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Adil Soz advances advocacy dialogues, building strong regional links for free expression

Rinata Alibekova was recently hired as the IFEX Central Asia Project Coordinator and is based at the office of IFEX member Adil Soz in Kazakhstan. In her role, Rinata is seeking to initiate new advocacy efforts while supporting ongoing activities across the region with organisations in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, working together to advocate for freedom of expression in Central Asia.

International observers have noted their concern about the freedom of expression situation in Central Asia, where rights to press freedom and free speech are often systemically denied. Adil Soz, the International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech in Kazakhstan, and its partners in three other Central Asian countries - Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan - have united their efforts to put an end to freedom of expression violations and to lobby for improvements in media legislation in their home countries.

Past and Current Campaigns

Since the end of 2004, Adil Soz and other Kazakh media advocacy NGOs have been working on advancing an alternative to the current media law, considered by many international and local human rights organisations to be one that severely restricts media freedom and allows for exorbitant damages to be awarded against media outlets.

“Analysis of the situation shows that we have to cope with the most rigid media legislation in the CIS. Most of the provisions in the media law contradict international documents that were ratified by Kazakhstan, as well as the country's Constitution. These provisions include: six articles of the Criminal Code that allow for the imprisonment of journalists; 11 articles in the Administrative Code that allow for media outlets to be shut down; and various Civil Code provisions that make it possible to bankrupt media outlets and journalists. These are legal norms that are irrelevant for any democratic state,” says Adil Soz President Tamara Kaleyeva.

According to Adil Soz, the biggest barrier to media liberalisation in Kazakhstan is legal reform. “During this year alone, the government has made changes to the media law three times: twice in January and most recently in June. All these changes restrict freedom of speech,” says Kaleyeva.

During this period, when various changes were proposed to the country's media laws, Adil Soz was actively engaged in a Parliamentary working group, lobbying for better media legislation. This included proposing an alternative - and more liberal - draft law, which was submitted to Parliament on 8 November 2006, on behalf of the local NGOs on the working group.

“The principal value of the draft was that its adoption would halt the government's tendency for restricting the media through law, which in our view obviously contradicts the constitutional principle of freedom of expression,” continues Kaleyeva.

The draft media law was submitted twice to Parliament. It was rejected in June 2006 when President Nazarbayev instead signed a different bill proposed by the Kazakhstan Information Ministry, despite heavy criticism by many local and international human rights organizations.

The “Law On Amendments to Some Legislative Acts on Matters Related to Mass Media” bans any editor from opening a new media outlet if an outlet they previously worked for was shut down. It also introduces a registration tax on media outlets and imposes a compulsory re-registration process to replace an editor-in-chief or move a media outlet's office to another location. Finally, it allows for a media outlet's suspension or the cancellation of its license in the event of administrative violations.

When this bill was proposed by the government, Adil Soz launched a campaign to protest the amendments. “When the Government informed us about their latest proposals for change, we made a public announcement to the effect that these changes contradict the principles of freedom of speech, as well as the Constitution of our country. Following this public statement, we prepared an appeal by NGOs in Kazakhstan to the Parliament, asking the Parliament not to approve this law,” says Kaleyeva.

On 9 June, Adil Soz and Kazakh journalists addressed the President, calling for a veto on the bill. On 24 June, Adil Soz organized a demonstration with a message: “Against the legal limitations of freedom of speech.” The demonstration ended with the burning of a symbol labeled "Censorship".

Shortly after the President signed the bill, Adil Soz staff and Almaty journalists gathered to protest the decision. “We and journalists from Almaty sat on thistle seeds. Thistle is a very harmful plant, and we showed that these changes to the media law, approved by the Parliament, are as harmful as thistle for the information sector in our country. In addition to that, we announced that we would give the Minister of Information a gift: a pot full of thistle plants to show him our attitude towards the law. This campaign was reported widely in the media,” says Kaleyeva.

Adil Soz' tireless efforts over the last few years, to make the media environment more free and conducive to journalists' work, have brought significant results. It is considered a very positive sign that the Parliament has now scheduled the reading of the alternative draft media law, due in part to these campaigning efforts.

Campaigning in Kyrgyzstan

In recent months, due to escalating political tensions between the opposition and authorities in Kyrgyzstan, the number of violations of journalists' rights has increased greatly. Journalists have reported that the freedom of expression situation also continues to diminish when journalists do not have equal opportunities to work, which can only be improved by de-nationalising media outlets in the country.

Shortly after the Tulip Revolution of March 2005, journalists approved of the decision by the new President of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to de-nationalise all state-controlled media outlets and transform the main state-run television channel “State Television” into a public broadcaster.

“We made a number of statements, supporting the decision to both de-nationalise the state-controlled media outlets and transform the state television into a public one. However, since then we continue facing obstacles that prove that the authorities are reluctant to keep their promise," says the head of the Public Association Journalists (PAJ), Marat Tokoyev.

Furthermore, in late 2005, the president issued an order, which stipulated that two national newspapers should be transformed into joint stock companies. “However, this order is not being enforced,” explains Tokoyev.

Journalists in Kyrgyzstan launched a campaign in an effort to advocate for freedom of expression. They actively criticised the authorities' broken promises to de-nationalise the media by preparing publications, statements, press conferences and interviews. Members of local NGOs also took part in demonstrations outside government buildings to support freedom of expression.

“Instead of issuing a formal order to transform the state television into the public television, the authorities created a public television channel called “ElTR”, which is not in fact public. The authorities seem to be unwilling to loosen control over the state television, because it is a strong ideological tool that influences people,” says Tokoyev.

Adil Soz' partners in Kyrgyzstan have identified through systematic monitoring that Kyrgyz journalists violate laws, and have a relatively poor understanding of their rights. Subsequently improving the situation heavily depends on the level of knowledge local journalists have of their rights and of the principles of journalism.

“Not all of them [journalists], especially those working in oblasts [regions], are aware of changes in the media legislation. The monitoring shows that not many media outlets try to follow the major principles of journalism, such as objectivity, impartiality and balanced reporting. Regional media outlets are not aware of what is happening in the "mass media life" of the country,” says Tokoyev.

In order to help journalists, the PAJ plans to begin issuing a newspaper, designed for journalists, which would give them a space to share experience and knowledge, discuss problems and receive necessary information and advice on these issues. “The newspaper might be a venue to consolidate information for those who are willing to observe the principles of responsible journalism,” said Tokoyev.

Adil Soz hopes that training in both human rights education and monitoring may support the development of a larger campaigns or advocacy strategy in the region. This is one area where international support can be incredibly valuable. Cooperation with IFEX gives an opportunity to convey the freedom of expression problems faced by Kazakh and Kyrgyz journalists to the international community and to influence the authorities.

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