Al Jazeera Blogs


Kazakhstan reaches out

This year's Eurasian Media Forum has special significance for Kazakhstan, which is holding the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe chairmanship - a first for a former Soviet Republic and a predominantly Muslim country.

Last modified: 27 Apr 2010 12:22
Photo by Dan Kennedy, via Flickr

As a journalist, you can never expect the red carpet to be rolled out when you arrive in a country.

So, I was more than happy to walk on the blue one rolled out when I disembarked from the plane at Almaty in Kazakhstan. It wasn’t just the blue carpet either. Standing on it was a small delegation of military officials all wearing the extra-large Soviet-style caps that are worn here.

The caps are always at least twice as large as the faces underneath them, are tipped way back and for some reason, always make me smile when I see them.

But the carpet from plane to terminal is an improvement on the grey metal hallway usually reserved for disembarking passengers. It promised a warm welcome.

I had flown here to represent Al Jazeera and chair the Eurasian Media Forum.

It’s a forum with special significance for Al Jazeera because it's generally accepted that it was a casual chat at a bar on the sidelines of a previous forum that led indirectly to the formation of Al Jazeera English.

Four years on and 180 million viewers later, it had obviously been quite a conversation.

Just as Al Jazeera is designed to bring messages from the "South to the North", so this non-political forum is designed to promote East-West understanding through dialogue.

It's a fabulous location at the foot of the snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains.

The forum has been held every year since 2002 in Almaty, the commercial capital of Kazakhstan. And it is the country's biggest city - bigger than the capital Astana.

It’s a thriving city too, straddling the ancient Silk Road between China and Europe.

Kazakhstan is an important country – the size of Western Europe, it's a vast, lightly populated former Soviet republic with considerable oil and gas resources.

The event brings together several hundred delegates from all over the world, many from Russia and the CIS countries, including media representatives, political figures and specialists in international relations.

This year, there are several senior officials from Iran here, including Ramin Mehmanparast from the foreign ministry and Ali Akbat Ashari, the president’s cultural advisor.

They will be speaking at the session titled "Unknown" Iran.

The session is described thus:

"The internal development of Iran is not well known to the rest of the world, whose media continue to portray Iran as an isolated country and a cruel fanatical enemy."

Other sessions will look at a variety of issues, including leadership of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), media coverage of pandemics and new media coverage.

Several hundred delegates have made it to Almaty’s small airport, coming from not just Iran, but all parts of the world.

That in itself is a major achievement, beating the flying restrictions that have maimed schedules after the fallout from Iceland's volcanic eruptions.

This year has a special significance for Kazakhstan, too. It currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE, making it the first former Soviet Republic and first predominantly Muslim country to have that position.

But there had been misgivings about its appointment and observers have already questioned the country's ability to lead by example.

Journalism, for example, is not an open notebook here. Journalists have in the past been jailed for revealing state secrets and some newspapers have had crippling fines imposed.

Insulting the president and officials is a criminal offence. The private life, health and financial affairs of the president are all classified as state secrets.

At the forum's opening session, and after a suitably presidential fanfare, I welcomed the Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's president, to the stage.

Five years ago he was "re-elected" for another seven-year term with more than 90 per cent of the vote. In 2007, a parliament with only one party, voted to allow him to stay in office for an unlimited number of terms.

A theme that is always present at the forum is political and media freedom and again this year there was plenty of discussion about that. It's controversial but it is always covered.

Last year Kazakhstan introduced a new law that would mean internet content (including Twitter, blogs etc) falls under the already strict (mainstream) media laws.

This has been heavily criticised by the OSCE. But the president argued that this is a new country in a very unstable region (see events next door in Kyrgyzstan).

He says it’s the wrong time in the development of the country to have Western-style media, libel, and political laws etcetera.

It's a forum of many voices, some of which are rarely heard outside of conference rooms. And that's a pity because Kazakhstan does seem, at times anyway, to be trying to reach out to the world.