Who Owns The Media in Kazakhstan?
According to the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD), 3,669 media outlets were registered and actively functioning in Kazakhstan at the beginning of 2020. Among them, newspapers and magazines account for 88 percent, while the other 12 percent were television, radio, and electronic media: specifically, 161 television stations, 73 radio stations, and 471 information agencies and media websites (CAP 2020). Among highly circulated newspapers, Yegemen Kazakhstan (Kazakh) and Kazakhstanskaya Pravda (Russian) are state-owned and Karavan (Russian). and Ekspress-K (Russian) are partly private newspapers, and all four of them have at least 100,000 weekly circulations.
According to gathered information from in-depth interviews, the Kazakh government tries to control the Kazakh media market in three ways: by ownership, by controlling outlets through its owners, who tied to the government, and by budget funding, which obligates media outlets to create pro-government content. During the international scientific and practical conference “Prospects and tasks of improving the information legislation of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” panelist Olga Didenko, a media lawyer at Internews Kazakhstan, said that “Ministry of Information and Social Development usually proudly informs that 80 percent of media outlets in Kazakhstan were privately owned.” According to the report she presented, the government is an active member of the media market. In 2018, budget funding for media exceeded advertising revenues. In numbers, state- and privately-owned media outlets received over 53 billion tenges ($125 million) from the state budget. Didenko said that “this is a task for media with 100% state participation.”
State-owned publications operate in all regions of the country with the support of local government authorities. They usually receive two-thirds of the amount shown prior. Despite official data demonstrating that most of the media outlets in Kazakhstan are independent, some are loyal to the government due to close ties of media owners to authorities, and some others simply depend on them as they receive funding with a set of obligations from the government. During the in-depth interviews, two editors told their outlets never received government contracts to create pro-government content. Meanwhile, 7 interviewees told that they worked in outlets, where pro-government content was made for state funding, but they have never been content creators. The rest of interviewed media professionals told that they have participated in creating pro-government content in exchange for state funding.
A former state-owned media journalist from Aktobe, who asked to stay anonymous, explained how the state funding to the media works and what obligations the media have to compensate for the payment. The journalist said that “state or local authorities declare competition to publish socially significant information on different topics in the media.” According to Aktobe journalist, socially significant information usually promotes the former president’s ‘Address to the Nation” speech via connecting it to the patriotic sense of the nation or presents a set of positive news or analytical journalism pieces about state programs for future development and events held by the executive authority. “For example, we were obligated to publish 15 articles of positive remarks about the former president’s (Nursultan Nazarbayev) address to the nation in 2017 during a specific period which, usually was from 6 to 12 months range,” an Aktobe journalist added.
Another journalist from Pavlodar noted difficulties in completing orders from the government authorities. He had worked for state media for over 5 years and recently switched to privately owned electronic media. He said:
“I have switched to private media to gain a different professional experience, but my job as a reporter was almost the same as I did in state-owned media. Both of them were receiving funding from local authorities, but it became more difficult to get approval to publish from the government agency, which monitors the task, for articles with ordered topics, as obligations of the funding for private media is stricter than for the state-owned ones.
In the 2019 practical conference, Olga Didenko of Internews Kazakhstan also said that government participation in the media market will impede the development of independent media outlets in Kazakhstan while reporting on negative aspects of state funding to the media. Duman Smaqov, an editor-in-chief at Factcheck.kz, said in an interview that media professionals in the state-owned media outlets trust any information released by government bodies and officials without a doubt or any factchecking. He added:
“In 2017, we launched Factcheck.kz, and I have trained dozens of newsrooms on how to do the fact-checking. Once, I was asked to visit the national TV channel Qazaqstan. When I have told them that I have questioned information delivered by our former president Nursultan Nazarbayev and found some false statements and data, they were shocked. How dare you check on what Yelbasy (the leader of the nation) said?! Even when I have shown them the exact video where he mistakenly told the wrong information, they couldn’t agree with me.”
In 2017, Ferghana Information Agency (Ferghana News) published a controversial piece about the ownership of media outlets in Kazakhstan. According to openDemocracy, an independent global media organization based in the UK, Ferghana News is one of the most popular media sources dealing with the life of Central Asian countries of the former USSR and it employs reporters in all five Central Asian states. It was founded in 1998 and is based in Moscow. The Ferghana News editorial board reported that most of the media owners are hiding behind their nominal founders in Kazakhstan. Ferghana News compiled its list of true owners of Kazakh media outlets by citing anonymous experts and insiders. As noted in the report, the vast majority of media outlets are only part of statistics. Most of them have unstable funding and a weak material base. They are often located in regional centers, rarely have their original content and news feed, and therefore do not have any influence on the formation of public opinion in the country as a whole. Public opinion, usually at a national level, was impacted by the media located Nursultan and Almaty, which are controlled by various groups of influence linked to former president Nazarbayev, who stayed in power for almost 30 years. According to the piece, privately-owned media outlets are managed in direct and indirect ways by 4 major figures who are connected to the leader of the nation.
Unnamed experts told Ferghana News that Dariga Nazarbayeva, a member of the lower house in the Kazakh Parliament and Nazarbayev’s daughter, managed to get control over one dozen television channels, radio, and cable networks in the last 20 years. Her media empire includes TV channels: Habar, 24.kz, Yel Arna, Kazakh TV, KTK, NTK, Evrazia, ON TV, HIT-TV, cable networks: Alma-TV, ICON, and radio stations: Evropa Plyus Kazakhstan, and Hit-FM. All media outlets of Armanzhan Baitasov, a Kazakh businessman, owner of JSC “United Media Group” under license from Forbes Kazakhstan magazine, were under Dariga Nazarbayeva’s influence. She controls newspapers like Karavan, Novoe Pokolenie, and Moskovsky Komsomolets v Kazakhstane, electronic media outlets such as forbes.kz, 365info.kz, caravan.kz, zakon.kz, and nur.kz, and radio stations like Russkoe Radio Azia, Classic FM, Retro FM, Energy FM.
Another major player in the Kazakh media market is Timur Kulibayev, a Kazakhstani oligarch and son-in-law of former president Nazarbayev. He is at the top of Forbes Kazakhstan’s billionaires’ list and officially does not own any media outlet in Kazakhstan. But, experts told Ferghana News that he influences TV channel Atameken Business Channel, newspapers such as Capital, Kursiv, Zhas Alash, and Komsomolskaya Pravda, and electronic media resources like dialog.kz, sports.kz contur.kz, abai.kz, spik.kz, bnews.kz, today.kz, and kaztag.kz.
Next in the list of media empires is controlled by Karim Massimov, chairman of the National Security Committee. Ferghana News sources said Massimov had proven his loyalty to the Nazarbayev family and that’s why he has a stake in the media market. His influential range includes TV channels STV and 7 Kanal, radio stations Tengri-FM, NS, Zhuldyz-FM, and electronic media such as alashainasy.kz, vesti.kz, and tengrinews.kz.
Last but not the least, Bulat Utemuratov, a Kazakh billionaire, has never hidden the presence of his media. According to Ferghana News, he is one of the liberal owners of media in Kazakhstan as he practically does not interfere in the work of his editors and has a relatively small list of names prohibited from being mentioned and topics to be discussed. Mikhail Dorofeev, former editor-in-chief at informburo.kz, which is owned by Utemuratov, also confirmed that the Kazakh billionaire doesn’t influence the editorial board’s decisions of informburo.kz. In turn, Utemuratov’s media do not criticize Nazarbayev. His media pool includes TV channel “31 Kanal,” radio station “Love radio — Kazakhstan,” the newspaper Dat, and electronic media informburo.kz and voxpopuli.kz.