Kazakh FOI Legislation Stalls Without Key Sponsor Asanov

14 December 2012

By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

Mukhametrakhimova is Central Asia Editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting which published this article on Dec. 11.  Reprinted with permission.

A long-awaited bill on access to information in Kazakhstan is now highly unlikely to be passed this year as planned. Some of the civil society groups that invested great hopes in the law fear it has run out of steam, in part because of institutional resistance to greater openness.

Rights organizations in Kazakhstan and abroad agree that the bill is about as progressive as it could be, in large part because it was formulated in an inclusive consultation process involving local NGOs and international bodies. Also included is a package of changes to other laws, setting out the penalties for infringing access-to-information rights.

Kazakhstan currently has no law that guarantees members of the public or journalists the right to obtain information held by the state. As a result, government institutions often decide arbitrarily what to release and what to withhold. Even when information is made available, it may be incomplete or come with a long delay.

The system – or lack of one – offers great scope for bribery, as a means of encouraging reluctant officials to part with information.

Sergei Gulyaev, head of the Decenta NGO in Pavlodar, northern Kazakhstan, described the difficulties his organization faced running a legal aid service. For example, it has been awaiting a response on one query from the healthcare authorities since August.

The proposed law would set a five-day deadline for government agencies to make information available after it has been requested. Verbal as well has written requests would have to be formally recorded and tracked. And the wording sets out what confidentiality means in clear terms, so that material cannot be withheld on spurious grounds.

Perhaps the most radical part of the law broadens its application to monopoly companies, private firms in which the state has a stake, other commercial entities that use taxpayers’ money, and organizations that are engaged in developing natural resources and possess environmental data.

Gulyaev said that while it was hard to get information out of public bodies, it was almost impossible when it came to large companies working in the extractive industries. When Decenta asked 38 such companies for data on their investment in local communities, only two responded.

“This violates rights of the citizens living in areas where these enterprises operate,” Gulyaev said.

The fact that Jakyp Asanov, the politician who was the prime mover behind the bill, has since changed his job is seen as a setback to its chances of success.

Asanov, who chaired the drafting group in parliament, is a member of the ruling Nur Otan party. This added considerable weight to a bill that might otherwise have been perceived as the work of opposition-leaning NGOs. The Institute for Parliamentarianism, which has close ties to Nur Otan, was also involved in shaping the law.

Asanov left parliament in September to take up a new post as deputy prosecutor-general. When he stepped down, he handed over responsibility for the bill to fellow-party member Nurlan Abdirov.

Gulmira Birjanova, a media lawyer with the Legal Media Center, has followed the bill since its inception, and says Asanov played a pivotal role in driving it forward.

“It has to be said that Mr. Asanov has done a lot for this project, and since he left to take another job, the situation has changed completely,” she said.

Speaking at a round table in June on access to information on public finances, Asanov said the legislation was ready and expressed hope that it would come before parliament by the end of 2012.

Local media reported that Asanov used the meeting to criticize the government led by his own party. He spoke of a surprising “lack of initiative” and “lack of any interest” on the part of the government.

Asanov noted that of the former Soviet states, only Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan lacked legislation requiring the state to give citizens access to information.

Without Asanov’s hand on the tiller, there has been little apparent movement. A meeting was scheduled for the end of November at which the working group, now led by Abdirov, was supposed to revive discussion of the bill, but it never happened.

Birjanova said she was told by an assistant of Abdirov that the delay was purely technical, and further progress would soon be made.

Gulyaev suspects that now that the initial publicity around the bill has died down, officials are uninterested in pushing it through.

“It seems very likely that government institutions don’t have a problem with the fact that the bill hasn’t materialized, and that quite frankly they aren’t interested in getting it passed,” he said.

Gulyaev believes it is now up to NGOs to reinvigorate their campaign for the bill, since there it could fall by the wayside.

Ganna Krasilnikova, head of the legal department at media advocacy group Adil Soz, and a member of the working group, does not believe a vocal campaign would be the best tactic right now.

“If nothing happens in the new year, then we can think of stepping up our advocacy,” she said.

Birjanova said that while further lobbying by rights and media activists was needed, they also need to keep the politicians on their side if the bill was ultimately to go through.

“Without the support of members of parliament, it will be virtually impossible,” she said.

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