“In a way, it is a very low-rent equivalent of the Russia Today TV channel,” wrote Peter Leonard, an Associated Press reporter who has been based in Kazakhstan for the past several years. “The Kazakh government has exerted itself vigorously and invested heavily in trying to improve its international image. By endorsing a news outlet through which to present its message in what it would deem to be a more neutral fashion—while papering over its multiple shortcomings in terms of commitments on democracy and freedom of speech—it believes it can effectively portray itself as the progressive and modern nation it aspires to become. Yet while this outlet enjoys the apparent support of the authorities, media critical of the government is subject to constant harassment.”
Claude Salhani was the first reporter assigned by The Washington Times to Astana, Kazakhstan, to report for the paper and CAN. Solomon gave him the assignment after the Middle East Times, where Salhani had been editor for six years, was closed in fall 2009. (Solomon, who resigned from The Washington Times on November 6, 2009, shortly after several top executives were fired, declined to comment on the record for this article.) In January 2010, Salhani arrived in Astana, a one-time dusty transportation hub in the Kazakh steppe that the country has transformed into an elaborate, ultra-modern enigma—complete with a Las Vegas-style skyline—in an uphill battle to lure businesses, diplomats, and reporters up from the Soviet-era capital of Almaty.
The agreement between The Washington Times and East West Communications stipulated that the newspaper would staff the Astana bureau with “at least three international journalists and a translator/office manager, and use the services of at least four stringers,” according to court documents. According to a lawsuit it brought in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in September, 2010, East West Communications paid The Washington Times $125,000 toward an agreed-upon $500,000 annual fee to set up and run the Astana bureau. In turn, The Washington Times was obligated to run the content “at the normal discretion of the editors,” and could keep any revenue it made by selling paid content subscriptions. East West Communications charged that The Washington Times breached this contract, and demanded repayment of the $125,000 with interest. The suit was still open as of late February.
The Kazakhstan government acknowledged that it paid for the newswire’s content, but it is unclear that anybody else did. Disgruntled former CAN employee Les Neuhaus said that the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry’s head of communications, Roman Vassilenko, told him that that government was the only paid subscriber. In an interview, Vassilenko said that the ministry paid for CAN’s services, but would not say how much, noting that it paid subscription fees to more well-known Russian newswires, as well. The relationship that his ministry had with CAN was not out of the ordinary, he said.
“There are a handful of reporters here in Astana, so we work with them,” said Vassilenko. “The Foreign Ministry is the first point of call when they want to look into any story. They call us, and we try to be helpful. That is the nature of our relationship with everybody here.”
CAN editor Patrick Gilsenan did not respond to multiple e-mails asking whether there were other paid subscribers; nor did he return phone calls. It is unclear why CAN did not work more dilligently to find subscribers to their service.
With a few exceptions, Salhani’s stories did not appear in the newspaper at all, because executive editor Sam Dealey put a stop to them. And, for months, the newspaper did not send anybody out to join him. Salhani and Dealey, who was named editor of The Washington Times in late January 2010, did not see eye to eye on how Kazakhstan should be covered.
“The specifics that were asked about me was to write a story about prostitution in Kazakhstan, about corruption in Kazakhstan, about prisons in Kazakhstan,”
said Salhani, author of a forthcoming book called Islam Without a Veil: Kazakhstan’s Path of Modernization. “And my response was that those things had been written about ad nauseam in the press, and I like to write about something a little different.”
Dealey, who has spent eight years as an overseas correspondent, including for Time magazine, personally blocked a number of Salhani’s stories. He would not give his reasons on the record, but his colleagues said they knew that he had some questions about the business arrangements backing up the project.