Muzzling magazines in Kazakhstan

By bne IntelliNews March 17, 2015

Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -


Suppressing critical voices is nothing new in authoritarian Kazakhstan, but the latest attack on one of the few remaining independent media outlets has shades of the Kremlin's attempt to control the information space following its offensive against Ukraine.

On March 13, a weekly magazine that was previously published as Adam Bol (in Kazakh "Be Human") until it was closed down by a November court ruling, hit the newsstands under the new title of Adam. But the new incarnation was without the media project’s longstanding editor and trenchant critic of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his administration, Gulzhan Yergaliyeva.

The court action by the authorities is widely believed to have been designed to get rid of Yergaliyeva, who explains that she decided to leave the media project, which had been run under seven different titles over the past decade, after the authorities took issue with her view on the military conflict in eastern Ukraine that contradicted the Kremlin line on the invasion and war there.

Yergaliyeva decided to hand the reins to her son Ayan Sharipbayev and in February she announced that the publisher had received a new certificate of registration for the magazine under the name Adam. "The licence to publish Adam is the authorities' indirect admission that Adam Bol was closed down illegally with bias and on political orders," she said. "I don't anymore want this project to be a hostage of [the authorities'] settling personal scores with me, which is why I've decided to leave the post of editor-in-chief."

Be human 2.0

The departure of Yergaliyeva, 63, who is a brand in her own right in Kazakh journalism, will not undermine the magazine's "principles of objectivity and independence", and the new publication will continue to publish without sponsored material or adverts, the new editor Sharipbayev says. If Adam is indeed objective and independent, it will stand out in the Kazakh media sector because most "publications one way or another are financed by either financial groups or the state and depend on them," Sharipbayev tells bne IntelliNews. "Advertisers shy away from us because we have a stance that our publication offers material without fear of reprisal from financial groups or government officials."

The lack of advertisers means that the new magazine will have to find other resources to stay afloat. The choice of the title, Adam, is one of the ways to capitalise on the magazine's popular brand, which before Adam Bol was published as Adam Reader's and (a pun on the Nur prefix, which is associated with Nazarbayev like his party Nur Otan and policy Nurly Zhol). "When readers look for our magazine they don't ask for Adam Bol or Adam Reader's, they simply ask for Adam," Sharipbayev explains.

The magazine's popularity with readers who seek an alternative to the government propaganda gives it a relatively large circulation for such a small media market. Yergaliyeva told bne Intellinews in February that the magazine with a circulation of slightly over 16,000 before its closure had covered 85% of its costs and would have been self-sufficient within the following few months, adding 500 copies a week. The shortfall, her son explains to bne IntelliNews, was covered by his mother’s savings and the funds that she received as compensation for the involuntary sale of her enormously popular weekly Svoboda Slova ("Freedom of Speech") in 2011, which sold nearly 100,000 copies every week.

Sharipbayev notes that for his magazine to be self-sufficient it needs to have a circulation of 20,000, which he hopes can be reached within the next four or five months. The first issue of Adam, published on March 13, had a print run of 15,150.

A newspaper seller in central Almaty said that she had ordered 20 copies of Adam to test the demand. "I managed to sell half of it by lunchtime," she bragged to bne IntelliNews. "It is Adam and there is huge demand for it."

The new editor also said the drive to be self-sufficient had forced the magazine to minimise costs by stopping the use of equipment that needed costly servicing and laying off some staff. The editorial office is now comprised of just seven full-time staff members – five writers, a designer and a manager who doubles as secretary and accountant. "We have a number of loyal contributors who agree to publish their articles without pay and wait until we are able to do so," Sharipbayev says.

... and go digital

Sharipbayev explains that Adam Bol did not maintain an online presence because the authorities could easily block access to it. According to Freedom House's “Freedom of the Net Index”, Kazakhstan ranks "partly free" with a score of 60 out of 100 (with 0 being the best score, 100 the worst). In 2014, the country adopted legislation that allows the authorities to block access to websites without even obtaining a court ruling.

At the same time, the three months that the magazine was not published since the closure allowed the publishers to think about expanding access to the magazine by going digital.

Sharipbayev explains that the geographic distribution of Adam is not even throughout the country: it is mostly distributed in the politically active Almaty, the densely populated southern regions and the oil-rich west, where a labour conflict at an oilfield led to violent clashes in the town of Zhanaozen between protesters and the security forces in December 2011, resulting in at least 15 deaths. There is, however, little demand for the magazine in the country's north, including the capital city of Astana, "which is dangerously apolitical,” says Sharipbayev. "The left bank of Astana [where government buildings are housed] is not apolitical because they are not interested, but because there is an unwritten ban on liberalism." 

The demographics of Kazakhstan’s regions also explain the reach of the magazine: Kazakhstan's south and west are mostly Kazakh-speaking, which means that they are less inclined to buy the government propaganda relayed by the state-run media, whereas the country's north and east are mostly Russian-speakers, who are more prone to believe that freedom and democracy lead to events like those in Ukraine and that Nazarbayev is a guarantor of prosperity and stability.

So in order to boost access to its content in the regions and abroad, the magazine has applied for a grant to develop a mobile application from the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan. In contrast to the internet, the authorities cannot control access to the Apple Store or Google Play Store. 

The Kremlin's hand

Magazine editors and other media observers blame the closure of Adam Bol on meddling by Russia in Kazakhstan's internal affairs. Adam Bol had been critical of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine. And when the magazine presented an alternative view on the military conflict in an interview with Kazakh activist Aydos Sadykov who resides in Ukraine, pressure from the Kremlin forced Astana to shut it down, critics claims.

Sharipbayev points out that since the beginning of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv the Kremlin's view on the events in Ukraine have predominated in Kazakh media. "This point of view has been relayed to Kazakhstan from all [Russian] television channels which are present here widely," Sharipbayev notes. "They [the Kremlin] justified their aggression with the imaginary fight against imaginary fascism."

The editor draws parallels between the attack on Adam Bol and the hysteria in the Russian-language press around the Kazakh-language Anyz Adam's April 2014 issue devoted to the 125th anniversary of Hitler's birthday, which the Russian Foreign Ministry and Kazakh war veterans condemned as "absolutely unacceptable".

The magazine's editor-in-chief, Zharylkap Kalybay, said last year that his magazine was simply looking at how Putin's Russia had adopted a "nationalist-chauvinist ideology" and was covering the cases of racism in today’s Russia. "These are facts, everyone knows about them. Unfortunately, if we are guilty because we just wrote about this, then what? Are we living in Kazakhstan or in Russia?" Kalybay asked.

"All of a sudden, the Russian-speaking population realised that the Kazakh-language media has influence and has its own views," says Sharipbayev, in reference to the widely-held belief of the Russian-speaking population that the Kazakh-language media and critical publications of the government are a niche market and enjoy little attention.

If the circulation figures of the latest incarnation of Adam are sustained, that belief is clearly misplaced.

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