Head of Kazakhstan Media Alliance ADIL DZHALILOV:
"The Broadcasting Law may have dire consequences for Kazakhstan's television and its audience"
The Law "On Television and Radio Broadcasting," signed in January by the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev and seen as controversial by many human rights groups and media organizations has been a subject of heated debates. Member of Soros-Kazakhstan board of trustees, the chairman of Kazakhstan Media Alliance, Adil DJALILOV, talked with the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency about possible repercussions the law may have on the media.
- How do you see the Broadcasting Law changing the TV industry and society?
- The Law may have dire consequences for Kazakh television, TV audience and the entire industry. It seems that the sole purpose of the lawmakers was to make Kazakhstan's television a fully government-controlled media.
The issue could have been resolved through forming a public broadcasting agency, similar to that in Ukraine and a number of western countries with a balanced mix of representatives from political circles, NGOs, independent experts and MPs. Such broadcasting councils quite successfully cope with broadcasting regulation issues such as licenses, frequencies, content control, etc. Unfortunately, our broadcasting committee is a mere consultative and advisory body with a predominant opinion of the government, with no public and private interests taken into regard.
After scrutinizing the Law, you can say with a fair degree of certainty that it will make the domestic TV market deteriorate and shrink. We will see less private television channels, less pluralism, less critical opinions, less creativity, less new TV projects, but more bribery and corruption.
I refer to the draft law edition dated from October 31 last year, since the updated law edition has never reached the public. In other words, the document signed by the President into law has never appeared in the press or government websites.
- You mentioned in your comments to the Law that it will also affect Kazakhstan's Internet...
- It is obvious that the Broadcasting Law will affect Kazakhstan's Internet as well. In July 2009 a notorious law on Internet regulation was adopted that qualifies all Internet resources as media platforms. It caused a stir among experts, the public and international organizations. However, a wave of unrests that rolled across Iran and China seemed to have convinced the head of state to sign such controversial law.
Until now the law has been scarcely applied and was regarded by media experts as a delayed action bomb.
Obviously, when it comes to Interfax and other news sites, which are, in fact, the media outlets, the law means well. However, social networks and chat rooms can be hardly classified and regulated as media outlets. It's not possible to control the content of Facebook, millions of blogs and comments and call them media by any means. Since July 2009 a huge number of such web-sites have been exposed to a risk of charges over banned content, as anyone can post any illegal rubbish as a comment, make a screenshot and report to the police.
The Internet will be next to receive a blow from the Broadcasting Law. When television becomes fully controlled by the government, aka Soviet-style, people will immerse themselves in the Internet to seek truth, pluralism, feedback and immediate coverage. With rising internet speed and traffic and sliding prices, the video services, podcasts, social networking, blogs and individual websites will be gaining more popularity.
The Kazakh government will respond in its signature manner using mostly stick than carrot to tighten the screws on the Internet. It will raise a wave of law suites and trials to shut down websites. This is a muscle flexing practice. It may work with traditional media, but may not be as successful with Internet websites. It's one thing to pressure a TV channel owner, who invested $3-5 million dollars, and it's quite another matter to control million web-sites that could easily change domains. A TV channel owner will be acquiescent not to risk his investments, but hundred thousands of geeks will need only a couple of hours to move the content stored on some server in the Netherlands to another web-site or social network.
How will our authorities respond? They are not used to acting in a graceful manner. They will start blocking the largest websites. Livejournal is a good example. I believe sooner or later the young people that are currently indifferent to big politics will become more socially active, especially after they are refused access to social networks, such as Vkontakte and Facebook, and start wondering “Why is it happening?”, “What is it for?” In other words, the authorities themselves are creating prerequisites for destabilization. In today’s conditions, when Internet “is killing” the traditional mass media, liberalization and tax concessions are needed but not “crackdown” measures or nationalization of the industry.
- What do you think of TV digitization mentioned in the Law?
- This is another problem area. Few people know that Almaty, Astana and Karaganda should complete the TV digitization process in a year. The analogue TV, however, will be abolished in 2015, when all Kazakhstanis will have to buy receivers to be able to watch TV. What kind of receivers? Where? How much do they cost? Nobody knows the answers.
What TV channels will be allowed to broadcast? This is up to the authorities to decide. Kazteleradio, a government agency, will be the principal operator of the digital TV. In other words, they will be managing the whole TV complex, including government and independent TV channels, which will mean that all TV stations, especially private ones, will have prove the authorities that they are absolutely supportive of the ruling party and leadership of the country.
Consequently, the authorities will be able to control the contents of the domestic TV and switch off any TV channel at any moment.
Today the government is spending huge money on interpretation of the president’s addresses to the nation and coverage of the republic’s achievements. Buy why is it doing so when it is quite obvious that such expenditures are in vain? Very often subsidies are given to the newspapers and TV channel that very few people read and watch. Of course, the authorities want to tame all TV companies and the whole mass media. It is the digitization of the TV industry that will help them to gain control of the entire mass media market. But this is not a solution!
- Does the Law say anything about independent TV?
- Unfortunately, not. Instead, there are a great number of government-controlled TV channels in Kazakhstan. There must be at least one independent TV station as in any other advanced country.
For example, in Germany every federal state must have independent TV channels according to the Law. Anyone can come to a TV station, ask for a camera, specialized equipment and cameraman and make his own program. He just has to sign a special paper to justify that he will abide by the law.
Kazakhstan also tried to formulate a concept of independent TV. There are a number of such concepts in the world but our government has not yet chosen to do so and this is very symptomatic.
- Can the Broadcasting Law make the domestic TV more competitive?
- Some people call it a law on state regulation of the TV. Currently, we have seven national TV channels compared with only eight in Russia, with its population totaling 140 million people.
I do not know why so much money has to be spent. Someone said at a conference, “I am being brainwashed for my own money.” But this is the taxpayers’ money. There should not be any illusions. We are paying for the TV that is quite uncompetitive and persuading us that we should be happy with what we have. That is exactly what the USSR did before!
On the other hand, as you may know, restriction of imports does not necessarily lead to higher quality. Yes, the domestic product becomes dominant in the local market but that does not mean that its quality will improve and that the customer will be satisfied.
The quality of goods can only get better in a competitive environment and there is no need to organize a large number TV channels, one or two state-owned TV stations would be enough but they have to be very good.
- Some experts are afraid that the Law will reduce the number of foreign TV channels that are currently offered by the cable and satellite TV companies…
- The Law requires that all foreign TV channels that are broadcasted in Kazakhstan be registered with the authorized agencies.
I truly doubt that all foreign TV channels that are currently available in the republic will wish to spend their effort and money on registration. There are over 200 countries in the world and over a hundred of them pursue quite sane policies. They just allow broadcasting and that is it. It is quite obvious that the number of foreign TV channels, many Kazakhstanis like, will shrink. I think most of the people will either buy satellite antennas unofficially or unblock their existing antennas.
- Are the certification and control over satellite dishes a loophole for corruption?
- All satellite dishes to be imported in the territory of Kazakhstan will be subject to certification. It is not clear why the EU or Russian certification is not enough. It seems that the main purpose of the new measure is to keep various K+’s and other seditious voices off the air. One of the official purposes of the certification is to protect the health of the population. It is strange that the state has become concerned with the health of the population just now, especially since there have been no studies of the health effects of satellite dishes. The authorities probably mean the mental health of the population that may be endangered by excessively critical TV programs.
Another article of the Law says that local authorities will be in charge of setting the requirements for installing cable networks as well as satellite and other receivers in residential buildings within their administrative unit. I think the requirements should be uniform throughout the country or this will lead to confusion in the best case and a quagmire of corruption in the worst case.
What will come out of this in the end? The experience of other countries tells us that there will be people who will unblock the satellite dishes illegally and there will be those who will smuggle uncertified dishes into the country. There will also be officials who will be turning a blind eye to satellite dishes’ non-compliance with requirements. It will be easier for the officials to demand a couple of thousand tenge from a home owner than to demount his satellite dish. Is this not a loophole for corruption?
It is already clear that Kazakhstan is going to become another Turkmenistan where there are dozens of state TV channels preaching love for the president, but the people are watching foreign channels through illegal satellite dishes, which litter every building.
It turns out that the law is ineffective even at achieving its goal of creating a single and powerful state ideological machine and keeping different opinions at bay.
Moreover, the new Law will encourage the black market resulting in tax losses.
- Will the Law increase self-censorship in the media?
- Definitely, yes. Even if no one puts direct pressure on private TV channels through raids, inspections, etc., the private channels will outstrip the state ones in filtering their content to avoid being kicked out of the multiplex.
The TV channels have spent large amounts of money to get licenses. Now their licenses are being taken away from them (even though the licenses do not have expiry dates) and replaced with some kind of a registration certificate that can be revoked at any moment.
Having invested a lot of money and effort into setting up a TV channel, the owners will be sure to hire super loyal people to control the channel’s editorial policy and preclude the slightest attempt at criticism.
I personally believe it is naïve to try and create a Turkmen version of television in Kazakhstan as the people have already tasted freedom and choice.
- Some experts suggest the adoption of the Law was brought on by the events in Zhanaozen and the activities of the K+ channel…
- The events in Zhanaozen and the K+ coverage of the events definitely played a role in the appearance of the Law. Experts call the amendment to the Law “On media”, that prohibits foreigners from serving as editors-in-chief of Kazakhstani media, the amendment of Irina Petrushova after the editor-in-chief of the Respublika. But the amendment can be easily bypassed by calling the position differently.
As for K+, people in the province do not watch it because they love the opposition, but rather because on other channels they see a lack of not just the truth, but even simply a different opinion.
Our state officials have a distorted understanding of the word “regulation”. They think regulation is about heightened control and more bans, while in fact reasonable regulation implies the creation of clear and simple rules that work. In our legislation restrictive norms prevail and the Law “On TV and radio broadcasting” is just another example.
The state has no other solutions except bans, but we live in the age of the Internet. We need smart, liberal and high-tech approaches!
- Thank for the interview!
© 2012 Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency
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