On May 3–World Press Freedom Day–President Nursultan Nazarbayev approved restrictive amendments to Kazakhstan’s already burdensome Mass Media Law. Under the law, organizations designated as members of the “mass media” are subject to a host of harsh provisions. But Nazarbayev’s amendment widened the legal net by designating Web sites as “mass media” as well. This change mainly affected independent journalists and politicians, who tend to publish on the Internet. Most of the country’s newspapers and televisions stations are owned, directly or indirectly, by the president’s family or business associates.
The amendments also limited the amount of foreign programming Kazakh media outlets are allowed to air. Local independent broadcasters complained that because foreign programming is so popular, any reduction would decrease advertising revenues. In addition, small independent stations cannot afford to produce original material to replace foreign broadcasts.
Finally, a tightening of criminal libel laws made it even easier to prosecute editors and media owners in a country where any government criticism brings harsh legal reprisals.
On April 17, CPJ wrote to President Nazarbayev to protest the one-year prison term handed to Yermurat Bapi, editor of the opposition weekly SolDat, who was convicted of “publicly insulting the dignity and honor of the president” in a published article. Though Bapi was pardoned, he remained a convicted criminal and was barred from traveling abroad.
On April 20, unknown individuals broke into SolDat‘s editorial offices. Software and files were destroyed, and expensive electronic equipment was damaged. Local sources told CPJ that the robbers were trying to prevent the paper from being published. Meanwhile, Bapi’s colleagues told local reporters that at least five printers in the city of Almaty had refused to produce the paper.
Bapi was kept from leaving Kazakhstan to attend a U.S. congressional hearing on repression in Central Asia, which was held on July 18. CPJ testified at the hearing and condemned the Kazakh regime’s abysmal press freedom record.
CPJ also protested the politically motivated charges against Bigeldi Gabdullin, editor of the opposition weekly XXI Vek. Gabdullin was accused of criminal defamation after publishing two articles in October 2000 alleging that the president was involved in corruption. The case was dismissed in April 2001. On January 9, meanwhile, Gabdullin was fined 5 million tenge (nearly US$34,500) when a court found him guilty of slandering a company owned by the president’s son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev.
Aliyev also sued the privately owned biweekly Vremya Po for insulting his personal dignity and honor in its coverage of an argument between him and a political rival. On December 14, 2001, the paper was ordered to pay Aliyev 3 million tenges (about US$20,000) in damages.
The state controls all of Kazakhstan’s printing houses, as well as the country’s two main Internet service providers. Officials often block access to politically sensitive material, including the Web site of the Moscow-based Information Analytical Center Eurasia (www.eurasia.org.ru), which is funded by exiled members of Kazakhstan’s opposition party, the Republican People’s Party of Kazakhstan.
Bigeldy Gabdullin, XXI Vek
After a four-month trial, an Almaty court imposed a fine of 5 million tenge (about US$34,500) on Gabdullin, editor of the opposition weekly XXI Vek, for slandering a company controlled by Rakhat Aliyev, the son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Aliyev’s firm, Sakharny Tsentr Company, claimed that Gabdullin hurt its business reputation in an interview he gave to the independent television station Channel 31.
Gabdullin argued that his remarks had been taken out of context. On February 16, his lawyer filed an appeal with a higher court.
XXI Vek was an opposition newspaper allied with exiled former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegelden, Nazarbayev’s main rival. The paper has suffered frequent harassment in recent years and was effectively banned when no local printer would agree to produce it.
The paper was subsequently brought out by its own staff, who used a broken-down printing press and distributed copies by hand.
The last issue of XXI Vek appeared on January 25, 2001. In February, Gabdullin fled to the United States, where he now lives in exile.
Bigeldy Gabdullin, XXI Vek
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
The Almaty prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case against Bigeldy Gabdullin, editor of the opposition weekly XXI Vek, for alleged defamation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The charges were based on two XXI Vek articles, both published October 20, 2000, about Nazarbayev’s alleged personal corruption. The prosecutor claimed that the articles had “negative connotations and [were] aimed at harming the honor and dignity of the President,” local sources reported.
On April 6, the prosecutor’s office issued a press release saying that it had dropped the case due to the “absence of [a] crime,” although the newspaper had yet to receive formal notification to this effect. Additionally, XXI Vek had been ordered by the prosecutor’s office to suspend its publication indefinitely on March 14.
Unknown individuals broke into SolDat’s offices 17 days after Yermurat Bapi, the paper’s editor-in-chief, was sentenced for “publicly insulting the dignity and honor of the president” (see April 3 case).
Computer files with a fully prepared edition of the newspaper, as well as a book ready for print, were destroyed. Expensive electronic equipment was damaged. The paper was forced to delay the printing of its next issue.
Bapi suspects that computer specialists carried out the break-in, since the targeted software and files were damaged irreparably and infected with a computer virus.
No criminal case was filed because, according to the police team on arrival, the doors and windows did not show evidence of forced entry.
Yermurat Bapi, SolDat
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Bapi, editor of the opposition weekly SolDat, was convicted of “publicly insulting the dignity and honor of the president,” an offense under Article 318.2 of the Criminal Code.
The journalist was sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay about US$280 in court expenses. The court also ordered that the July 6 print run of SolDat be burned.
Although he was immediately given a presidential amnesty, Bapi was banned from traveling abroad and subjected to other restrictions as a result of his conviction, which he appealed.
The case stemmed from two articles that appeared in the May 30 and July 6 issues of SolDat. The first argued that President Nursultan Nazarbayev was responsible for violent ethnic clashes in the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, in December 1986.
The prosecution claimed that the second article, written by prominent Kazakh historian and dissident Karishal Asanov, had insulted Nazarbayev by describing him as illiterate, incompetent, and corrupt. Asanov was a co-defendant in the case but was acquitted for lack of evidence.