Kazakhstan’s efforts to balance media freedom with protecting national interests

El presidente de Kazajistán, Kasim-Yomart Tokáyev - AFP/VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO
The President of Kazakhstan, Kasim-Yomart Tokayev - AFP/VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO
Kazakhstan’s media landscape has devolved into an arena where powerful interest groups vie for leverage over state assets and public influence. The country’s leadership is in a process of carrying out wide-ranging reforms, including strengthening freedom of speech, while also working to mitigate the detrimental influence of kleptocrats and foreign actors on the nation’s economy, democratic institutions and overall stability
  1. How has the media landscape become toxic? 
  2. Protecting national interests against foreign interference 
  3. Similar cases in the U.S. and Eurasia 
  4. Is Kazakhstan’s new draft law “On Mass Media” reasonable? 
  5. Conclusion  

In many fledgling democracies, the issue of media freedom does not attract too much global interest. However, in Kazakhstan, it's a pressing matter due to the country's increasing geostrategic significance given the country’s substantial wealth, abundant natural resources and shared borders with Russia and China. Consequently, powerful domestic and external interests face off in Kazakhstan’s media space to sway local and international public opinion in favor of competing political, and sometimes even personal, agendas.  

How has the media landscape become toxic? 

Put simply, the players vying for influence fall into three categories: Oligarch-controlled media outlets, state actors, and a group of homegrown, independent media elements. 

After 30 years of authoritarian rule under former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, local media is mostly monopolized by oligarchs who rose to power mainly through kleptocracy.  

These oligarchs and their associates possess enormous financial muscle to coerce journalists and civil society leaders, not only in Kazakhstan but also in some Western policy centers. The former president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, holds some media assets through Alma media. Some media are controlled through the First President’s Fund.  

The influential Alash Media is reportedly controlled by Alexander Klebanov, who was named as a proxy foe Dariga in a February 2022 UK parliamentarian discussion on anti-corruption sanctions. Timur Turlov, the Russian-born Kazakhstani entrepreneur and CEO of Freedom Holding that was under investigation by the US Department of Finance for short selling, controls Kazakhstan’s Channel 7. The ability of these oligarchs and their Western accomplices to control media outlets extends overseas through imposing expensive and cumbersome legal actions called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPS). Such is the magnitude of the problem that their role in silencing international media was debated in a UK parliament hearing in October of 2022.  

Local oligarchs have shown to be useful partners for foreign actors seeking influence in Kazakhstan in order to degrade the government. Criminal fugitive Bergey Ryskaliev, for instance, reportedly sponsored a commission of UK parliamentarians to investigate the Kazakhstani government’s handling of the January 2022 unrest as well as the detention of activist Janbolat Mamay.  

Similarly, internationally known fraudster Mukhtar Ablyazov, despite having embezzled at least $5 billion from a Kazakhstani Bank according to UK and US court records, rebranded himself as a political opposition figure and was granted refugee status in France after evading a subpoena in the UK. Until recently, European Union (EU) and US officials have called for leniency on Ablyazov and on those associated with his embezzlement scheme. 

A cohort of officials linked to Kazakhstan’s former Prime Minister Karim Masimov and former Minister of Justice Murat Beketayev allegedly used their political power to channel funds into companies they would later be appointed to as directors. Apparently, investigative journalism activity against Nazarbayev, Masimov and their allies carries great financial risk.  

In January and February 2022, the OCCRP,  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), openDemocracy and the Telegraph published an investigation exposing the details of a $7.8 billion opaque structure of assets linked to the former president. In response, the Nazarbayev Fund and Jusan Technologies UK, a major recipient of assets transferred by the Fund, initiated SLAPP lawsuits in US and UK courts against the four media outlets.  Meanwhile, Lord David Evans of the UK’s House of Lords sits as a non-executive director of Jusan Technologies Ltd UK.  

Massimov’s allies have mustered the support of other officials around the world, including Member of European Parliament (MEP) Maria Arena, who was a central figure in the EU’s recent “Qatargate” scandal; Robert Menendez, a US Senator facing bribery charges, and Victor Orban, who has been described by the Washington Post as Hungary’s “illiberal” prime minister. Despite Masimov’s blatant corruption and violent attempt to seize power in Kazakhstan in January 2022, a United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for his release before his trial and only nine months into the related investigation. The basis of UN’s conclusion is a report based on the testimony of a single unnamed source, making the provenance of the allegations unchallengeable. 

Kazakhstan has its state-owned media apparatus, including Khabar Agency and Kazakh TV as well as the press offices of state bodies. The new administration has been relatively tempered in controlling the non-state media compared to the Nazarbayev regime as well as to other Central Asian republics, even though ongoing activities of kleptocrats and foreign state actors provide justification for employing stricter measures. 

Independent homegrown media is in a nascent state in Kazakhstan. In a country with a median monthly salary of $552, external actors with access to funds can handily enlist capable journalists to promote their own political agendas. 

Protecting national interests against foreign interference 

Foreign state actors also cause concern, and steps have been taken in the past to curb their influence on local affairs. The Russia-backed Sputnik24 website with access to Russian TV channels is blocked in Kazakhstan. The news station Tsargrad, owned by sanctioned Rusisan oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, was disabled for “inciting hatred”. Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared Kremlin-friendly Russian journalist Tina Kandelaki persona non grata. Kandelaki was opposed to the mainstreaming of the indigenous Kazakhstan language and the possible removal of Russian cultural symbols in the country. Pro-Russian propagandist Tigran Keosayan is also reportedly not allowed to enter Kazakhstan. In 2022, he publicly condemned Kazakh authorities for cancelling annual World War II victory commemoration events and warning that the country might incur the same fate as Ukraine.  Considering that Kazakhstan’s ethnically Russian citizens comprise close to 16% of the population, provoking local animosities against the northern neighbor risks stoking ethnic conflict that could attract international interference and ultimately upset the constitutional order of Kazakhstan. 

The US Government funded Radio Free Europe (RFE), known in Kazakhstan as Radio Azattyk has also been accused of stoking tensions between Kazakhstanis and Russians living in Kazakhstan. Until recently, Radio Azattyk has had a free pass in Kazakhstan. Reportedly, 36 employees of its local branch, Radio Azattyk, have recently had their accreditation denied by Ministry of Foreign Affairs presumably on the grounds of their reporting behavior that is far from the Ethic code strictly followed by western media and resembles with the activity of non-for-profit organizations that utilizes somebody’s grants.  

Radio Azattyk was not forced to close. The media ignored requests from the Government to align their activities with the media mandate. Instead, they threatened the Government and filed a lawsuit on 3 January 2024, seeking to overturn the Ministry's decision as unlawful and requested the issuance and extension of accreditations for their staff. 

The large number of individuals involved in this case helps shed light on the concerns voiced by Kazakhstan’s state agency. If we were to compare this to the US population, which is sixteen times that of Kazakhstan, the equivalent journalistic force represented by the 36 employees would amount to 597 people, bringing it into the league of some of the biggest US news companies. This is important to understand the amount of influence Azattyk, and by association RFE, has held in Kazakhstan.    

Telegram outlets such as Protenge observed some positive contributions Azattyk Media (of which Radio Azattyk is part) has made in regard to spotlighting misappropriation of government funds and other corrupt activities that warrant scrutiny. Others observe how Azattyk’s criticisms are providing partial coverage to support political allies. For example, above-mentioned Mukhtar Ablyzov frequently appears in Azattyk articles as an “opposition leader”, often implying that the criminal charges against him are entirely political. He was convicted of murder in Kazakhstan and has judgments against him exceeding $5 billion in UK and US courts for defrauding a major bank, after which he fled his home country.  

Azattyk has also given biased support to the disgraced former spy chief and prime minister Kairm Masimov in a 5 January 2024 piece entitled “You think this won’t come back to you like a boomerang?!” He’ll be back!” Kantar courts: crimes without culprits, unanswered questions, which could easily be read as a veiled threat to Kazakhstan’s new leadership. The publication date coincided with the two-year anniversary of the violent protests and coup attempt that rocked Kazakhstan in 2022. 

Bigeldy Gabdullin, the President of International Kazakh PEN, says that Azattyk’s biased reporting that aims to turn society against the government could activate the “threat to national security” clause.1  

Elsewhere in the region, in January 2023, the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy of Kyrgyzstan decided to close down Azattyk Media, the Kyrgyz division of Radio Free Europe, claiming they deliberately disseminated false information about clashes on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in September 2022 in violation of the national legislation against “propagating war, violence and cruelty, national, religious exclusivity and intolerance towards other peoples”. However, after the removal of the related material, Azattyk Media was allowed to continue broadcasting in Kyrgyzstan.  

Kyrgyzstan's parliament has advanced a bill requiring nonprofits that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign representatives. As per the proposed legislation, such organizations receiving foreign funding and participating in broadly interpreted "political matters" would be obliged to register. Arguably, Azattyk could fall under this criterion. In January 2024, it was reported that the State Committee for National Security of the Republic conducted searches in the editorial offices of publications receiving foreign funding.2 

Similar cases in the U.S. and Eurasia 

Central Asia is not alone in its vulnerability to covert media activities. State sponsored social media misinformation campaigns have inflicted enormous damage to even advanced democracies such as the US and European nations, through polarizing society and possibly even influencing election outcomes. Western societies that have generations of experience of press freedoms are still finding it hard to deal with the inherent downside of spreading misinformation. This is despite the fact that the media’s power is more dispersed in these developed Western nations with a plethora of competing outlets, most of which are not controlled by a handful of oligarchs. 

Western society has responded to such threats with congressional hearings and the enforcement of stricter legislation. In 2018, for instance, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg faced a five-hour grilling by US senators over Facebook’s dissemination of fake news and the alleged manipulation of the platform by foreign adversaries to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

In the US, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires news organizations working at the direction of foreign principals to register with the Department of Justice and file both detailed disclosure reports and copies of any “informational materials” that are published within the United States with a disclaimer reflecting that they were prepared by a foreign agent. 

Additionally, the Bureau of Global Public Affairs within the U.S. State Department houses the Global Engagement Center, an agency with a mission to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts in the U.S., focusing particularly on foreign media and foreign state influence.  Furthermore, in January 2024, recognizing the increasing threat to democratic societies, the State Department announced the creation of a new “Framework to Counter Foreign State Information Manipulation”. 

The European Commission, under immense pressure to do stop covert foreign influence, is planning stringent new transparency rules for foreign-backed lobbies.  The UK is planning new legislation to compel those acting for a foreign power or entity to declare political influencing activity – and criminalise those who do not make this declaration.  

Kazakhstan, in turn, has responded by executing its existing laws and is proposing new legislation called “On Mass Media”. 

Is Kazakhstan’s new draft law “On Mass Media” reasonable? 

On 1 December 2023, the draft law was approved in the first reading by the Kazakhstan’s national parliamanet, the “Majilis”. While it tightens oversight of foreign funded media by tasking the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) with assessing which foreign funded media presents a national security threat to the country, 3 it also introduces other augmentations to the media law. This includes a three-year limit on the validity of published materials to safeguard citizens' rights. It simplifies journalist accreditation and speeds up regulator responses to journalists' questions. In terms of its preparation process, despite civil society's involvement in the drafting, critics believe more engagement was needed. 

However, it was not until the Azattyk case happened that the law drew criticism from. Azattyk claimed calls the MOFA’s procedure “extrajudicial”. 

Nikita Shatalov, deputy of the Mazhilis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and a member of the working group to discuss a proposed bill “On Mass Media”.  He said that Kazakhstanis see examples of how external information interference sows civil confrontation, weakening the state and society underscoring that “information wars” easily develop into “real wars”. 

He said that “a ban on the activities of foreign media outlets not accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan has existed in Kazakhstan since the adoption of the currently valid Law “On the Mass Media” in 1999.4  


There is heightened international attention in the current geopolitical landscape on Central Asia in general and on Kazakhstan in particular, given its large population, strategic location and wealth of critical minerals. While this helps explain the international scrutiny that Kazakhstan is subjected to with regards to media freedom and its relevant legislations, any such Western consideration needs to take into account the specific environment in which these issues are being observed and experienced.  

Especially in the last two years, Kazakhstan’s leadership – with the backing of its public – has been undertaking ambitious economic, political and social reforms, which are unprecedented in the region, to improve the welfare of its citizens and strengthen its democratic institutions. It is also trying to maintain a balance between relations with powerful neighbours China and Russia on one hand, and with the West on the other. Domestically, the country is tackling challenges left over from a decades-long kleptocratic regime, which continues to cause trouble for the current leadership through its many hangers-on, as demonstrated in the violent coup attempt of January 2022.  

It is with an understanding of this environment that Kazakhstan’s implementation of its existing laws on protecting national security as well as its new draft legislation on regulating media, should be viewed. Misinformation as well as intentional disinformation campaigns, perpetrated both through conventional media outlets and social media, plague Western countries, including the US, as much as it does fledgling democracies elsewhere. It is a complicated landscape that every nation is trying to navigate while understandably prioritizing the needs and interests of its own citizens. 

Emir Nuhanovic, President of the Institute for European policies and digital society. 

1 https://t.me/ztb_qaz/23653 

2 https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-24kg-detentions-otorbaeva-niyazova/32775137.html 

3 https://asia24.media/news24/vlasti-kazakhstana-khotyat-zapreshchat-rabotu-inostrannykh-smi-ugrozhayushchikh-natsbezopasnosti/ 

4 https://inlnk.ru/ZZzo9R