Embattled Kazakh weekly paralyzed by damages

New York, March 9, 2010—Kazakh authorities should immediately lift their ban on the distribution of the independent weekly Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 1, the Medeu District Court in Almaty denied the weekly’s appeal and left in place a ban on the paper’s distribution that had been imposed in mid-February. The ban will remain in place until the newspaper pays 60 million Kazakh tenge (approximately US $400,000) in damages to the partially state-owned BTA Bank, the Almaty-based press freedom group Adil Soz reported.

The damages, which the paper had unsuccessfully appealed, were awarded in a lawsuit BTA Bank filed against Respublika in the summer of 2009, alleging that a March 2009 article about the bank’s financial standing published in the weekly resulted in client withdrawals of funds. The paper disputed the claim, saying that the information it reported was true and that the bank’s financial woes had already been widely covered elsewhere in the local press.

In September 2009, the Medeu District Court sided with BTA Bank and ordered the newspaper to pay the damages. Sergei Utkin, Respublika’s legal counsel, told CPJ that the imposed distribution ban hampers the paper’s ability to pay. The newspaper continues to appeal while it publishes online only, Utkin told CPJ.

Kazakhstan is currently the chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), 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.

“The ongoing politicized prosecution of the independent weekly contradicts the mission and core values of the OSCE,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “We call on Kazakhstan’s courts to overturn this shameful ruling and allow Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye to function without fear of harassment.”

Unable to pay the crippling fine, Respublika turned to its readers for help, and has already paid some 8 million Kazakh tenge (about US$54,000) to the bank, Utkin told CPJ. Utkin said the newspaper was planning to continue payments, which partially came from its sales revenue, but the distribution ban imposed in mid-February stalled the process.

Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye has long been known for its openly critical stance on government policies. It has covered human rights violations, economic crimes, and government corruption, and it has long endured official harassment, CPJ research shows.

After the September 2009 ruling, Almaty court officers confiscated the weekly’s print run and froze the bank accounts of its publisher. The same month, court officers raided and sealed the Almaty-based printing house Kometa-S, which offered its printing services to the embattled weekly, the Kazakh service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.