BBG Watch Commentary
Prominent Kazakh theater director and former political prisoner Bulat Atabayev joined other Kazakh opposition leaders in criticizing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for stopping radio broadcasts to Kazakhstan and turning its Kazakh website into a tabloid journalism outlet. Atabayev, who had visited this week the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic, from his home in exile in Germany, posted critical comments about the Kazakh Service on his Facebook page.
“The late president Havel helped relocate Radio Liberty from Munich to Prague. He dreamed of Freedom! Radio Liberty in Kazakh is called ‘Azattyq’ (Freedom), but it is not. Rather, there is no radio. I was told by the radio staff, or rather the Azattyq web site staff, that radio programs were radio shut down, as the U.S. State of Department has reduced funding and shrunk the Kazakh Service.”
Вот что значит сила информации. Мои коллеги по Академии искусства мира из Чехии в курсе о выступлении театра Аксарай в Германии. Они восхищаются самой фабулой пьесы “Лавина”. Почти ничего не знают о культурной жизни Казахстана. Знают о коррупции, с досадой говорят о наглых сотрудниках спецслужб стран СНГ и в том числе Сырбар (сырткы барлау) Казахстана, которые превратили Прагу в свою зарубежную штабквартиру. Естественно, знают о радио Свобода, ибо покойный президент Гавел способствовал переезду радио Свобода из Мюнхен в Прагу. Он мечтал о Свободе!
Радио Свобода на казахском языке назывется Азаттық, но его нет. Вернее, радио нет. Мне сказали сотрудники радио, вернее сайта Азаттық, радио закрыли, так как Госдепертамент США сократил финансирование и казахскую редакцию сократил. Но кыргызская и русская редакции радио как работали так и работают, брали интервью у меня. Но в будущем им тоже якобы сократят время вещания, но не закрывают. Но в Жанаөзен смотрели Кплюс и слушали радио Азаттық. Я это точно знаю.
У меня есть опыт общения с журналистами внутренне свободными, независимыми. Но в общении с журналистами казахского сайта Азаттық чувствовал у них внутреннюю скованность, непонятный страх, правда Ержан шутил громко, чтобы как то разрядить атмосферу. Свободы не хватает что ли… И вообще, зря я там был. Сайт Азаттық напоминает мне газету Караван. В чем миссия радио Свобода? Я предполагаю, защита демократических ценностей, формирование гражданского общества в том числе и в Казахстане. Обо всем “вобщымкоторый”, а в частности ни о чем. Замечания Арона Атабек из тюрьмы по поводу Азаттық актуальны. Мой вопрос, как способствует короткая информация о пожаре на золотодобывающем руднике, который длился четыре часа, способствует защите демократических ценностей в Казахстане, остался без ответа. Журналист этого сайта в частной беседе доказывал мне, что сайт не оппозиционный. Пардон, я не виноват в том, что само понятие Правда в Казахстане стало синонимом оппозиционности! Почему бы не проанализировать это порочное явление на вашем сайте? Нет, информация о вредности одиночества для здоровья человека актуальна и нова!
Я заказал мониторинг сайта Азаттық на предмет соответствия миссии Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Я считаю, в ситуации, когда в Казахстане судебным решением закрыли и запретили все источники альтернативной информации, радио и сайт Азаттық является единственным доступным ресурсом для защиты демократии, свободы слова и прав человека в Казахстане. Или пусть Конгресс и Госдепартамент США признаются, из-за экономических интересов мы вынуждены вести двойную игру.
The decision to eliminate live radio news programs to Kazakhstan was made last year by controversial former RFE/RL president Steven Korn who has since been replaced by Kevin Klose, a distinguished journalist and media executive. Klose announced his intention to reform the U.S. taxpayer-funded institution, which is operated under the oversight of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent U.S. federal agency.
Four experienced Kazakh journalists working in Prague, half of the Kazakh Service, had been fired last June by Klose’s predecessor and the service continued for a while to broadcast only pre-recorded, evergreen cultural radio programs without any news while increasing tabloid-style reporting on its website. Critics argue that not much has changed at the Kazakh Service since Klose’s arrival two months ago. Klose has been busy dealing with the crisis at the Radio Liberty in Russia, where his predecessor had fired dozens of experienced journalists who also specialized in human rights reporting.
Meanwhile, the situation in the Kazakh Service is becoming worse, critics say. Even the evergreen pre-recorded radio programs have been recently discontinued, a move blamed by the management on sequestration budget cuts at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The U.S. State Department plays no direct role in funding decisions affecting RFE/RL, but Secretary of State John Kerry is an ex officio member of the BBG and is usually represented at BBG board meetings by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine. Budget and funding decisions at the BBG are made largely by the executive staff of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and its director Richard Lobo. They are then either approved or disapproved by BBG members who often are unable to get accurate and complete information from IBB staff to make the best choices.
In a letter sent last month 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.
Theatre director Bulat Atabayev wrote this week on his Facebook page after his visit to RFE/RL, where he was interviewed by Russian and Kyrgyz services but not for the Kazakh-language website, that “Radio Liberty’s Kazakh website is missing something.”
“The site reminds me of the Kazakh Caravan newspaper,” Atabayev observed.
Caravan is a first ever tabloid published in post-Soviet Kazakhstan and was the first Kazakh newspaper to prominently feature photos of naked women. According to one Kazakh journalist, the paper become “a model of yellow press and morally risky journalism in mostly conservative Kazakhstan.”
After four Kazakh Service journalists were fired last June, critics charge that the service director embraced tabloid-style journalism being promoted by the former RFE/RL management team and allowed production and posting of videos with gender-offensive and sexually suggestive content. While the videos were later removed from RFE/RL websites due to protest from outraged site visitors, comments from a Kazakh political prisoner, an exiled dissident artist, and a group of prominent opposition and human rights leaders suggest that the Kazakh Service continues to practice this type of yellow journalism. These critics say that the Kazakh Service also continues to downplay reporting on human rights issues even after new RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose announced his support for reforming journalistic practices throughout the organization.
This video interview with Bulat Atabayev was recored last week in Prague by one of the old Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists Irina Lagunina. Like the Kazakh Service, the Russian Service also continues to languish, but some of the remaining reporters who were not fired are trying to restore the service’s reputation. It will be impossible, however, to accomplish without rehiring those who were fired in Moscow and rejecting programming policy changes introduced by the former RFE/RL management and still being implemented by the Russian Service director.
BBG Watch has learned that some of the remaining members of the Kazakh Service in Prague also have been trying to maintain former high standards of journalistic excellence. They hope that Kevin Klose will pay attention to the protests from Kazakh intellectuals and human rights leaders and that he will soon act to reform the service and rehire their colleagues who had been fired for opposing orders from discredited managers. One of them is Nazira Darimbet, a former Radio Liberty reporter in Kazakhstan who lost her job after she questioned the posting of offensive videos. Nazira Darimbet wrote: “After a few days, there was a post on the Facebook about the joint video project. In those videos the guys were swearing, used vulgar language, etc. Under the post I left a comment: “Какой ужс” (“what a horrible thing”) and paid the price for my comment… They didn’t renew my employment contract.”
Showing their ugly side and to add insult to injury, RFE/RL managers have stopped severance payments to at least one of the fired journalists because of a critical comment published on this website. The journalist relied on these payments to support family members. They were stopped even though the published comment was made long before the separation agreement was signed and was obtained independently by BBG Watch. RFE/RL uses these agreements to silence critics among their dismissed employees.
Another fired journalist is Prague-based Saida Kalkulova who later wrote, “I don’t understand why RFE/RL produced these obscene videos using American taxpayers’ money.” Both women are highly experienced media professionals with years of reporting for various media platforms, including television and social media.
Bulat Atabayev, one of many Kazakh political dissidents who are defending the fired Radio Liberty journalists, was released from prison in 2012 after international protests against his arrest on charges of inciting anti-government riots by striking oil workers in December 2011 that resulted in 16 deaths. The reaction against his arrest was particularly strong in Germany. Atabayev’s theater work has focused on the plight of the German minority in Kazakhstan. He was awarded the Goethe Medal for 2012 – an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany given to foreigners “who have performed outstanding service for the German language and international cultural understanding.”
Respublika-KZ, an independent information portal in Kazakstan, reported on Bulat Atabayev’s protest with regard to Radio Liberty with a headline “«Азаттық» есть, но где же свобода?” (Radio Liberty Kazakh Service exists, but where is liberty?)
Bulat Atabayev asks on his Facebook page: “What is the mission of Radio Liberty?”
“I guess (Radio Liberty’s mission) is the defense of democratic values, the formation of civil society in countries like Kazakhstan…. (Political prisoner) Aaron Atabek’s comments from prison about Radio Liberty’s Kazakh Service are relevant. My question how a very short news item about the fire at a gold mine, which lasted four hours, contributes to the protection of democratic values in Kazakhstan, went unanswered. A journalist of the Radio Liberty Kazakh website tried to prove to me in a private conversation that the site is not for the opposition. Sorry, but I’m not to blame for the fact that the very concept of truth in Kazakhstan has become synonymous with the opposition! Why not analyze this vicious phenomenon on your (Radio Liberty Kazakh) website?
I request the monitoring of the Kazakh web site for compliance with the mission of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. I think that in a situation where through legal judgement Kazakhstan closed and eliminated all sources of alternative media, the radio programs and the website of the RFE/RL Kazakh Service are the only available resource for the defense of democracy, freedom of speech and human rights in Kazakhstan. Or let the U.S. Congress and the U.S. State Department admit that, due to economic interests, we are forced to play a double game.”
Bulat Atabayev, Aron Atabek and other prominent Kazakh pro-democracy leaders make persuasive arguments about Radio Liberty that cannot be ignored. Their suspicions–whether justified or not–that the Obama administration, including the U.S. State Department, is trying to silence Radio Liberty to please Kazakhstan’s authoritarian ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, are bad for America’s image and U.S. public diplomacy. RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose needs to move fast to address problems in the Radio Liberty Kazakh Service, order his staff to stop victimizing fired journalists, and offer them an opportunity to return.