Letters   |   Kazakhstan, USA

CPJ asks Obama to raise poor press record with Kazakhstan

April 8, 2010 

Barack Obama 
President of the United States 
The White House 
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. 
Washington, D.C. 20500 

Via facsimile: +1 202.456.2461

Dear President Obama,

In advance of your April 12 meeting in Washington with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, we'd like to draw your attention to the deteriorating press freedom conditions in Kazakhstan. Unchecked violence and the arrest of independent reporters, politicized prosecution and harassment of critical outlets, and draconian media and Internet regulation laws tarnish the record of the current chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Kazakhstan’s leadership declared they would uphold the OSCE’s values and principles as a member and chair of the pan-European human rights and security watchdog. When placing Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chairmanship in 2007, government officials publicly declared they would bring national laws, including media legislation, in line with global standards.

In 2008, Kazakh authorities indeed introduced some legislative amendments, including to the media law, but these were merely cosmetic and did not alleviate harsh penalties for press freedom violations.

Criminal libel and insult and exorbitant fines continue to foster self-censorship among local journalists, and limit public access to alternative news in a country in which all the broadcasters are owned by the state or government affiliates. Insult of the president or his family in the media carries a prison term of up to five years, and public scrutiny of a state official can lead to the bankruptcy of an outlet.

In the last two years, government officials and state agencies filed more than 60 defamation lawsuits against independent newspapers and their staffers, seeking more than half a billion Kazakh tenge (US$3.5 million) in damages. In comparison, the average monthly income is 66,000 Kazakh tenge (about US$450).

In 2009, Nazarbayev put extra pressure on his critics by signing Internet regulation and privacy laws; he ignored fierce protests by local and international press freedom advocates, including CPJ and the OSCE.

The Internet law effectively equated all Web–based resources—social networking sites, chat rooms, online forums, personal Web pages, and blogs—with traditional media, spread liability to Internet users, and gave state agencies broad authority to block or shut down any online resource critical of the government. It also allowed blocking of access to any international Web site deemed in violation of Kazakh legislation. The broadly worded privacy law restricts reporting on government officials and carries penalties that include closing of a media outlet and imprisonment of up to five years for journalists. Recently, the government announced it has created an agency to monitor “destructive Web sites” and counter “political extremism,” which local press freedom activists told CPJ is really just another means of suppressing Nazarbayev’s critics.

Unchecked violence against independent reporters and politicized arrests of government critics continue to spread fear in the media. In the last 14 months, one journalist was killed and at least four others have been assaulted with impunity in Kazakhstan. All of the attacked reporters work for independent and pro-opposition media outlets, including the U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which often criticizes Nazarbayev and his government. Gennady Pavlyuk, 40, an independent journalist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan was found unconscious on December 16, 2009, in the city of Almaty, sprawled on the overhang of an apartment building entrance, his hands and legs bound with tape; he died six days later without regaining his consciousness. Kazakh authorities have yet to solve Pavlyuk’s brutal killing.

The OSCE chair’s reputation is also tainted by the politicized imprisonment of government critics—independent editor Ramazan Yesergepov and human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis—whose reports and commentary exposed government corruption and ongoing human rights violations in the country. Although Kazakh officials insist that both have committed crimes by allegedly distributing state secrets and killing a pedestrian in a traffic accident, our research shows that they were given prison sentences in retaliation for their work. Yesergepov exposed abuses of power by state security service and Zhovtis spoke out about Kazakhstan’s press freedom and human rights record, including to the U.N., the U.S. Helsinki Commission, CPJ, and the OSCE. Local sources told CPJ that in both cases prosecutors fabricated evidence and denied due process of law, and that state-controlled judges effectively denied appeals.

As the OSCE chair, the country is not only required to fulfill the organization’s principles, but also is expected to lead by example in the largely authoritarian region. But instead of promoting respect for human rights and OSCE values in the former Soviet territories, Kazakh authorities have been discrediting the organization and sending a wrong message to the nations whose poor human rights and press freedom records the watchdog is supposed to monitor.

When you meet with President Nazarbayev on April 12, we ask that you remind him of the commitments his government made as the OSCE chair and as a member of the international community—to ensure that Kazakh media law is brought up to global standards; that Yesergepov and Zhovtis are released, and no government critics are jailed, beaten, or killed in retaliation for their work; that censorship is eradicated in the media; and that state officials learn to tolerate public scrutiny in the press.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon

Executive Director

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