CPJ urges examination of Kazakhstan’s press freedom record

New York, September 28, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on U.S. President George W. Bush to raise concerns about Kazakhstan’s deteriorating press freedom record when he meets with his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the White House on Friday.

White House spokesman Tony Snow called Kazakhstan “an important strategic partner in Central Asia” at a September 12 briefing announcing the meeting. Snow said “democracy promotion” and “common commitment to working together to advance freedom and security” would be among the issues discussed by the two leaders.

“President Bush has made the promotion of democracy and freedom a key goal of his administration,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “This meeting is an opportunity to put those principles into practice. We call on President Bush to demand that press freedom be respected in Kazakhstan as a condition of continued strong U.S. relations.”

The White House meeting comes less than three months after Nazarbayev signed into law a measure that gives the state vast power to close independent and opposition media outlets on the merest technical condition.

The measure, signed July 5, broadens the grounds on which the government can deny registration to news outlets, and it requires re-registration for news outlets that make even the slightest of administrative changes, such as the change of a staffer or mailing address.

The government’s record over several years shows that such requirements are used as a pretext to deny registration to independent and opposition media outlets, to harass them, and to close them. The measure has been heavily criticized by local and international press and human rights organizations, including CPJ. See CPJ’s July 5 news alert: http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/europe/kazakh05july06na.html.

The new law also stipulates that no media outlet can be registered if it uses the same name, in full or in part, of a media outlet previously closed by a court, and it bars editors of previously shuttered media outlets from working in similar positions for other publications. The restrictions are significant because Nazarbayev’s government has a long record of using politicized lawsuits, tax inspections, and criminal investigations to close critical news media. See CPJ’s 2005 analysis.

The new restrictions come at a time of continued harassment and physical attacks against journalists who report critically. A vicious assault on April 23 has raised particular alarm. Kenzhegali Aitbakiyev, a reporter for the newly suspended opposition newspaper Aina Plyus, was attacked by 10 unidentified assailants who broke his jaw and nose and left him unconscious on the street. Just before Aitbakiyev was attacked, a court had suspended Aina Plyus for three months, purportedly for “changing content” without first informing authorities. Aina Plyus had just published articles on the “Kazakhgate” scandal, an investigation into allegations that administration allies accepted bribes from U.S. oil companies in 2000. Since the first reports of a U.S. investigation appeared in opposition newspapers in July 2000, the Kazakh government has moved aggressively with tax inspections and regulatory lawsuits to harass and censor publications that have covered the story, CPJ research shows. See CPJ’s alert on the attack against Aitbakiyev:

Few independent voices remain in the Kazakh media, CPJ research shows. The influential broadcast sector is dominated by the state, with every outlet either owned or controlled by government allies or the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva.

The print media is subjected to indirect but highly effective censorship measures. In a common tactic, CPJ research shows, the government pressures printing companies to stop producing opposition and independent titles. In January of this year, Kazakhstan’s biggest printing house, Dauir, which is run by Nazarbayev’s sister-in-law, Svetlana Nazarbayeva, refused to print seven Almaty-based opposition weeklies. Dauir said an “equipment change” caused it to terminate its contracts with the weeklies, but editors said it was clear they were targeted for retaliation for critical coverage of Nazarbayev.

Harassment of the press reached its peak in the run-up to the December 4, 2005, presidential elections, when printers refused en masse to print opposition papers because they carried the election platforms of opposition candidates. Nazarbayev won a third consecutive seven-year term with 91 percent of the vote. International observers said the elections were not free or fair.