IN AN APRIL 19 SPEECH, PRESIDENT NURSULTAN NAZARBAYEV called for increased state oversight of the press-even though his decade in power was already marked by rigid control of independent expression.
The National Security Committee (KNB, successor to the KGB) regularly harassed independent and opposition media last year. Journalists also faced countless defamation lawsuits filed by government officials and associates of the president. In May, CPJ placed Nazarbayev on its annual list of the “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press.”
“Infringement of the honor and dignity of the president” is a crime in Kazakhstan. Judges frequently impose huge fines on journalists and media outlets for this offense, although so far no journalist has been jailed. A March 1999 law against publishing state secrets also criminalizes unauthorized disclosure of information such as the private life and health of the president and his family.
Opposition media outlets suffer most under these and other repressive laws. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK), finances a number of newspapers including the weeklies XXI Vek and SolDat, both of which were subject to various attacks in 2000. The RNPK also sponsors the Web site of the Moscow-based Information Analytical Center Eurasia (www.eurasia.org.ru), which the government blocked on the country’s two main Internet service providers last year.
XXI Vek was forced to publish on a small photocopier after tax officials confiscated its April 21 edition and printing houses refused to print future issues. In July, SolDat was also unable to secure printing facilities. When the paper resorted to printers in neighboring Russia and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakh border guards and customs officials confiscated the printed copies before they could enter the country. At year’s end, both papers had suspended publication and SolDat‘s editor, Yermurat Bapi, faced criminal prosecution for articles that prosecutors said had insulted the president.
A state-owned printing house also refused to print the Russian- and English-language Vremya Po after the twice-weekly paper reprinted international media articles about high-level corruption in Kazakhstan. The paper responded by suing its printer for breach of contract.
The weekly Nachnem s Ponedelnika was repeatedly targeted for its investigative reporting on corruption. More than a dozen defamation suits were filed against the paper, crippling fines were imposed, and police seized corporate assets during a raid on the editorial offices in May. At the end of November, a local court imposed a three-month suspension on the paper.
In meetings with CPJ representative Emma Gray, who visited Almaty in October, independent and opposition journalists said they were subject to surveillance and wiretaps. Several journalists said they had received threatening phone calls that they believed were from the KNB, and one newspaper editor claimed she had been forced to move apartments three times because of fears for her family’s safety.
In contrast to print media, the Nazarbayev government generally leaves radio and television stations alone, for the simple reason that the most influential stations are under the direct or indirect control of the president’s family. Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga and her husband, Rakhat Aliev, run the private television networks NTK and KTK, the privately-held but publicly-funded television stations Khabar, Khabar 2, and ORT Kazakhstan. The couple also controls the radio stations Europa Plus, Russkoye Radio, Radio Hit FM, and Radio Karavan, along with the newspapers Karavan and Novoye Pokolenie and the Franklin Press printing house.
In March, one of the few independent TV outlets, Channel 31 in Almaty, was pressured into firing news director Tatyana Deltsova after she aired a story about a campaign of threats and harassment against three opposition politicians. (Two Channel 31 news reporters were dismissed earlier in the year for covering an opposition press conference.)
On October 31, Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev proposed amendments to the Mass Media Law that included registering Web sites as mass media, limiting foreign programming to 20 percent of a station’s broadcast time, and tightening libel laws. Registration of Web sites would give the government control over Internet content created in Kazakhstan or (theoretically) by Kazakh citizens in exile, while the limits on foreign programming would place heavy financial burdens on local broadcasters, because of the high cost of original programming.
Under the proposed amendments to the libel laws, newspapers that reprint articles from other news sources could be sued for their content (a tactic the authorities were already pursuing in their actions against the editor of SolDat). Parliament was scheduled to consider the amendments in January 2001.
Tatyana Deltsova, Channel 31 TV
Deltsova was fired under official pressure after she reported on a government harassment campaign against three opposition leaders, according to CPJ sources in Almaty.
Deltsova’s dismissal as news director of the daily news program “Informbureau” on Almaty’s Channel 31 came one day after the program covered official attempts to intimidate opposition leaders Amirzhan Kosanov, Nurbulat Masanov, and Seidakhmet Kuttikadam. She had worked for the program for six years.
“Informbureau” reported that unidentified intruders had threatened and otherwise harassed the three men at their homes, cementing doors, breaking windows, and cutting telephone lines.
Although most “Informbureau” programs air twice in an evening, Deltsova’s report was not repeated. The next morning, she was dismissed by Channel 31 president Armanzhan Baytasov. According to Deltsova, Baytasov acknowledged that the government had pressured him to fire her but declined to name the officials responsible on the grounds that he feared further retribution.
Channel 31, a commercial station, is considered the sole source of independent broadcast news in Kazakhstan, where most of the press is under strict government control.
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
Bigeldy Gabdullin, XXI Vek
Tax officials entered an Almaty printing house and seized the entire print run of the weekly XXI Vek‘s April 21 edition. Meanwhile, the government discouraged all the city’s printers from printing the paper.
XXI Vek is an opposition newspaper allied with exiled former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegelden, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s main rival. The paper has suffered frequent harassment in recent years, and had previously been forced to contract with printers outside Kazakhstan.
Editor Bigeldy Gabdullin was forced to furlough most of his staff and “print” the paper by hand on a small copying machine. When Gabdullin’s copy machine broke down on December 28, the paper stopped publishing altogether.
During an October interview with CPJ in Almaty, Gabdullin said that he and his staff continued to receive threatening phone calls, and believed the State Security Service (KNB) was keeping them under surveillance.
On September 13, a local court began hearings on a libel suit against XXI Vek, filed by the Sakharnyi Tsentr Company, which is run by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev. The company claimed that Gabdullin had hurt its business reputation in an interview he gave to the independent television station Channel 31. The suit demanded 20 million tenge (US$140,350) in compensation.
At year’s end the case was still pending in court.
Nachnem s Ponedelnika
ATTACKED, LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
An Almaty court ordered the seizure of the independent weekly Nachnem s Ponedelnika‘s corporate assets, along with the personal assets of its founder and executive director, Ramazan Yesergepov, as compensation for unpaid fines.
The next day, May 25, more than 30 policemen, including representatives of the Special Forces (OMON) and security services, stormed the newspaper’s offices and confiscated the entire May 26 print run along with research materials, financial records, office equipment, and furniture, effectively closing the paper. The newspaper’s editor, Valeriya Marchenko, told CPJ that the police had no warrant for the raid.
Yesergepov argued that the raid was illegal, since Kazakh law stipulates that a media outlet has 10 days to file an appeal after a court ruling that its assets should be seized to cover unpaid fines. On the ruling itself, he claimed that the newspaper was unable to plead its case because it had not been invited to the hearing, during which the judge also ruled that a criminal case should be opened against Yesergepov.
According to local news reports, printers all over Kazakhstan were ordered not to print Nachnem s Ponedelnika, along with the newspapers Do i Posle Ponedelnika and Ponedelnik, which Yesergepov launched following the May 25 raid.
On August 11, an Almaty court revoked the registration of Do i Posle Ponedelnika.
Nachnem s Ponedelnika has been sued 17 times for defamation since October 1998, according to CPJ research. The majority of these cases were filed by government officials or corporate executives with close links to the government.
In three of these cases, the paper was found guilty of slander and fined a total of 25,935,000 tenge (about US$180,000). Two of the suits were later dropped by plaintiffs, and twelve cases were still pending at year’s end.
CPJ protested the judicial intimidation of Nachnem s Ponedelnika in a June 7 letter to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Dauren Kayip, Channel 31
Darmen Smail, Channel 31
Two journalists with the “Informbureau” news program, on the independent television Channel 31, were fired in late January for covering an opposition press conference.
According to local sources, speakers at the press conference accused Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev and his son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, who heads the tax police, of corruption.
Kayip, editor of the “Informbureau” Kazakh desk, and Smail, a staff reporter, were dismissed by Channel 31 president Arman Baytasov, acting on the orders of the state Committee for National Security.
After the Russian and English-language Vremya Po reprinted foreign reports on a corruption scandal involving President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a state-owned printer refused to continue producing the twice-weekly paper on the grounds that it had an overdue balance.
Local sources told CPJ that government officials put pressure on the state-owned printing company Dauir after Vremya Po reprinted articles from Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal alleging that top Kazakh government officials, including President Nazarbayev, had accepted bribes from American and Russian businessmen in exchange for favorable contracts to reprocess iron and aluminum ore and to develop oil fields in the Kazakh portion of the Caspian Sea.
Vremya Po continued to appear on the Internet. In October, the paper’s deputy editor told CPJ that a small printing house had agreed to produce the paper. Meanwhile Vremya Po sued the head of Dauir, Yanvarbek Tlevlesov, for loss of advertising earnings. The case was still pending at year’s end.
CPJ protested the ongoing harassment of Vremya Po in an August 9 letter to President Nazarbayev.
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
On July 17, acting on a complaint that had apparently been filed by one of the newspaper’s readers, the Almaty prosecutor’s office opened a criminal defamation case against Yermurat Bapi and Argyngazy Madiyanov, respectively editor and director of the opposition weekly SolDat (formerly Dat).
Bapi and Madiyanov were accused of insulting President Nursultan Nazarbayev by reprinting two articles about high-level corruption in Kazakhstan from the Web sites of the U.S. magazine Fortune and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. The stories alleged that top Kazakh government officials, including Nazarbayev, had accepted massive bribes from American and Russian businessmen in exchange for favorable contracts to reprocess iron and aluminum ore and to develop oil fields in the Kazakh part of the Caspian Sea.
Two weeks earlier, the prosecutor’s office had notified SolDat that it was launching an investigation into the newspaper’s allegedly defamatory May 30 article “Decembrists Accuse Nazarbayev,” which SolDat reprinted from the Web site of the Information Analytical Center Eurasia (www.eurasia.org.ru). The article held the president responsible for violent ethnic clashes in the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, in December 1986.
The next day, Kazakh customs officials seized the newspaper’s entire print run at the Russian-Kazakh border and arrested Bapi, who was accompanying the shipment. The editor was held in custody for a few hours and then released.
SolDat had been printing in Russia for about a month, after local printing companies refused to print the paper, allegedly because of government pressure. The investigators also froze the newspaper’s bank accounts, according to local sources. As a result, on July 10, SolDat‘s entire staff was placed on indefinite unpaid leave.
When the paper resumed publication, it was again forced to seek a printer outside Kazakhstan. On September 29 and again on October 14, the vehicle that carried SolDat‘s print run from the Uchkun printing house in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was stopped by Kazakh customs officials, who confiscated all the papers at the border. At year’s end, SolDat was not publishing.
On October 23, police came to Bapi’s house and confiscated his passport. Bapi, Madiyanov, and SolDat faced charges of “insulting the honor and dignity of the president,” but the trial was delayed because a qualified defense lawyer could not be found. At year’s end, proceedings were expected to resume imminently. Bapi was interrogated on October 31 by officers of the Interior Affairs Ministry’s Military Crimes Branch, and was summoned to the department once more on December 7.