March 30, 2009
His Excellency Nursultan Nazarbayev
President of Kazakhstan
Ak-Orda Presidential Residence
Via facsimile: +7 7172 74 56 31
Dear President Nazarbayev,
As an independent, nonpartisan organization defending press freedom worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists would like to draw your attention to your government’s selective and politically motivated use of civil libel lawsuits against critical journalists and their publications. In a trend that fosters self-censorship, intolerant public officials target critical news outlets with defamation lawsuits that result in crippling fines.
According to the Almaty-based press freedom group Adil Soz, which monitors attacks on the press in Kazakhstan, last year alone at least six independent outlets and their staffers faced more than 60 such defamation lawsuits. At least 18 government officials were among the plaintiffs in these cases; they sought cumulative damages of 471.8 million Kazakh tenge (about US$3.1 million) from the outlets, according to Adil Soz’s data.
Despite protests by local and international press freedom groups, your government has continued to seek and extract exorbitant damages as a means to censor critical reporting and commentary.
One recent case requires your immediate attention. The independent Almaty weekly Taszhargan has appealed the verdict in a defamation case brought by Member of Parliament Romin Madinov against the paper and its reporter, Almas Kusherbayev. The millions in damages that have been awarded in that case–exorbitant by Kazakh standards–would effectively result in Taszhargan‘s shutdown, Rozlana Taukina, director of the Almaty-based Journalists in Danger Foundation, told CPJ.
Madinov’s original claim–filed against Taszhargan‘s ownership and Kusherbayev–sought 300 million Kazakh tenge (US$2,000,000). It also called for the seizure of the defendants’ property and financial assets as guarantee that the damages would be covered. The lawsuit stemmed from an April 2008 article that alleged that Madinov’s business interests benefited from his legislative work. In Madinov’s claim, obtained by CPJ, the legislator said that Kusherbayev’s article brought him “considerable moral damage” and that, as a result of the publication, he sustained “distress, discomfort, exasperation, melancholy, anger, and humiliation in the eyes of his voters and colleagues in the Parliament of Kazakhstan.”
In January, a district court in Almaty found in favor of Madinov and awarded him 3 million Kazakh tenge (about US$20,000) in moral damages. The next month, however, an appellate court in Almaty increased the damages against the paper and its reporter tenfold, to 30 million Kazakh tenge (about US$200,000). The ruling, which CPJ obtained, said that “the lower court failed to acknowledge the heaviness of the moral and physical damage.”
Taszhargan is awaiting a ruling in a supervisory appeal now before the Almaty City Court. If the millions in damages are upheld, however, the paper will be unable to pay them and will have to cease publishing. For comparison, the average monthly salary in Kazakhstan is 61,378 Kazakh tenge (about US$400), according to Kazakh official data.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is extremely concerned about your government’s use of civil libel laws to extract highly disproportionate damages. As the most frequent defendants in such lawsuits happen to be critical and pro-opposition newspapers and their staffers, those claims appear to be politically motivated and designed to close critical outlets. Taszhargan‘s case is one in a series in which state officials have tried to muzzle critics with excessive damages. Here are some additional examples, as documented by Adil Soz:
In February 2008, a Ministry of Sports official filed a defamation lawsuit against the regional newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya, seeking 121 million Kazakh tenge (about US$800,000) in damages. In September 2008, Almaty city police officers demanded 50 million tenge (about US$330,000) from Taszhargan for alleged defamation. In December 2008, the state energy company in capital city of Astana sought 10 million tenge (about US$66,000) in damages from the independent newspaper Svoboda Slova (Freedom of Speech).
We urge you to use the resources of your high office to stem the practice of seeking excessively high damages to limit press freedom, and we ask you to declare your support for the independent press, including outlets critical of your government. Your support for independent journalism will also encourage tolerance in your government for criticism by the press. In the case of Taszhargan, in particular, we ask you to urge Member of Parliament Romin Madinov to drop his crippling lawsuit against the paper. The need for these actions is particularly pressing in the run-up to Kazakhstan’s 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.