Kazakh authorities seize embattled weekly’s print run

New York, September 18, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the seizure of the print run of one of the few remaining independent newspapers in Kazakhstan, which is set to take control of a leading security and human rights organization. The country will become chair of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe in 2010.

On Friday, court officers in the financial capital Almaty confiscated the entire print run of Almaty-based independent weekly Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye, the Associated Press reported. Authorities also froze the bank accounts of the weekly and its publisher, news Web site Lenta reported. Court officials reportedly cited a September 9 verdict from the Medeu District Court in Almaty that ordered the weekly to pay 60 million Kazakh tenge (about US$400,000) to the state-owned BTA Bank in damages. The paper plans to file an appeal next week.

BTA Bank filed a lawsuit last month against Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye, claiming that an article in the March issue of the weekly led to 6.7 billion Kazakh tenge (about US$44 million) in withdrawals, regional news Web site Ferghana reported. The newspaper said the confiscation of its print run was part of the government’s campaign to shut down the publication.

“It is outrageous that a country that is set to assume the chairmanship of an organization that promotes human rights, security, and press freedom should censor and harass one of its few independent news outlets,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “We call on Kazakh authorities to return the confiscated print run and to overturn the verdict against the paper on appeal.”

According to Ferghana, court officers confiscated the print run as it was set to leave a local printing house in Almaty early Friday morning, based on a September 11 court order. Oksana Makushina, the weekly’s chief editor, told the Kazakh service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) the court did not notify her newsroom of its decision.

Authorities also dispatched a traffic police unit, which thoroughly checked all vehicles leaving the printing house, Makushina told RFE/RL. Makushina and her colleagues distributed their newspaper electronically and printed the paper under a different name, local press reported.

Rozlana Taukina, head of the Almaty-based Journalists in Danger Foundation, told CPJ that the newspaper’s problems stem from its critical reporting on the government—Prime Minister Karim Masimov and President Nursultan Nazarbayev in particular. According to Taukina, the weekly fiercely criticized recent calls in the local press by Kazakh officials to grant President Nazarbayev the presidency for life.

CPJ research shows that Kazakhstan is falling far short of its declared commitment to press freedom. Authorities jailed independent editor Ramazan Yesergepov in August, and did not report any progress in the violent attacks on journalists Artyom Miusov, Bakhytzhan Nurpeisov, and Yermek Boltai. Despite domestic and international protests, authorities passed and signed into law a severely restrictive Internet regulation bill in July. The independent weekly Taszhargan was forced to shut down when it was unable to pay exorbitant damages to a parliament member in a politically motivated lawsuit.