One of the reporters who was sent to Astana by East West Communications after the falling out in June between CAN and The Washington Times was Les Neuhaus, a former U.S. Air Force security policeman who said he took the CAN job over a freelance opportunity with CNN.* He did not speak Russian when he was given the job, which he read about on journalismjobs.com.
His initial in-person interview took place at East West Communications’s D.C. headquarters, and was conducted by Cromwell and his partner at East West Communications, Savas Hadjikyriacou, along with CAN’s editor, Patrick Gilsenan. Neuhaus said he asked who the subscribers were, and did not get a straight answer.
“The way that they stated it, they were an upstart agency,” he said. But when they offered him $60,000 a year, untaxed, he leapt at the opportunity. “I really felt dumb after the whole episode.”
Shortly after his arrival in Astana in late June, he said, he began to realize that the company did not operate in a transparent manner.
“When I went to the bureau, there was nobody in there,” he said. “It’s like a ghost office, basically.”
He did find some of Salhani’s old clips lying around the old office. Unaware of Salhani’s existence, Neuhaus asked an office administrator to bring him up to speed. She told him that Salhani was a reporter who had recently been fired, and gave him his phone number. Salhani was still in the country working on his book, and happened to live across the street from Neuhaus’s company apartment.
But Neuhaus said that when he asked Gilsenan and East West Communications about Salhani, he was harshly rebuffed. Neuhaus said that this was because Salhani indicated to him that CAN was in fact owned or controlled by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry, although Salhani denies that.
When Neuhaus declined to break off communication with Salhani, with whom he had already made dinner plans, he was fired and ordered to immediately vacate his apartment.
Demiray said that he could not comment about any role he may have had in dismissing Neuhaus.
“If Mr. Neuhaus has a problem with how I treated him, he is more than welcome to contact me,” he said. “Regarding Mr. Neuhaus, we—or I can’t even say we, I—wish him the best in whatever he chooses to pursue.”
CAN is still pumping out stories. One of their most prolific staff members, Martin Sieff, worked for UPI and The Washington Times for years. Although he has written book reviews for the paper recently, his last piece on Central Asia in the Commentary section appeared on July 23, 2010. It was entitled “Losing the resources game; Distracted America is missing opportunity’s knock,” and described how Kazakhstan was eager for asleep-at-the-starting-gate America to enter into more robust competition with China for control of the wealthy country’s available resources. Oh, and Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states were tired of being lectured.
In December, following a final OSCE event, a clutch of reporters who mostly represented legitimate international media was invited into a room to have some special time with President Nazarbayev. Sieff was there, representing CAN, and asked a “sickeningly” deferential question, said a reporter from an independent news agency.
In retrospect, the problems with the CAN operation were purely logistical, according to Culligan.
“It’s eleven-hour time zones,” he said. “Very many things had to be done with cash. In other areas we are used to dealing with, we can deal with Visa or American Express. And the financial people were very concerned with just the amount of logistical complexities as well.”
Culligan, whom McDevitt rehired after the recent transfer back to the old guard at The Washington Times, did not deny that the Kazakhstan government, particularly the Foreign Ministry, tried to influence coverage through the news wire.
“That’s their job,” he said. “That’s what the Voice of America, or the White House, or anybody else does. They provide content.”
He also spoke to the sad truism that real news reporting, particularly in less well-trodden areas overseas where reporters may not speak the local language or be familiar with the culture, is expensive and even more difficult without the company of colleagues.