President Nursultan Nazarbayev ignored Western criticism in 2004 as he consolidated his control over the independent and opposition media to ensure his success in September’s parliamentary elections and the upcoming 2006 presidential vote.
Although successful reforms have liberalized the economy and nurtured the country’s billion-dollar oil and gas industries, Nazarbayev retains a stranglehold over the media, which he used to stifle his critics and stay in power. Local journalists say he has been emboldened by Kazakhstan’s standing as a U.S. ally in the “war on terror,” growing trade with the European Union, and rapid economic growth.
Influential broadcast and print outlets are controlled by either the government or the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. Both played an active role in helping the pro-Nazarbayev party Otan win the September parliamentary elections, which the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said were fraudulent.
Dariga Nazarbayeva’s new political party, Asar, held its first party congress in January, fueling speculation that the government is planning to have her succeed her father when his term ends in 2006.
In a rare concession to local and international critics, Nazarbayev vetoed a draconian media law in April that would have authorized the Information Ministry to shutter media outlets—a function customarily ascribed to the courts. According to the media foundation Adil Soz, a press monitoring organization based in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, overwhelming criticism from local and international media and human rights organizations compelled Nazarbayev to veto the controversial bill on May 3, International Press Freedom Day.
Throughout the rest of 2004, however, Nazarbayev and his supporters methodically stifled reporting on official corruption. Authorities remained particularly sensitive to news about a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into allegations that the president and his allies accepted US$78 million in bribes from American oil companies in 2000. Since the first articles on the U.S. investigation appeared in opposition newspapers in July 2000, the Kazakh government has gone after any publication that has covered the story, using tax raids and other legal methods.
In March, Irina Petrushova, editor of the opposition weekly Assandi Times and a 2002 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner, was detained by police in St. Petersburg, Russia, on an arrest order for allegedly violating Kazakh tax laws. The Russian police released Petrushova after four hours, saying they did not want to interfere in Kazakhstan’s political affairs, according to Russian and international press reports.
Assandi Times has reported extensively on the U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Government persecution has forced independent journalists like Petrushova to leave the country. Before fleeing to Moscow in 2002, where she now edits Assandi Times, Petrushova received death threats, a bombing destroyed her paper’s offices, and she and the paper were sued for criminal defamation several times.
In June, fake issues of Assandi Times were distributed saying that opposition leaders were preparing to resign, The Associated Press reported. When Assandi Times accused the government of masterminding the incident, President Nazarbayev’s office sued the weekly for defamation. A district court in Almaty fined the newspaper US$365,000 in damages and ordered it to publish a retraction. Unable to pay the hefty fine, Assandi Times closed in August. The staff, however, registered a new title, Respublika (The Republic), which retained Assandi Times‘ readership and editorial policy, Adil Soz told CPJ. Respublika continued to publish at year’s end.
For journalists who remain in Kazakhstan, self-censorship is a serious problem. Libel is a criminal offense, and journalists can be jailed for up to three years for criticizing the president, his family, and their associates.
In January, a special police unit in the northwestern city of Aktobe raided the publishing house of the opposition weekly Diapazon (Scope) because the newspaper’s founder, Vladimir Mikhailov, had failed to comply with a 2002 court decision ordering him to move an outside wall in the rental space of Arsenal, a publishing house that prints Diapazon. Local human and media rights groups criticized the court order, saying it was unclear why Mikhailov should be responsible for moving a wall of a building that belongs to a publishing house that he neither owns nor runs. Diapazon, which has the largest circulation in Aktobe, has annoyed the city administration, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and local judges for years with its critical reporting. According to Adil Soz, the legal action against Mikhailov and Arsenal is an attempt to financially destroy Diapazon. In March, a court sentenced Diapazon founder Vladimir Mikhailov to one year in prison in connection with the case. In late April, Mikhailov’s prison sentence was commuted to 180 hours of community service, Adil Soz reported.
Courts also rely on spurious charges to convict and imprison journalists. Sergei Duvanov, who has criticized the government in articles for pro-opposition Web sites, spent 15 months in prison after being convicted of raping a minor in a politicized
trial marred by procedural violations. In January, he was released from prison on probation, and three months later a district court in Almaty lifted restrictions prohibiting him from leaving the city and making public appearances. Duvanov denies the charges against him.
Local journalists and media organizations were deeply concerned by the July death of Askhat Sharipjanov, editor of the popular Almaty-based opposition news Web site Navigator. On July 16, Sharipjanov was hit by a car as he was crossing the street, according to local and international press reports. He fell into a coma and died four days later.
Sharipjanov’s colleagues said the journalist had criticized President Nazarbayev on Navigator, accusing him of authoritarianism, corruption, and bribery, according to local reports. Prior to his death, Sharipjanov had interviewed opposition leaders, and the tape recorder that he always carried with him disappeared after the car accident.
Sharipjanov’s colleagues criticized the police investigation, which concluded that the journalist was drunk the night of the accident and fell in front of the passing car that hit him. Authorities never considered the possibility of foul play, local reports said.
In a few rare cases, courts showed some political independence. In March, the Almaty City Court acquitted Gennady Benditsky, a journalist with the opposition weekly Vremya (Time), of criminal defamation charges after he accused the director of a government fund of embezzlement. During the highly publicized trial, the prosecution failed to disprove the well-documented allegations that Benditsky made in his report.