KAZAKSTAN’S DISUNITED JOURNALISTS  No space for trade unions in a profession 
where staff are deterred from any kind of collective action.  By Natalya 
Napolskaya in Almaty

TAJIK PHONE FIRMS FIGHT “CONTROL” PLAN  Opponents of plan to route all phone 
calls through one centre say it will be inefficient, expensive and intrusive.  
By Mukammal Odinaeva in Dushanbe

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No space for trade unions in a profession where staff are deterred from any 
kind of collective action. 

By Natalya Napolskaya in Almaty

Journalists in Kazakstan face obstacles created by their employers to 
discourage them from joining professional associations, and to stop them 
criticising the authorities, media professionals say. 

Eighty per cent of the newspapers and broadcasters in Kazakstan are in private 
hands, but this does not mean they are truly independent. 

Their owners regard maintaining good relations with the authorities as 
essential for their businesses to survive, and go to great lengths to keep them 
happy. They discourage critical reporting, and ban journalists from covering 
the political opposition. 

A journalist in the southern town of Taraz who gave his first name as Yerjan 
explained that it was important for media owners – who generally have other 
business interests as well – to cultivate contacts in local or national 
government if they want their businesses to remain trouble-free. 

“I can understand our founder – he has his own business, and he also has his 
own contact at the top who protects him,” he said. “Who is going to bite the 
hand that feeds him?” said Yerjan. 

Like other journalists around the country, this man told IWPR of being warned 
away from getting involved in professional associations. “Our contracts do not 
allow us to join any public organisation,” he said. 

Tamara Kaleeva, who heads the media support group Adil Soz, says that to stop 
people joining unions and other organisations, employers misuse a contractual 
clause designed to stop their staff freelancing for rival media outlets. 

“It’s universal, and people agree to it,” she said. 

Seitkazy Mataev, who heads the Union of Journalists, confirmed that job 
applicants had little choice but to sign away their rights to join professional 

Although his group is called the Union of Journalists, he says Kazakstan’s 
media still lack a fully-functioning, recognised trade union. 

“Trade unions are needed to protect [journalists’] rights but they don’t exist. 
All attempts to set up such an organisation have met with resistance from 
employers,” he said. 

Mataev said that in the absence of recognised trade unions, his organisation 
tries to support journalists who turn to it for help. 

Rozlana Taukina, head of the Journalists in Trouble group, says the idea of a 
national union of journalists has proved a non-starter, because “the owners and 
founders of media outlets have banned their journalists from participating in 
organisations of this kind”. 

Taukina said reporters working for a range of outlets including the Vremya and 
Novoye Pokoleniye newspapers and the KTK, Rakhat and NTK television stations 
were banned even from attending events run by her own organisation. 

Apart from keeping their journalist from organising themselves, media 
organisations impose an informal but thorough form of censorship. 

Owners fear causing offence to officials and seeing their businesses suffer as 
a result. Their concern stems in part from Kazakstan’s media legislation, which 
is among the most restrictive in the former Soviet Union. 

Journalists can be prosecuted for insulting the president and other officials. 
Details of the president’s private life, health and financial affairs are 
classified under state secrecy regulations. 

Media legislation passed in 1999 has undergone numerous changes, each time 
strengthening the authorities’ hand. The most recent initiative is a bill to 
control the internet more tightly, which was discussed in parliament last 
month. (For more on this bill, see Kazak Rights Groups Denounce “Internet 
Censorship” Bill, RCA No. 569, 12-Mar-09.) 

Apart from the law, the government can also exert pressure through its control 
of most of the country’s printing presses and the bulk of radio and TV 
broadcasting facilities. 

Journalists say that in practice, their work is restricted less by the law than 
by internal rules made up by media owners. Merely asking the wrong question of 
an official can put their jobs at risk. 

One example of this is the recent case of Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a journalist in 
the northwestern city of Uralsk who lost his job because his superiors were 
unhappy with a question he put to the regional governor. 

At a press conference in January, Akhmedyarov, a news editor with the private 
TV station TDK-42, asked Baktykozha Izmukhambetov, governor of West Kazakhstan 
region, about whether a firm belonging to one of his relatives was going to bid 
for a state-funded construction project. 

Governor Izmukhambetov described the question as “unethical and underhand” and 
said his relatives had as much right as anyone else to take part in public 

Interviewed by IWPR, Akhmedyarov said that following the incident, the founder 
of the TV station, Serik Mergaliev, reprimanded him for behaviour “damaging to 
the interests of the TV company”. 

“I was asked to resign of my own free will, but I refused to do so,” said the 

Akhmedyarov says he has since been demoted from editor to reporter. He has 
refused to sign his name in agreement to this decision and has stopped going in 
to work. He is working freelance at the moment, but has not been formally 

A number of media NGOs including Journalists in Danger and the Union of 
Journalists wrote to the culture and education minister expressing concern over 
the case, but have heard nothing back so far. 

The Adil Soz group’s Kaleeva said most journalists are constrained by unwritten 
rules which amount to self-censorship works. Managers make it clear what 
subjects are off-limits at editorial meetings and one-to-one chats, and issue 
warnings when people overstep the mark. 

“I have a contract with my employer which does not contain any prohibitive 
clauses, but despite this every journalist working at our newspaper knows what 
he can and cannot write,” said a journalist from Oskemen (also known as 
Ust-Kamenogorsk) in northeastern Kazakstan, who gave his name as Talgat. 

“We don’t criticise the president and his circle. That would be pointless, and 
it wouldn’t get published anyway. If we do criticise the local authorities we 
have to do so carefully. There are unwritten taboos and if you break the rules, 
they’ll find a reason to sack you. And no one wants to lose their job.” 

In Taraz, Yerjan said “our founder likes to reiterate that we are not the 
opposition, we are law-abiding citizens”. 

He said journalists were given clear guidelines as to how far they could go 
with criticism. “In the rare cases when we do publish critical reports, it is 
directed at school directors, the heads of hospitals, and lower-ranking 

As an example of owners’ great reluctance to rock the boat, he cited the case 
of opposition newspaper editor Ramazan Yesergepov, detained in January after he 
published a leaked letter ostensibly written by security service officers. 
(IWPR reported on this in Kazakstan: Growing Calls for Editor’s Release, RCA 
No. 563, 23-Jan-09.) 

Although Yesergepov was arrested in Taraz, the local media were the last to 
report the story, said Yerjan. 

A journalist in Shymkent, also in southern Kazakstan, said he was under 
instructions from his editor not to criticise officials or publish material 
that portrays them negatively. 

He recalled how he recently uncovered evidence of possible wrongdoing by a 
particular official but was told to “leave it be”. 

This journalist said he was allowed to criticise dirty streets and markets, and 
the behaviour of traffic police. Anything above that level was “not to be 
touched if you want to hold onto your job”. 

As a result, he said private media now resemble the state-run press and 
broadcast outlets in almost every respect. 

“Over the last five or six years, we [his newspaper] have changed so much that 
our coverage is no different from that in the state media,” he said. “The only 
thing that sets us apart is that our coverage is more reserved in tone compared 
with their [state] output, which exudes of excitement about the president, the 
[ruling] Nur Otan party and the local government.” 

Taukina says her Journalists in Danger group is encountering more and more 
cases all across Kazakstan where journalists request help after coming under 
pressure from the authorities. 

“To escape this trend, we need a media law that is not subject to [repeated] 
amendment,” said Taukina. “We need unbreakable regulations that protect the 
professional work of journalists.” 

The restrictive legislation now in force makes the need for trade unions even 
more pressing, she added. 

Natalya Napolskaya is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty. 


Opponents of plan to route all phone calls through one centre say it will be 
inefficient, expensive and intrusive.

By Mukammal Odinaeva in Dushanbe

A proposal to bring Tajikistan’s mobile phone network under government control 
is causing heated debate, with opponents of the scheme warning that it will 
undermine one of the few successful parts of the country’s economy.

Under a proposal by the ministry for transport and communications, the numerous 
commercial phone companies would have to route all calls through a centralised 
switching system, which would be owned by the state-run firm Tajiktelecom.

Officials argue that the system would bring multiple benefits – it would 
improve national security by allowing calls to be monitored, and it would give 
the state a better idea of how much consumers are being charged, so that it can 
claim the correct amount of tax revenue.

“There are three aims to creating a unified mobile network centre – 
strengthening the country’s security, making the operations of mobile firms 
more transparent, and as a result raising budget revenues that would previously 
have been missed,” the deputy minister for transport and telecommunications, 
Beg Zuhurov, told the Asia Plus newspaper on February 17.

He accused some phone operators of not declaring the full volume of traffic 
they handle, thereby evading taxes. With centralised control, this would stop, 
he said.

On the question of national security, Zuhurov explained that when police wanted 
to investigate phone calls, they would have one place to go to instead of 
multiple companies, making their enquiries more efficient. 

The current proposal, in the form of a bill submitted to parliament in 
December, is the second attempt by the transport and communications ministry to 
centralise control of the network. The first attempt in 2006 was abandoned 
following protests from the phone companies, who were backed by international 
organisations like the World Bank. 

Although Tajikistan is one of poorest of the former Soviet republics, its 
mobile phone industry has boomed since the authorities introduced a new 
strategy in 2003 making it easier for private firms to compete with the state 
phone company Tajiktelecom. There are now ten mobile phone operators, some of 
which have parent companies in the United States, Russia and China. 

As in 2006, these firms are fighting the government proposal vigorously, 
meeting telecoms ministry officials, speaking to the media, and last month 
writing to President Imomali Rahmon to argue that handing network control to 
the state telecoms agency runs counter to anti-monopoly laws. 

“The owner [Tajiktelecom] will decide single-handedly which calls are to be 
allowed through the network traffic centre and how much it is going to charge 
for this,” said the letter, signed by eight leading phone and internet 

The firms argued that the quality of their services would become uniform, 
cutting out the element of competition. Prices would also rise because they 
would have to factor in the cost of setting up and running the network traffic 

The statement noted that at a time when Tajikistan was feeling the effects of 
global financial crisis, the telecoms industry was probably the only stable 
sector of the economy. Undermining this success would reduce rather than raise 
tax revenues, it warned.

According to the Association of Mobile Phone Operators, there are 3.5 million 
registered mobile phone users in Tajikistan, approximating to half the 
country’s entire population. 

The benefits of mobile technology have been huge, allowing the country to 
sidestep the problem of a crumbling landline network, and extending coverage to 
remote areas that never had phones at all. Competition between the private 
firms has made ownership affordable even for people on modest incomes. 

Official statistics indicate that the private phone companies earned 230 
million US dollars last year, compared with just 28 million earned by 
Tajiktelecom and the postal service taken together.

Igor Klimko, who heads Takom, the locally-registered filial of Russia’s 
VimpelCom, says giving the state control over a “gateway” through which all 
calls must be routed will not only hit the phone industry, but harm the 
country’s economy as a whole. 

Some officials and politicians are privately expressing alarm about the 
implications of reducing competition.

“Any move towards a monopoly will bring more problems,” a member of parliament 
who wished to remain anonymous told IWPR. “The uninterrupted provision of 
mobile connections, prices and service quality will all be placed at risk.”

A government official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 
ministry’s plans would undo a great deal of what the telecoms industry had 
achieved to date. 

“We should… should keep the market open,” he told IWPR. “No one can deny what 
has been achieved by the telecoms communications companies, so that Tajiks are 
able to communicate freely and talk to friends and relatives around the world 
at little cost.” 

Komyob Jalilov, a political analyst with the Institute of Philosophy and Law, 
believes that the ministry, which controls Tajiktelecom, is acting out of 
self-interest. “There are reports that Tajiktelecom is massively in debt, which 
is where all this talk of a unified centre stems from,” he said.

Aslibegim Manzarshoeva of the National Association of Independent Media, says 
there is a huge gulf between the level of service offered by privately-owned 
and state phone companies 

“We know what a state monopoly means,” she said. “Recently a [landline] phone 
in our office was out of order. We couldn’t get an engineer in for two weeks 
despite repeated calls to the Dushanbe city phone authorities. By contrast, the 
mobile companies work efficiently and quickly. They’re also polite, and they 
explain everything and fix problems in no time.” 

Another concern voiced by several interviewees was that centralising phone 
traffic would open the way to state surveillance over private communications. 

“That violates the principles of democracy to which we aspire,” said the 
anonymous government official.

Hojimahmad Umarov, head of macroeconomic research at the Institute for Economic 
Studies, which has close ties to the ministry for economic development and 
trade, agrees that the argument about national security does not stand up to 

“Security should be the domain of the law-enforcement agencies, not the 
transport and communications ministry,” he said. “This [plan] will lead to 
growing authoritarianism and to spying on citizens’ private communications.”

Klimko of the Takom phone firm has indicated that the phone companies would 
accept a compromise such as some kind of call monitoring centre which would 
satisfy all the government’s security needs without costing a lot or 
encroaching on the industry’s right to independence.

Omarov also suggested that in the current economic crisis, the government had 
more urgent things to do than revamping the phone system.

At a February 25 meeting attended by representatives of the phone companies and 
the communications ministry, an official from President Rahmon’s office 
questioned deputy minister Zuhurov on the law he was proposing. 

Alijon Rafiev, an advisor on communications issues in the presidential 
administration, said that in its present form, the bill lacked either a proper 
justification or financial arguments to support it. He also argued that by 
assigning a management role to Tajiktelecom, the plan contravened the law.

He went on to ask what would happen if a system that was centralised to the 
extent now being proposed broke down due to accident or human error.

“I would urge you to provide clear information, conduct an analysis and put 
forward a proposal where the risks are minimised, and where the existing system 
of international communications isn’t overturned, so that one fine day we don’t 
find ourselves completely cut off,” he told the deputy minister.

Mukammal Odinaeva is an independent journalist in Dushanbe.

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