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Palast on the Steppes of a Dictatorship

The title of Greg Palast’s piece, “Boston, Bombs and Borat: From Kazakhstan with Truth,” initially posted online on April 28th immediately struck an intriguing note.  After all, it’s not very often that a seemingly critical journalist with lots of muckraking cred pens an article from tightly controlled Kazakhstan, the massive resource-rich authoritarian state at the strategic heart of Central Asia.

Rather than giving some rare exposure to the dictatorial regime headed by the country’s “Leader of the Nation,” Nursultan Nazarbayev as hoped, Palast instead explained that, “When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, I grabbed… a plane for Kazakhstan.”

Telling us nothing about Kazakhstani realities, the article instead turned into a rather conjectural conspiratorial piece about how the FBI, pre-9/11, shut down an investigation of a group running a Florida summer camp for Muslim-American teenagers encouraged to join the late 1990s anti-Russian Chechen jihad.

So why a trip to Kazakhstan, far removed from Chechnya and the North Caucasus? Was the highly-touted news hound on the trail of a hot lead? He offered up an explanation in his intro: “I thought it would be worthwhile to find out something about this part of the planet beyond what we’ve got thus far from Fox TV and Borat.”

So what was the ever self-promoting sleuth reporter up to? A sentence from his article, uploaded from a hotel in the country’s glitzy new capital, Astana, immediately suggested another evasive truth: “In Kazakhstan, I’ve joined a meeting of fellow journalists brought here by the government of this newly-born oil giant.”

A couple of minutes’ search and a careful read of Palast’s Face Book posts soon clarified what he was up to. He reveals that it wasn’t until his flight landed in Astana that the reportorial sleuth found out about the two Kazakh students now alleged to have aided the Tsarnaev brothers after the Boston bombing. So he hadn’t set off in pursuit of that lead.

In Kazakhstan from at least the 24th, he had flown there not in search of some blockbuster story, but had gone to speak at the April 25-27 “Eurasia Media Forum 2013,” an international confab staged by the regime and bought and paid for by a host of international corporate media and energy giants. He addressed the gathering on “Information Security. Impact of the Media and Social Networks on Global Politics

So what’s the big deal? Regardless of what he might have said, by taking the rostrum at such a media dog-and-pony show, Palast wound up providing cover for the autocratic Nazarbayev regime now busily looking to burnish its global image as a somehow respectable and responsible member of the “community of nations” and a land loaded with investment opportunity, a worthy ally of “the West”.

For starters, every international human rights monitor — among them Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House and Transparency International — has condemned the Nazarbayev state as little more than a dictatorial kleptocracy in violation of all human rights standards.

Opposition parties are not allowed to function in any meaningful fashion. We’re talking about a society with a rubber stamp parliament and a corrupt judiciary where police are allowed to act with impunity and those in custody are often tortured; one in which all religious groups are required by law to register with the state or face severe penalties including imprisonment. Independent trade unions are out of the question.

Groups like Reporters Without Borders have long chronicled the systematic harassment, intimidation and outright violence aimed at any and all journalists and news outlets who dare to raise critical questions about the corruption, venality and repressive nature of the regime.  Reporters have been beaten and stabbed; newspaper offices have been vandalized and closed down. It’s against the law to write anything critical, deemed “defamatory” about “president for life” Nazarbayev or any of his family.

Following the Media Forum’s opening address by “Leader of the Nation” Nazarbayev, his eldest daughter, billionaire Dariga Nazarbayeva took to the rostrum as “Chair of the Eurasia Media Forum Organizing Committee.” It just so happens that she and a handful of close associates basically hold a monopoly on all the electronic media – television, radio, internet providers, etc. – in the country.

Censorship and suppression of all news media, print and otherwise, attempting to operate outside the closely monitored confines of the state-aligned media system has increased in the last year. Those outlets which gave unvetted coverage to the December, 2011massacre of striking oil workers by state security forces in the Caspian Sea company town of Zhanaozen or to the stepped up repression that has continued since have been specifically targeted.

Apparently unaware of that situation or somehow able to turn a blind eye, Palast could write from Astana that,

“Here on the Steppes, where armed Islamists use social networks to recruit killers, where rumours can be deadly as cyanide, where gangsters, conmen and liars use social networks to create riots and mayhem, the Kazakh government seeks advice from me and a gang of fellow reporters on “information wars and information security systems”.

What he apparently was ignorant of, or simply decided to remain silent on is the fact that it has been Nazarbayev’s “social networks” that have been waging a literal “information war” against the country’s people as well as a public relations disinformation campaign aimed at the outside world.

The “Eurasia Media Forum” at which Palast spoke, with its array of international panelists, served to provide yet another level of faux legitimacy for the far from democratic regime.

In all fairness, it should be mentioned that other journalists and public figures, often respected by elements on the Left, were present at the conference. Media critic Danny Schechter was there as was the Brit anti-imperial renegade voice, George Galloway. Schechter actually mentioned Palast’s speech before the conferees as one offering up some critical points.

Regardless, Palast should be asked if he would have gone to apartheid South Africa as a guest of the white-rule regime. Or if he would today accept invitations from the Israeli government to speak in Jerusalem despite Palestinian calls for a boycott through the BDS campaign? If he was to answer “no,” then he must be asked, “Then why go to Kazakhstan?”

In a FB post on April 29th while he was still in Astana, Palast wrote that he “…Spent an hour killing the (Kazakh) President’s supreme bottles of red with Hamid Karzai’s right hand man, Afghanistan’s former Foreign Minister. Then, in a piece entitled “Truth vs. Info-Jihad” that appeared on May 2, he stated that, “We can only get to The Truth if the US, UK and other governments end their own jihad against information and those who provide it.”

Viewed by many as an important investigative voice best known for his exposure of domestic US political shenanigans and by others as a self-promoting huckster underneath an affected Fedora, Palast must not be allowed to avoid the contradictory truth of his own opportune behavior. Especially when he’s been copping sips from a dictator’s stash of “supreme red.”

Allen Ruff is a historian and an independent writer on foreign policy issues. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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