BBG Watch Commentary

Andrei Grishin, Facebook Photo
Andrei Grishin

While the attention of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) management is focused on reforming the Russian Service of Radio Liberty, Kazakh human rights and civil society activists complain that Radio Liberty’s Kazakh Service is also in need of reform to strengthen its human rights reporting.

In the recently published annual report from Freedom House “Freedom in the World 2013: Winners and Losers”. Kazakhstan was evaluated as less free than in the previous year. Kazakhstan received a downward trend arrow due to the banning of several media outlets following a violent crackdown on labor unrest

In a comment posted under The Washington Times op-ed article, “Hushing America’s message in terrorism’s redoubt,” Andrei Grishin, a staff member at the Kazakstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law, wrote:

“Indeed, in Kazakhstan RFERL became to lose its positions. Instead of sharp political materials, more and more there are … into social and cultural topics, that is, of course, more safe direction. But in fact, RFERL’s Kazakh service in recent past considered as the most informed and almost the only who covered the topics that other media were afraid to touch. Unfortunately, we have to recognize that something has changed: whether for the sake of political expediency, or because of the position of leadership.

In any case, those who work in Kazakh service must remember that in certain countries RFERL is, perhaps, the only source of the most accurate and reliable information. As for Kazakhstan, in addition to the alternative info, Kazakh service of RFERL was in fact a human rights information center, and some of the issues or trial processes, if not professionalism of those journalists, we would never have found out.”

Andrei Grishin, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law

Andrei Grishin publishes articles on human rights issues on the Institute for War & Peace Reporting website. His most recent article deals with hate speech laws being used in Kazakhstan to silence an anti-corruption campaigner and other government critics, “Kazakstan Journalist at Risk of Forcible Psychiatric Treatment,” Andrei Grishin, IWPR, May 3, 2013.

The new RFE/RL management has its hands full dealing with the problems left by the previous management team. Two BBG members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, were in Moscow with newly-appointed RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose. They met there Sunday and Monday with representatives of fired Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists and Russian human rights activists who support them in an attempt to restore the station’s reputation in Russia. According to sources, at least some of the Russian journalists fired by the former RFE/RL management are expected to resume working at the station.

The extent of the problems at Radio Liberty in Russia, however, leaves little time to deal with similar problems at some of the other RFE/RL services.

Saida Kalkulova, one of fired Kazakh Service journalists.
Saida Kalkulova
Fired Radio Liberty Kazakh Journalist Nazira Darimbet
Nazira Darimbet

Former RFE/RL management fired a number of experienced Kazakh Service journalists who had opposed downplaying human rights reporting and production of feature videos, which many Kazakhs found offensive because of their sexually suggestive content.

Some of the journalists claim they were dismissed or their contracts were not renewed because they offered criticism of programs and management practices in an attempt to improve the service’s content and employee morale. They include Saida Kalkulova in Prague and Nazira Darimbet in Kazakhstan. Both women were fired after they complained about mismanagement to former top RFE/RL executives. Nazira Darimbet, an award-winning young Kazakh journalist, specifically objected to the gender offensive videos. They were removed after she was fired due to protests from the audience in Kazakhstan.

In addition to Andrei Grishin, a prominent Kazakh artist and former political prisoner Bulat Atabayev joined other Kazakh opposition leaders in criticizing RFE/RL for stopping radio broadcasts to Kazakhstan and turning its Kazakh website into a tabloid journalism outlet.

While the Russian Service director Masha Gessen has resigned and coverage on the Russian website has improved to some degree, the Kazakh Service website has not changed with the exception of some of the offensive videos having been removed. They were produced and placed on the RFE/RL website with the cooperation of the service’s management, sources told BBG Watch.

Kazakh political prisoner Aron Atabek
Kazakh political prisoner Aron Atabek criticized Radio Liberty Kazakh Service in a letter from prison.

In a letter sent recently from prison in Kazakhstan, another Kazakh dissident–scholar, poet and writer Aron Atabek–also expressed his unhappiness with American taxpayer-supported Kazakh language news programs of Radio Liberty. “By the way, it turns out that Azattyq (RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service) programs have drastically declined. There is neither political news nor political analysis,” Aron Atabek wrote from prison.

In another protest, a group of several prominent Kazakh democratic opposition and human rights leaders sent a letter to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) new acting president Kevin Klose, asking him to look into their complaints.