The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, is concerned about deteriorating press freedom conditions in Kazakhstan, including the politicized legal prosecution of independent journalists.
On March 17, a court in the northwestern city of Aktobe sentenced Vladimir Mikhailov, director of Rifma Ltd. media company and founder of the opposition weekly Diapazon, to one year in prison for failing to comply with a 2002 court order to move an outside wall in the rental space of Arsenal, a publishing house that prints Diapazon. The court order had claimed that Arsenal was occupying property belonging to Aktyubrentgen, a construction company.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Almaty-based Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHRRL), told CPJ that it is unclear why the court held Mikhailov responsible for moving a wall of a building that belongs to a publishing house that he neither owns nor heads. Moreover, Zhovtis said that the court decision is practically impossible to implement without demolishing the Arsenal building, since the outside wall in question supports the building’s roof.
Diapazon, which has the largest circulation in Aktobe, has annoyed city administrators, the Prosecutor General’s office, and local judges for years with its critical reporting.
According to the Almaty-based media foundation Adil Soz, the legal action against Mikhailov and Arsenal is an attempt by city administrators to financially destroy Diapazon.
Mikhailov’s March 17 sentence was preceded by a raid on Arsenal by Aktobe police. On January 27, an armed special task unit entered the offices of the publishing house, tied up the building’s security guards, forbade the staff to move, and confiscated Arsenal’s staff roster along with a list of job assignments, Adil Soz reported. The search was ordered by the Aktobe Prosecutor General’s office allegedly because of Mikhailov’s noncompliance with the court decision, local reports said.
Citing a growing number of lawsuits against journalists and media outlets, as well as Parliament’s passage of a restrictive new draft media bill that contains vague language
and weakens legal protection for journalists, Adil Soz President Tamara Kaleyeva believes that the latest harassment of Mikhailov and Diapazon, is a part of a government trend to silence opposition independent media in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall.
In a separate incident, on March 9, Irina Petrushova, editor of the Kazakh opposition weekly Assandi Times and a 2002 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee, was detained by police in St. Petersburg, Russia, for more than four hours. She had gone to the station to register her residency in the city, as required by law, when she was arrested on a recently released arrest warrant from Kazakhstan for allegedly violating Kazakh tax laws.
“What puzzled the Russian police the most,” Petrushova told CPJ, “was that the federal warrant was from 2002 and since then I had traveled both in Russia and abroad. I could have been stopped at any airport. I am not hiding from anyone.” The Russian police released Petrushova unconditionally after four hours, saying that they do not want to get involved in Kazakh political matters, local reports said.
Petrushova, who continues to edit her newspaper from Russia, was forced to leave Kazakhstan for security reasons in the fall of 2002 after she had endured a sustained campaign of harassment for her reporting on official corruption. For instance, between 2000 and 2002, Petrushova’s newspaper, Delovoye Obozrenie Respublika (now Assandi Times), was forced to change its printer numerous times after government officials intimidated printers into cutting off their services to the paper. In March 2002, Petrushova received a funeral wreath from an anonymous sender. In May 2002, Respublika staff in Almaty found a decapitated dog’s corpse hanging from an office window with an attached note that read: “There won’t be a next time.” Three days after this incident, Respublika‘s offices were firebombed. The same year, Petrushova and Respublika were also subjected to various politically motivated lawsuits.
Your Excellency, we urge you, as the leader of your country, to do everything within your power to ensure that local and national officials tolerate public scrutiny and criticism in the media. Journalists cannot fulfill their role of informing the public if they fear official reprisals. Taking these steps would be a positive step toward embracing democracy in Kazakhstan, especially since you have recently expressed interest in playing a leading role in promoting human rights in former Soviet republics as chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2009.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.