On the sidelines of a government meeting on Monday, Justice Minister Kanat Mussin told the press that a new party, Respublica, had been registered. A few hours later, however, his own press service denied this information, saying it was “involuntarily distorted” and apologizing for the “imperfect press release.”
“We have taken measures to prevent this in the future,” said the ministry after the incident, without specifying which measures: The press service essentially reprimanded the minister, who was talking to journalists. So which press release were they referencing?
All this is an exercise in smoke and mirrors. Impunity on the one hand and fear for their reputation on the other have led government officials to speak in riddles, in an effort to both withhold concrete facts and avoid criticism.
The statement of the press service shows that ministries are not in control of important information and are unaware of the state of affairs. Thus, they ultimately undermine the rule of law by misinforming the public.
While recognizing an “imperfection,” the ministry did not acknowledge Mussin’s mistake. To take ownership of it would be to admit to their own lack of professionalism. Officials have thus become accustomed to shifting the blame for “distorted information” to press services, journalists, or translators. It is much easier to read reports out loud than to study the problems and coherently respond to the demands of society.
This case is not the first and, alas, will not be the last. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed the government’s inability to tell the truth or admit its mistakes. Both journalists and the society at large are accustomed to government officials refuting their own words. No-one expects a sudden enlightenment or a sincere repentance from officials.
This inability (or unwillingness) to speak honestly ultimately puts journalists at risk of disseminating false information, which is a crime in Kazakhstan. And yet no official has ever been held accountable for this.
Press services endlessly aim to correct their mistakes, demanding that journalists edit quotes or even take down pieces that “do not correspond to reality.” But journalists, and the Kazakhstani public in general, do not expect the government to keep busy amending reality. Fixing a sentence by a minister or a governor does not fix any problem, especially in communication.
The first step towards building trust is recognizing one’s own flaws. This is also the first step towards creating a truly open government.
How can one trust a government in which the press service is more knowledgeable than the minister himself? Or a government in which ministers are not accountable for their words and cannot properly communicate with the press?
In George Orwell’s 1984, the “Ministry of Truth” controlled all information. In real life our Ministry of Corrections struggles to polish information, which triggers instead a lack of trust in journalists and government officials, ultimately fueling social tensions.