Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Kazakhstan’s Alternative Media Is Thriving—and in Danger

A vibrant society is under threat from the authoritarian government.

By , a Tajikistan-born freelance journalist and researcher who examines social and cultural issues and issues of identity in post-Soviet Central Asia, and , a Kazakhstan-born researcher and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at George Washington University.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks to the media after voting in Kazakhstan's presidential elections at a polling station in Nur-Sultan on June 9, 2019. Vyacheslav Oseleoko/AFP via Getty Images

In Kazakhstan this week, the film director Oliver Stone presented his latest documentary, Qazaq: History of the Golden Man, an eight-hour hagiographic ode to the autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev—a particularly grotesque move in a country where the government has been systemically stifling media ever since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Today, Kazakhstan has only a handful of independent traditional media outlets left, which lack the ability to cover the country’s vibrant sociopolitical life, something that has thrived despite authoritarianism. The gap, however, is now being filled by alternative media: Scores of bloggers are using YouTube, Telegram, and Instagram to report on events and to contradict the narrative served by pro-government traditional media. Alternative journalism is blooming, raising questions about how far it can go before the Kazakh government pulls the plug.

In Kazakhstan this week, the film director Oliver Stone presented his latest documentary, Qazaq: History of the Golden Man, an eight-hour hagiographic ode to the autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev—a particularly grotesque move in a country where the government has been systemically stifling media ever since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Today, Kazakhstan has only a handful of independent traditional media outlets left, which lack the ability to cover the country’s vibrant sociopolitical life, something that has thrived despite authoritarianism. The gap, however, is now being filled by alternative media: Scores of bloggers are using YouTube, Telegram, and Instagram to report on events and to contradict the narrative served by pro-government traditional media. Alternative journalism is blooming, raising questions about how far it can go before the Kazakh government pulls the plug.

Things weren’t always bad for Kazakhstan’s traditional media. Throughout the first half of the 1990s, the Kazakh government issued broadcasting licenses to anyone willing to pay a small fee. By 1996, the number of issued licenses reached 200, and Kazakhstan had 47 independent TV and radio channels. “The 1990s, until 1997, were a renaissance for Kazakh media. Until 1997, the government, of course, regulated the media market, but things were simpler, more liberal,” said Vyacheslav Abramov, the general director of Vlast, an independent online publication he helped found in 2012.

1997 was a watershed: That year, in an attempt to exert more control over the narrative around the country’s second presidential election, Nazarbayev’s regime announced that broadcasting outlets needed to reapply for their licenses and to prove that they had enough content and capacity to keep operating. The broadcasting license fee skyrocketed to $150,000 for TV channels and $50,000 for radio channels—a mind-boggling amount in an economically stagnant country. Thirty-one channels lost their licenses, many of them famous for their critical reporting.

Freedom of the press only degenerated from there.

In 1999, the government removed any limits on monopolies, opening the gates for consolidation of outlets in the hands of pro-government figures. In 2001, the government instituted a registration system for mass media. After the 2005 presidential election, the government empowered tax and law enforcement agencies to audit any media outlet without warning. Since 2017, journalists must receive permission from people whose personal and financial information they intend to publish, which has severely limited the media’s ability to investigate corruption and malfeasance. Finally, this March the government amended the rules of accreditation for journalists, requiring them to work with a “host”—an intentionally loosely defined term—when covering government events.

“All these new media regulations were repressive, although the government always presented them as liberal and democratic reforms,” said Lukpan Akhmedyarov, the former editor in chief of Uralsk Week, one of the last independent traditional media outlets left in Kazakhstan. “[Because of these regulations] most of the current media field in Kazakhstan is essentially a government propaganda machine.”

Today, the country’s administrative code includes 40 different clauses regulating mass media. Violation of any of the clauses usually results in suspension of print or blocking of websites. Adil Soz, an international freedom of speech foundation, estimates that between 2010 and 2015, five to nine media outlets were sanctioned annually, with 2012 marking 43 cases of sanctions against media outlets. In 2021, Kazakhstan ranked 155th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index.

The traditional media landscape was ruined—but the resulting gap created an opportunity for unconventional journalism.

“In 2018, the court suspended the online outlet I was working at for 19 months. By the time the outlet resumed its work, I decided to move on,” Vadim Boreyko said. A journalist with 40 years of experience, Boreyko spent a year after his employer’s suspension publishing minor journalistic investigations on Facebook before deciding to open a YouTube channel. Two years later, his channel has nearly 75,000 subscribers, 7.7 million views, and a couple of notable successes.

In late 2017, the government decided to turn part of the Ile-Alatau National Park just outside Kazakhstan’s biggest city of Almaty into a ski resort. Boreyko started investigating the businessmen tied to the project, first for the online outlet he worked at and then on his YouTube channel. His reporting contributed to the mobilization of civil society’s opposition to the project and its cancellation in 2019.

Boreyko’s work is a prime example of alternative media that are rapidly filling in the gap left by the crisis in traditional media in Kazakhstan. Scores of people across Kazakhstan have turned to YouTube, Telegram, and Instagram in the past five years to conduct journalistic investigations, discuss and analyze events in the country, report on political protests ignored by pro-government media, and push against the government’s narrative.

“Most big players in the media market are associated either with the government or with big business, which is often the same thing in Kazakhstan. But now there are more alternative media popping up,” said Dmitry Dubovitsky, whose YouTube channel They’re Coming After Us today boasts 292,000 subscribers and more than 62 million views. Dubovitsky is arguably one of the pioneers of Kazakhstan’s YouTube-based alternative media: Every single YouTube blogger interviewed by Foreign Policy for this piece called Dubovitsky an inspiration, a mentor, a project partner, or all of the above. While his political videos critical of the country’s government are some of the most popular on YouTube in Kazakhstan, Dubovistky prefers to highlight his coverage of suicide, mental health, and other social issues and rejects the label of a dissident. “If common sense is considered opposition in Kazakhstan, then consider me a member of the opposition,” he said. “But I am no politician and no activist. I merely react to the events in the country. People in Kazakhstan have a lot of questions for the authorities, and we try to ask those questions.”

Despite Kazakhstan’s authoritarianism, it has a vibrant and contentious politics. The protest tracker by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs has reported more than 1,200 protests in Kazakhstan since January 2018—by far the highest number among the Central Asian countries. Protests over government policies around social welfare are especially common. And while the government persecutes the groups that are explicitly antagonistic and oppositional to the country’s current regime, there’s a whole range of political, social, and youth movements active in the country, such as the pro-democracy youth movement Oyan, Qazaqstan.

Kazakhstan’s youth are often the target audience of the country’s nontraditional media projects. “I realized in 2017 that Kazakh youth was absolutely apolitical. I set a goal of attracting the youth to politics,” said Murat Daniyar, whose YouTube channel Jurttyn Balasy has 227,000 subscribers and 21 million views. “And I think I’ve reached my goal. Go to any bar and you’ll hear the youth openly discussing politics without being afraid.”

“Our typical follower is a recent university graduate who maybe just recently found a job and who is wondering why things are bad in the country, why his pay is low. The 18-35 [age] group makes up 80 percent of our followers,” said Adil Zakenov, one of the administrators of the satirical Instagram account Le Shapalaque.

Both Daniyar and Zakenov were alienated by the government’s oppression and its refusal to address the daily problems of people in Kazakhstan. So was Assem Zhapisheva: In 2019, when she was a freelance journalist, Zhapisheva livestreamed a large protest in Almaty, after which she was blacklisted by most traditional media outlets in the country. Her previous articles were scrapped, and no one would accept her pitches. Dubovitsky urged her to open a YouTube channel. Today, Zhapisheva breaks down the news stories that government-funded media ignore, explaining the connections between events and the roots of everyday problems people face.

While Zhapisheva’s channel is relatively small, she plays an important role by intentionally focusing on Kazakh-language content in a country where Russian-language media has traditionally dominated. “It is much easier to become popular by producing Russian-language content,” she said. “But this is why it is necessary to produce Kazakh-language content. So many good articles and investigations don’t reach the Kazakh-speaking public.”

Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth-largest country by area, with many of its regions too remote to be regularly covered by major media outlets that cater primarily to Russian-speaking urban residents and don’t produce quality journalism in Kazakh. And while the Kazakh-speaking population is growing, rural regions are too impoverished to support traditional local journalism.

Now, alternative media are stepping into this linguistic and geographic gap, often provided by locals, which Akhmedyarov calls “more authentic, with a feel for Kazakh-language content and a unique perspective.”

In 2020, residents of Stepnogorsk, a town 120 miles northeast of Kazakhstan’s capital of Nur-Sultan with a population of just 60,000, started protesting the decision to use the town as the site for utilization of 300 metric tons of hazardous waste. The local YouTube blogger Artyom Sochnev started covering these protests, and another local blogger, Maxim Ponomaryov, discovered violations of hazardous waste utilization regulations. Together, these bloggers managed to attract the attention of larger traditional media outlets. Abramov’s Vlast ended up covering the events in Stepnogorsk.

“These nontraditional media projects are actively gaining an audience and, more importantly, influence. These projects react to events quicker and they spread information quicker than us in traditional media,” Akhmedyarov said.

So why hasn’t the Kazakh government clamped down on this new nontraditional media thorn in its side?

For one, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who stepped into the role in March 2019, has been presenting himself as a reformer willing to transition the government away from repressive tactics. Cracking down on grassroots media projects would only hurt the image of the president amid the regime’s fight for legitimacy. “This isn’t the worst moment [for the rise of alternative media] because we have a president who wants to appear as a reformer, and he is surrounded by people who are trying to give him that image. This creates certain opportunities for people to be louder and to demand certain things from the government,” Abramov said.

The government might also understand that these grassroots nontraditional media serve an important pressure valve function, relieving public discontent before it boils over. That has caused some worries among the journalists themselves. “Some people do indeed think of us as a tea kettle that allows people to spill out negative emotions and rebel in the comments before ultimately calming down and moving on. I’d hope, though, that we help educate people,” Dubovitsky said.

The government hasn’t been entirely hands off. Temirlan Ensebek, the administrator of the satirical Instagram page Qaznews24, was detained and interrogated in May over his parodies of the fawning toward Nazarbayev. Qaznews24 garnered more than 5,000 followers before Ensebek deleted the page due to the continuous threats from anonymous accounts. While the official reason for his detention was dissemination of false information, some believe it to be an excuse used by the regime to target its critics.

The country’s regime also learned to mimic nontraditional media outlets using copycat projects that further complicate the media landscape in the country. “They have created several pseudo-oppositional media channels,” Zhapisheva said. “My friends have a very popular Instagram page, Rukh, that was one of the few covering anti-government protests. And then there’s Azattyq. So [the government] have created Azattyq Ruhy, which publishes pseudo-oppositional material but is actually a pro-government media.” These copycat projects include YouTube blogs, social media pages, Telegram channels, and even entertainment shows like Oyan, Qazaqstan, which intentionally shares its name with the pro-democracy youth movement.

For now, the internet remains a flexible and less regulated environment that gives the representatives of traditional media hope. That may not last. Akhmedyarov said: “I am sure that by the end of 2021 there will be either amendments to the existing regulations or a new law that would regulate the bloggers.” Similarly, Zhapisheva expects a new law regulating blogging to be drafted during the next parliamentary session in September.

But until then, Kazakhstan’s alternative media will continue to challenge the government.

Sher Khashimov is a Tajikistan-born freelance journalist and researcher who examines social and cultural issues and issues of identity in post-Soviet Central Asia.

Raushan Zhandayeva is a Kazakhstan-born researcher and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at George Washington University.

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