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Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
06ALMATY2007
2006-06-07 04:22:00
UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
US Office Almaty
Cable title:  

KAZAKHSTAN: NEW OWNER OF POPULAR WEEKLY CEDES CONTROL TO EDITOR

Tags:   PGOV  PHUM  KPAO  KDEM  KZ 
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VZCZCXRO0226
RR RUEHDBU RUEHLN RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHTA #2007/01 1580422
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 070422Z JUN 06
FM AMEMBASSY ALMATY
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5650
INFO RUCNCIS/CIS COLLECTIVE
RUEHVEN/USMISSION USOSCE 1590
RUEHAST/USOFFICE ASTANA
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO 2113
						UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 ALMATY 002007 

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

STATE FOR SCA/CACEN (JMUDGE), SCA/PPD (JBASEDOW), EUR/ACE
(ESMITH/JMCKANE), DRL/PHD (CKUCHTA-HELBLING)

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV, PHUM, KPAO, KDEM, KZ
SUBJ: KAZAKHSTAN: NEW OWNER OF POPULAR WEEKLY CEDES
CONTROL TO EDITOR

Ref: Almaty 379

ALMATY 00002007 001.2 OF 002


1. (SBU) Summary: In mid-May, the publisher of the
country's most popular newspaper, Vremya, announced "a new
concept" for the paper, prompting the resignation of editor
Igor Meltser and his entire staff of reporters. Bigeldin
Gabdullin, the new editor, published two issues conforming
to the "more patriotic" tone desired by the publisher,
while subscriptions dropped 14 percent. On May 31, a new
buyer purchased the paper and convinced Meltser and his
team to return by promising not to interfere in the
editorial policy. Meltser registered a new publication
back in January (reftel) and is ready to walk again if the
current owner has a change of heart. End summary.

Meltser Crew Quits on Principle, Refuses Higher Salaries


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--------------------------



2. (SBU) For the past two weeks, Kazakhstan's media and
media watchers have been riveted by a tug-of-war for
editorial control of Vremya, the country's most popular
newspaper. Vremya editor-in-chief Igor Meltser resigned in
mid-May rather than implement the publisher's "new concept"
for the weekly. Bigeldin Gabdullin, chief editor of another
weekly, the Central Asia Monitor, was appointed in his
place to tone down the paper's critical, satiric edge and
make it "more patriotic." Gabdullin's comments in a May 22
interview with pro-government Megapolis that the paper had
"depleted itself" to the point that it was "practically
about nothing" prompted the paper's Almaty correspondents
to quit in disgust. In the same interview, Gabdullin said
that "a newspaper's brand is its staff" and that the owner
had tried to persuade Meltser and his team of journalists
to stay by offering higher salaries. (Meltser himself told
emboff June 1 that the publisher offered to double or even
triple salaries.) With Gabdullin at the helm, the paper
lost several advertisers and about 25,000 of its 180,000
subscribers.

Vremya Sold to New Owner, Editor Offered Free Reign


--------------------------



--------------------------



3. (U) Then on May 31, Meltser and his staff returned to
Vremya after the paper had been abruptly sold to a new
owner who promised Meltser complete editorial independence.
Altyn House, a front company for the previous owner,
provided a statement to the Interfax news agency that the
previous owner decided on May 30 to sell 77.5 percent of
its shares to another, unnamed company. According to
Interfax's reporting on the statement, the buyer agreed
only on condition that Meltser and his team return.


4. (SBU) In the June 1 conversation with emboff, Meltser
said "unexpected" did not come close to describing his
surprise at the abrupt change in owners and the offer of
full editorial control. When Vremya's former owners,
Kazkommertsbank director Nulzhan Subhanberdin and Bulat
Abilov, sold their controlling share in December (reftel),
Altyn House first asked Meltser to stay and he agreed, on
condition that he would have full editorial autonomy to run
the paper as he saw fit. He said that around May 19, a
representative of Altyn House paid him a visit and said
they wanted to install an "owner's representative" and that
it wanted to change the paper "a little." Meltser
immediately resigned, and said he was ready to forget about
Vremya and start the new paper he had already registered
with the Information Ministry. Meltser said that on May 30,
"people from another organization" told him they would buy
Vremya from Altyn House, but only if he and the old Vremya
team returned to their jobs. He agreed, he said, because he
saw a tough time ahead in trying to quickly establish his
new project. When asked what guarantees the buyer offered
him, Meltser said only that at the first sign of
interference he would walk away again.

What is Presidential Adviser Tazhin's Role?


--------------------------



5. (SBU) The new buyer's identity is not publicly known,
and if Meltser knows who it is, he is not saying. As for
the December buyer, deputy editor Marat Asipov told emboff
in a May 23 conversation it was Kazakhmys, the copper
conglomerate that purportedly has close ties to the
president. Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan leader Galymzhan

ALMATY 00002007 002.2 OF 002


Zhakiyanov told emboff May 31 that the December buyer was
more precisely Kazakhmys vice president Vladimir Ni, an
ethnic Korean who served many years in the Presidential
Administration. (Comment: Kazakhmys, the tenth largest
copper company in the world, had a very successful IPO in
London in December 2005, and its share price has more than
doubled since then. Kazakhmys was probably motivated to
unload a relatively minor investment embroiled in a
controversy that could reflect on the company. End
comment.) Asipov also said Meltser and Boris Kopelman, the
general director of Vremya Print, told him that Security
Council Secretary Marat Tazhin had coerced the sale because
Tazhin wanted the paper to be in the hands of an
administration-friendly owner before the next round of
elections. Tazhin himself told Ambassador Ordway in January
that he had nothing to do with the sale and said with
evident regret that the paper was unlikely to survive in
its present form.

6. (SBU) Tazhin's name came up in connection with
Gabdullin's appointment as the interim editor and as the
new buyer. In another conversation June 1 Zhakiyanov told
emboff that it was Tazhin who persuaded Gabdullin in mid-
May to take over as Vremya editor - a job that no other
newsman would dare take on - and that Gabdullin had to
agree because he had few other options. (Note: Gabdullin
was once close to former prime minister and Nazarbayev
rival Akezhan Kazhegeldin and fled to the United States
several years ago after being accused of bribery. He
returned to Kazakhstan in the fall of 2004 and was rumored
to have "cut a deal" with Tazhin in return for immunity
from prosecution. End note.) Yermurat Bapi, editor of the
banned Zhuma Times opposition weekly, suggested to emboff
that Tazhin bought Vremya because Gabdullin was destroying
Vremya by alienating its journalists, while generating
publicity that would almost guarantee the success of
Meltser's new project.

A Victory for Free Speech or a Strategic Compromise?


--------------------------



--------------------------



7. Comment. (SBU) At face value, the buyer's concession to
give Meltser editorial independence seems to support free
speech, especially given Vremya's reputation for
investigative journalism. Meltser has in the past stood
firm in publishing articles on corruption among government
officials. However, some analysts suggest the paper has had
to make concessions of its own. Zhakiyanov told emboff that
Vremya almost ignored the 2005 presidential elections
because Meltser had been warned off by the paper's owner at
the time. As Meltser himself told emboff June 1, "no
newspaper can be successful without making some
compromises," a reference perhaps to the need for self
censorship when covering the activities of a powerful
administration still coming to terms with the concept of
media independence. Given Vremya's high profile and the
very public denouement of staff resignations and reversals,
media analysts in Kazakhstan will be scrutinizing the paper
for any telltale signs of editorial shift. End comment.

Ordway