In the early 2000s, the Ketebayev brothers – Bakhytzhan and Muratbek – ran Central Asia's most interesting journalistic enterprises. They were Kazakhstan's Tan TV and the weekly newspaper Respublika.

They provided open coverage of the fascinatingly public political warfare among President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, and a group of businessmen-politicians. It all ended unhappily as a couple of the businessmen went to prison, Aliyev was exiled to Austria, and Tan was turned into an entertainment channel; since then, Respublika has limped along with continued trouble. For the last couple of years, Bakhytzhan Ketebayev has been back with a new venture. Sasha Meyer thinks that Kanal Plus, Ketbayev's new enterprise, may be Central Asia's answer to Al-Jazeera. Meyer's report:

 


By Sasha Meyer


A group of Kazakh journalists says it wants to radically alter the landscape for news media in Central Asia. Much of their success hinges on how far their deep-pocketed anonymous backers will be willing to go.


Kanal Plus (K+) is a private Kazakh satellite TV company that attracted attention in September when it broadcast a series of interviews with former first son-in-law Rakhat Aliev into Central Asia, thus snapping the hitherto taboo subject on the Kazakhstan airwaves.


In an interview with Radio Liberty's Bruce Pannier, company president Bakhytzhan Ketebayev said his ambition is to become region's public broadcaster. To reach that goal, he's preparing to diversify away from Russian into the local languages. Ketebayev also plans a citizen journalism component, in which Kanal Plus would air videos shot on cell phones by ordinary viewers and submitted via the Internet.


Such a social component would help increase the TV channel's popularity. It would also reduce its vulnerability. Kanal Plus doesn't have its own network of correspondents, and instead relies on local partners who provide videos. These local associates are often pressured by state officials not to collaborate with Kanal Plus. (The company itself operates from an undisclosed location outside the region and is thus beyond the direct reach of the authorities.)


The participatory journalism effort would also help alleviate a weakness: The company has no partners in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, so one might find local citizens in both countries filling the gap.


Last but not least, the use of public journalism would ensure that the reporting is harder hitting and resonates more strongly with ordinary people.


If done right, Kanal Plus could achieve in Central Asia what Al Jazeera accomplished in the Arab world. Within three years of its 1996 launch, the Qatari channel became, in the words of journalist and author Thomas Friedman, "the freest, most widely watched TV network in the Arab world," because it had eliminated the state monopoly on news and analysis. In 1999, John Burns of The New York Times said Al Jazeera gave the Arab viewers "newscasts without censorship" and "explores issues long suppressed by the region's rulers, including the lack of democracy, the persecution of political dissidents and the repression of women."


A feat like that is more affordable today than then. There are more satellites, and their transponders can squeeze in more channels because of advances in data compression and multiplexing. On the ground, dish antennae and TV receivers are now within the budgets of many more Central Asians. And the scale favors Central Asia: Unlike the Arab world, with its 25 countries and territories, 358 million people and 14 million square kilometers, Central Asia is just five countries, 60 million people, and four million square kilometers.


Obviously, much depends on the priorities of Kanal Plus's sponsors. Ketebayev says the channel is funded by rich Kazakhs. He won't identify them, but says they believe they can preserve their wealth only if the justice system is more law-based. In their view, Kazakhstan's system and that of the rest of Central Asia protects neither the poor nor the rich, but only the ruling families.


How far these backers are willing to support Kanal Plus's journalists is anyone's guess. But they could turn Kanal Plus into a typical Russian news outlet circa 1996. Independent of the government, Russian TV channels were free to criticize officials and politicians. However, they were often used by the oligarchs who owned them as tools in mud slinging campaigns in their own struggle for more money and power. As a result, the journalistic quality was rather low.


Alternatively, Kanal Plus' funders could emulate the style practiced by Alexandr Lebedev. The billionaire former KGB officer supports Novaya Gazeta, Russia's most daring newspaper, but doesn't interfere in its reporting. The latter approach would give Ketebaev and his band of journalists a chance to realize their ambitions and have an Al Jazeera-like impact on Central Asia.


There is still the matter of harassment, intimidation and murder. Novaya Gazeta, after all, has had four of its reporters murdered since 2001, including Anna Politkovskaya. Just last month, Kyrgyzstani journalist Gennady Pavlyuk was thrown out of a window and killed. Yet, even in Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev appears far less willing than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to countenance the murder of journalists. If properly carried out, citizen journalism could actually favor those who become Central Asian reporters: It would be hard to silence several hundred reporters; none of the Central Asian republics might be prepared to absorb the negative image of violence against the staff of such a high-profile organization.