President Nursultan Nazarbayev continued his intense persecution of Kazakhstan’s independent media in 2003, silencing government critics and sidelining opposition to his autocratic policies and control over the country’s billion-dollar oil and gas industries.
Anyone who criticizes the president, his family, and his associates can be criminally prosecuted, and the government’s growing persecution of the media has increased self-censorship. Nazarbayev has consolidated his control over the airwaves and newsstands ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for 2004 and 2006, respectively.
Due to his growing military cooperation with the United States and NATO, Nazarbayev has faced no serious international repercussions for his crackdown on the media and the opposition. Kazakhstan has conducted joint military exercises with U.S. forces in its territory and allows the U.S. military to use its airfields for refueling and emergency landings.
Facing a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into allegations that the president and those close to him accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from American oil companies, Nazarbayev methodically stifled any media coverage that criticized him or his policies. Media outlets that reported on the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan Party and official corruption in the energy industry are particularly vulnerable to government persecution.
Politicized courts took the lead in persecuting government critics during 2003. In January, a court in the country’s financial capital, Almaty, sentenced Sergei Duvanov, a prominent independent journalist who writes for opposition-financed Web sites and edits a human rights bulletin, to three-and-a-half years in prison for allegedly raping a minor. The trial was closed to the public and marred by numerous procedural violations.
Duvanov is known for his criticism of high-level Kazakh officials, including Nazarbayev, and authorities have frequently harassed him in reprisal. His colleagues and defense attorneys maintain that the journalist is innocent, and that Kazakh authorities fabricated the case to muzzle him. The Almaty Regional Court and the Supreme Court both rejected appeals filed by Duvanov’s defense team. Independent journalists say Duvanov’s imprisonment has increased self-censorship. In late December, a court ruled that Duvanov could serve the rest of his term in a low-security facility near Almaty.
In March, another Almaty court convicted two men of setting fire to the opposition weekly Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika in May 2002, sentenced them to three years in prison, and fined them 998,000 tenge (US$6,575). Irina Petrushova, Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika‘s editor-in-chief and the recipient of CPJ’s 2002 International Press Freedom Award, does not believe that the men prosecuted are responsible for the crime. Rather, she thinks the fire was an attempt by government officials to silence the newspaper’s criticism of Nazarbayev and his policies.
Government persecution has forced some journalists like Petrushova to go into exile. Petrushova, who fled the country in 2002 after she was targeted with death threats and lawsuits, now edits her newspaper from Moscow. After a court closed Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika in 2002 for its government criticism, Petrushova was forced to change the newspaper’s name to Assandi Times.
Libel remains a criminal offense in Kazakhstan. Civil libel cases have no statute of limitation, and there is no limit on the fines that can be imposed. In July, an Almaty district court awarded Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliev 300,000 tenge (US$2,000) in a libel case against the Assandi Times stemming from an article published in April stating that Aliev had used his political connections to obstruct the activities of business rivals.
Journalists throughout the country continued to face violent reprisals for criticizing government officials. In April, unidentified attackers beat unconscious Maksim Erokhin, editor of the independent newspaper Rabat in the southern city of Shimkent, after he published an article about senior government officials building illegal villas. In October, several men beat Andrei Doronin, a correspondent for the independent Almaty daily Ekspress-K, near his home and told him to quit journalism after he wrote a series of articles about illegal vodka production
Authorities actively obstructed news and information on the Internet, periodically blocking access to independent and opposition news Web sites such as Navigator.kz, Kub.kz, and Eurasia.ru from the country’s main Internet service provider, the state-run Kazakhtelecom.
Authorities also suppress independent reporting by conducting politicized tax audits and police raids, denying accreditation to media outlets, and limiting access to government information and press conferences.
The president’s family and pro-government oligarchs control most of the country’s private media, including all broadcast media. Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga, heads the influential Khabar Media Holding Company and chairs the pro-government Congress of Kazakh Journalists. She launched her own political party in October, apparently in preparation for the 2004 parliamentary elections and the 2006 presidential elections. Nazarbayev’s term expires in 2006, and his daughter is expected to run to replace him.
The government proposed a new version of the Media Law during the summer that expands restrictions on the independent media and makes it easier for regulators to shutter media outlets for minor violations. Government officials ignored changes proposed by press freedom activists during the fall, and the lower house of Parliament passed the draft Media Law in late December.