Kazakh political prisoner is unhappy with Radio Liberty programs

BBG Watch Commentary

“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.” – Kazakh poet and political prisoner Aron Atabek, March 2013

Kazakh political prisoner Aron Atabek

Kazakh political prisoner Aron Atabek

In a letter sent from prison in Kazakhstan, dissident, scholar, poet and writer Aron Atabek expressed his unhappiness with American taxpayer-supported Kazakh language news programs of Radio Liberty, while a group of other Kazakh democratic opposition and human rights leaders sent a protest letter to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) new acting president Kevin Klose, asking him to look into their complaints.

Atabek has authored more than ten books and is considered one of the world’s best experts on Central Asian languages and culture.

See: Aron Atabek Facebook Page.

See: YouTube video from a demonstration in London in support of Aron Atabek.

As reported on the RFE/RL English website, in 2007, he was convicted of organizing a mass disorder against the demolition of the Shanyrak shantytown that resulted in the death of a police officer. His supporters believe the case against him was politically motivated. He was sentenced to 18 years in a labor camp. Atabek has always maintained his innocence and rejected a government pardon if he would admit his guilt.

See: ‘A Real Man Must Stand Up’ — Kazakh Poet, Dissident Returns to Solitary Confinement. Sources told us that the RFE/RL article was written by one of the few experienced journalists who are left in the Kazakh Service. One of them managed to conduct an exclusive interview with Atabek. The article and the interview suggest that some progress is being made under Kevin Klose, but none of the management or personnel issues have been addressed, sources in Prague pointed out.

Encouraged by Kevin Klose’s arrival, some Kazakh Service journalists are trying to return to serious political reporting, but the service continues to suffer the consequences of the last year’s purge and bad management, sources said. Radio broadcasts consist largely of repeats of evergreen programs produced by the fired journalists before June 2012.

According to Aron Atabek, “there is neither political news nor political analysis” in Radio Liberty Kazakh Service broadcasts. Other Kazakh opposition leaders share his view.

Aron Atabek sent his letter from the prison in the Kazakh town of Arkalyk to the youth movement “Ruh pen Til” (Spirit and language) on 26 March. In his letter, Atabek raised concerns over the weakness of the opposition and civil society in Kazakhstan. He wrote that in prison he is able to listen to various radio stations in order to be informed about the situation in the country. While describing some of these programs, he expressed his unhappiness with the content of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service.

A page from Aron Atabek's letter from prison, in which he expresses unhappiness with Radio Liberty Kazakh programs.

A page from Aron Atabek's letter from prison, in which he expresses unhappiness with Radio Liberty Kazakh programs.

“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.”

Saida Kalkulova, one of fired Kazakh Service journalists.

Saida Kalkulova, one of fired Kazakh Service journalists.

While a lot of attention lately has been focused on Radio Liberty’s Russian Service and its loss of reputation and online audience after dozens of experienced journalists were fired last September by the former RFE/RL management and replaced with Masha Gessen and her team, the Kazakh Service may have suffered an even worse fate. Four experienced journalists, half of the Kazakh Service in Prague, were fired in June 2012 and most hard news reporting and analysis were eliminated.

Fired Radio Liberty Kazakh Journalist Nazira Darimbet

Fired Radio Liberty Kazakh journalist Nazira Darimbet.

See: Fired Kazakh journalists ask new RFE/RL president for reinstatement

A young woman journalist Nazira Darimbet did not have her RFE/RL contract renewed after she had criticized the posting of gender and sexually offensive videos. She also dared to ask top RFE/RL managers to explain why they had fired Russian journalists in Moscow while President Putin was intensifying his campaign against independent media.

The former RFE/RL management forced the Kazakh Service to produce videos, most of which turned out to have offensive content, some of sexual nature. The videos were later deleted from RFE/RL websites, but the service has not resumed its previous reporting having lost its best journalists who specialized in exposing human rights abuses, political corruption and economic crimes in Kazakhstan. The Russian Service journalists who were fired in Moscow also specialized in that type of reporting.

Link to Radio Liberty Kazakh Service sexually suggestive video 'Agent'

Link to Radio Liberty Kazakh Service sexually suggestive video 'Agent'

See: Radio Liberty offers young Kazakh Muslims American-style videos with sexual content, causes outrage

Journalists in Prague and Moscow were dismissed on orders of former RFE/RL president Steven Korn. He was replaced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in January 2013 with a distinguished journalist and media executive Kevin Klose. The agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting has asked him to repair the damage to Radio Liberty’s programs and to mitigate the public diplomacy crisis caused by the previous RFE/RL management. As part of this effort, BBG members urged Klose to explore ways of bringing back fired Radio Liberty journalists.

In a letter sent to Klose on February 21, 2013, prominent Kazakh politicians, human rights activists and public figures raised concern over the damaged reputation of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, which is know as Radio Azattyq in Kazakhstan.

Page from a letter of Kazakh opposition and human rights leaders to RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose.

Page from a letter of Kazakh opposition and human rights leaders to RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose.

“We are … surprised by the fact that for the whole year complaints have not been properly investigated by any official in the corporation’s management and the US Board of International Broadcasting. We consider it as as the demonstration of double standards. We read in media reports that senior members of the American management began examining the crisis in your Moscow bureau. But as it usually happens, the so-called ‘minorities’ do not get the American management’s attention and there are concerns that the complaints from your mistreated former employees will not be investigated by you and senior officials in Washington, including the US State Department. The reputation of Radio Azattyq has been damaged substantialy over the last two years and is continuing to go down.”

“We were shocked when the Kazakh language website of Radio Azattyq (Radio Liberty) published obscene videos and poems. We were more outraged by reports in the media suggesting Radio Azattyq’s involvement in the whitewashing of the Kazakh government’s image within the framework of cooperation project between RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service and a pro-Nazarbayev’s NGO.”

“Dear Mr Kevin Klose, we ask you to conduct an impartial investigation of the issues at Radio Azattyq. We ask you to return to us former Radio Azattyq, which practically was the only independent news source for Kazakhstan. Thank you for your attention to our appeal.”

- Mikhail Sizov, Chairman of Committee for Political Prisoners in Kazakhstan;

- Tatyana Trubachyova, a former chief-editor of Kazakh opposition newspaper “Golos Respubliki”;

- Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a prominent human rights activist;

- Bulat Abilov, “Azat” Party chairman;

- Marat Zhanuzakov, NGO “Aksakaly” chairman

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