• Repressive media law takes effect, sets limits online.
• Politicized lawsuits threaten independent newspapers.
2010: Year that Kazakhstan assumes chairmanship of OSCE.
The authoritarian government of this central Asian nation brazenly defied international standards for freedom of expression even as it prepared to assume chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Vienna-based human rights and security agency. As part of their bid to lead the OSCE in 2010, President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his government pledged to bring the country’s repressive media laws into compliance with global standards. Instead, Nazarbayev signed into law a measure that places expansive new restrictions on Internet expression, requires online service providers to collect client information for authorities, and further extends censorship rules for all media. Authorities jailed critics and filed politicized lawsuits that sought to shut down critical news outlets, but reported no progress in investigating assaults on independent reporters.
THE PRESS: 2009
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When the government introduced its purported media reform bill to parliament’s lower chamber, the Mazhilis, in January, officials said it would facilitate information-sharing on the Web and establish Internet users’ rights and obligations. Kuanyshbek Eskeyev, the head of Kazakhstan’s state communications agency, which developed the bill, was quoted in press reports as saying that the new legislation was aimed at protecting Kazakh citizens’ constitutional rights.
Local press freedom advocates called the legislation draconian, telling CPJ that it gave authorities even greater ability to silence domestic dissent and block international criticism. Although lawmakers allowed independent media experts to submit suggestions, few such ideas were included in the final document. “Media experts and journalists pointed at the problem issues in the bill, but nobody cared about that,” Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the Almaty-based Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told CPJ in June. “The parliament made only a few minor changes and that’s it.”
The legislation effectively equates all Internet information resources—including blogs, forums, chat rooms, personal pages, social networks, and others—with traditional media outlets, thus subjecting them to the country’s longstanding and repressive media regulations. The measure requires Internet service providers to share information about their clients with security services upon request. (Most service providers are domestic, although there are some Russian and European providers.) It also sets broad, new restrictions on election and public protest coverage for all media, allowing authorities to suspend or shut down violators. Under the law, foreign-based Web sites can be blocked domestically without recourse in Kazakh courts. Rozlana Taukina, head of the Almaty-based Journalists in Danger foundation, said the measure was so broadly written that a single comment posted on a Web site could give authorities pretext to close a critical outlet.
Both chambers of parliament, dominated by Nazarbayev allies, passed the legislation after a single hearing. In July, CPJ joined numerous local and international groups, including the OSCE itself, in urging Nazarbayev to veto the bill. Ignoring these calls, he signed the measure on July 11.
Authorities exacted revenge against critics of the Nazarbayev regime. Zhovtis, whose critical analysis of the country’s media climate had drawn international attention and who had testified before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe about the new media legislation, found himself the target of harsh government retaliation.
In September, Zhovtis was sentenced to four years in a penal colony in connection with a fatal accident in which the car he was driving struck and killed a pedestrian. According to the independent regional news Web site Ferghana, Zhovtis was driving to Almaty with friends in July when, blinded by the lights of an approaching car, he struck a young man in the middle of the road. Zhovtis immediately reported the accident to authorities, witnesses testified about extenuating circumstances, and the victim’s family said publicly that the manslaughter charge was not justified. Taukina, who attended the proceedings, said presiding Judge Cholan Tolkunov appeared to have composed the verdict beforehand, leaving the impression that the case was predetermined. The written verdict filed later by the judge was altered to reconcile conflicting details, the defense charged in its appeal. The appeal, nonetheless, was denied.
In August, a court in the southern city of Taraz sentenced Ramazan Yesergepov, editor of the independent weekly Alma-Ata Info, to three years in prison on charges of collecting state secrets, Ferghana reported. Agents with the KNB, the Kazakh security service, seized Yesergepov from an Almaty hospital bed (where he was being treated for hypertension) in January, brought him to their regional department in Taraz, and detained him until trial. Yesergepov’s newspaper had published two internal KNB memos marked classified alongside an article about a criminal tax case. The November 2008 article (headlined “Who Rules the Country—the President or the KNB?”) said the head of the agency’s Zhambyl regional office had tried to influence a local prosecutor and judge in a tax case involving a local distillery.
The court granted the KNB’s request to classify Yesergepov’s case as a state secret, which meant the public was barred from the proceedings, and the case file was sealed. Yesergepov was unrepresented when the verdict was handed down. His initial defense attorney abruptly resigned and left the country without explanation in July; a state-appointed lawyer did not attend the final hearing, Taukina told CPJ. In October, the Zhambyl Regional Court rebuffed an appeal.
Authorities continued to seek exorbitant defamation damages from independent and pro-opposition newspapers, forcing one to shut down. In January, a district court in Almaty ordered the independent weekly Taszhargan, its editor, and a reporter to pay Member of Parliament Romin Madinov 3 million tenge (US$20,000) in damages. The lawmaker filed a claim against the weekly after it published an article alleging that Madinov’s business interests benefited from his legislative work. When Taszhargan and its staffers appealed in February, a higher court increased damages tenfold. In April, Taszhargan’s owners shut down the weekly.
In September, a district court in Almaty ordered the independent business weekly Respublika – Delovoye Obozreniye, its editor, and owner to pay the partially state-owned BTA Bank 60 million tenge (about US$400,000) in damages, Ferghana reported. According to press reports, the lawsuit stemmed from a March article that alleged the institution faced bankruptcy because foreign investors were demanding repayment. Filing the lawsuit in August, BTA Bank management said Respublika’s article caused the bank to lose billions of tenge in deposit withdrawals, Ferghana reported. The paper, which stood by its reporting, pointed out that the bank’s financial woes had been widely covered elsewhere in the press. Taukina said Respublika was targeted because it had produced a number of other stories critical of Nazarbayev’s policies. While an appeal was pending, government officials pressured Almaty printing companies to refuse to produce Respublika, leaving staffers to use office printers to publish the newspaper, Taukina told CPJ.
In December, Nazarbayev signed into law a measure expected to further restrict reporting on government officials. The broadly worded legislation bans the publication of so-called private information on public figures, while imposing penalties that include closing of media outlets and imprisonment of up to five years for journalists.
Using extremism legislation, prosecutors persuaded a court to shutter the independent Art-TV in the northern city of Karaganda in connection with a viewer text message. “Kazakhs, unite, let’s beat Russians” was among viewer messages displayed in scrolling text on a March 21 program. Art-TV, which deleted the message after it was shown once, said a technician’s oversight had allowed the words to appear. Ruslan Nikonovich, Art-TV director, said the prosecution was in retaliation for the station’s decision to challenge distribution of government funding to regional broadcasters.
A prominent Kyrgyz journalist, Gennady Pavlyuk, died in late December after plummeting from the upper-story window of an apartment building in Almaty. His hands and legs had been bound with tape, according to news reports. Pavlyuk, 40, had been editor of the Kyrgyz newspaper Bely Parokhod and was said to be considering the launch of a pro-opposition, online publication. He had traveled to Kazakhstan on business, according to news reports, but the precise reason was not immediately clear. CPJ was investigating to determine whether the killing was work-related.