion of current problems and challenges facing journalists, and to develop ethical approaches to their work,” says Baktygul Burbayeya, Executive Director, KazMediaNetwork. “There is a need to establish a self-regulation institution for media in Kazakhstan. Our organization was created to develop a basis for it, to institutionalize basic principles for the media.” 

“We believe that professional journalism should become the basis for qualitative changes in all spheres of our country. We are writing recommendations to the curriculum for journalists’ education, we are speaking out ourselves, and engaging experts in discussions on social media platforms. The rights of journalists will always need protection,” adds Baktygul.

For 2021, KazMediaNetwork has three priorities: the first is the creation of a Public Committee for Media Self-Regulation in Kazakhstan, which will help to raise the level of professionalism and avoid potential lawsuits; the second is the development of a unified training and methodological program for journalism departments at Kazakhstan’s universities and colleges; and the third is the promotion of ethical norms and standards for mass media in Kazakhstan.

“In this important work we are already supported by Internews Network through the USAID-funded Central Asia Media Program, and soon we will apply for support to other international organizations, because the establishment of a public self-regulation body for the media involves the intensive work of an initiative group. There are many meetings, media appearances, stories, and interviews ahead,” says Baktygul.

In 2020, a group of media experts began a project to develop the basic principles of media in Kazakhstan. The project was implemented with the participation of representatives of the Media Alliance of Kazakhstan, including three members of the National Council of Public Trust - Kanat Sakhary, Armanzhan Baitassov, and Mikhail Dorofeyev, who passed away in 2021. Mikhail made a significant contribution to the development of the Basic Principles for the Media in Kazakhstan; he was the editor of the ethical principles. “We will always remember with gratitude his contribution to the development of Kazakhstani journalism!” – says Baktygul. 

There remain many challenges for media advocacy organizations, but it is inspiring and encouraging to note that steps towards freedom of speech are being taken in Central Asia. Most importantly, people in general, not only journalists, are concerned about access to information, about the possibility of voicing problems. World Press Freedom Day offers us the opportunity to recognize our achievements to date and the work that still lies ahead. 

Last updated: June 17, 2021

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