A succession of disastrous newspaper headlines for Prime Minister Gordon Brown provided an ideal illustration for the political reporters of Kazakhstan of the robust relationship which exists between the British press and the government of the United Kingdom.
No wonder the journalists of this former Soviet republic are in dire need of inspiration: they are having to try to report the activities of a Parliament which since August has turned Kazakhstan into a one-party state.
All 98 contested seats in Kazakhstan’s parliament were won with 88 per cent of the vote by Nur Otan, the party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has held power in the sixteen years of post-Soviet independence. None of the opposition parties retained their seats because their share of the vote did not reach the seven per cent threshold.
So restricted is the flow of information to the Kazakhstan press and so limited is the coverage of parliamentary affairs that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations development programme have combined forces to offer training to local reporters.
What has so concerned international observers is the lack of analysis and investigative reporting and the failure of Kazakhstan’s newspapers to offer readers anything more than the most basic information about what the parliament has decided.
A two-day seminar held in the capital Astana (October 15-16, 2007) concentrated on helping young journalists identify potential issues and then gave them guidance on how story lines could be pursued and developed.
My role was to demonstrate that a free press has no need to be in fear politicians and that through the kind of campaigns and investigations which are undertaken by British newspapers, it is possible to hold the state to account and to influence, if not change, government policy.
Brown’s humiliating retreat from holding a general election, and then the government’s brazen attempt to neuter the Conservatives’ surge in popularity by upstaging Tory plans on inheritance tax, triggered a run of front pages which intrigued the Kazakhstan journalists.
They looked on in an amazement as I held up paper after paper: "Stop Thief! Darling Swipes Tories’ tax plan" (Sun); "Smash and grab: how Labour stole the Tories’ big ideas (Guardian); "Mr Magpie: Stolen…Stolen…Stolen" (Daily Mail); "Brown grabs Tory tax plans" (Daily Telegraph) etc.
Front-page cartoons depicting Brown and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling as a couple burglars escaping with their bag of swag were images which proved equally appealing. Try as I might, I could not get the journalists to speculate on what might happen if one of their newspapers depicted their President in a similar fashion.
Kazakhstan’s journalists are by no means entirely to blame for their plight. They complained about the way access to the parliament had only recently been restored and they acknowledged that such was the political climate in a one-party state and the consequent pressure on their editors that they understood why their papers might be criticised for a high degree of self-censorship.
Once we got down to discussing ideas for investigations and campaigns their pent-up frustration was all too evident. Potential story lines came think and fast: in the rush to create a new capital in Astana, historic buildings were being demolished and the old city was losing not just its heritage but facilities for local people like the kindergartens which had existed in the Soviet era.
OSCE and UNDP are to be congratulated on investing in a training programme for Kazakhstan’s next generation of journalists. Even in a media rich country like Britain, investigative journalism is a pale shadow of what it once was and wherever they live and work, reporters need to be encouraged to probe as deeply as they possibly can and refuse to accept information at face value.
(Nicholas Jones was a guest of OSCE and was asked to give a presentation on international experience in parliamentary and political reporting).