Washington, D.C. 20500
In advance of your April
12 meeting in Washington with Kazakh President
Nursultan Nazarbayev, we'd like to draw your attention to the deteriorating
press freedom conditions in Kazakhstan.
Unchecked violence and the arrest of independent reporters, politicized
prosecution and harassment of critical outlets, and draconian media and
Internet regulation laws tarnish the record of the current chair of the Organization
for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Kazakhstan’s leadership declared they would uphold the
OSCE’s values and principles as a member and chair of the pan-European human
rights and security watchdog. When placing Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chairmanship in 2007, government officials
publicly declared they would bring national laws, including media legislation,
in line with global standards.
In 2008, Kazakh
authorities indeed introduced some legislative amendments, including to the media law, but these were merely
cosmetic and did not alleviate harsh penalties for press freedom violations.
Criminal libel and
insult and exorbitant fines continue to foster self-censorship among local
journalists, and limit public access to alternative news in a country in which
all the broadcasters are owned by the state or government affiliates. Insult of
the president or his family in the media carries a prison term of up to five
years, and public scrutiny of a state official can lead to the bankruptcy of an
In the last two
years, government officials and state agencies filed more than 60 defamation
lawsuits against independent newspapers and their staffers, seeking more than
half a billion Kazakh tenge (US$3.5 million) in damages. In comparison, the average
monthly income is 66,000 Kazakh tenge (about US$450).
In 2009, Nazarbayev
put extra pressure on his critics by signing Internet regulation and privacy
laws; he ignored fierce protests by local and international press freedom
advocates, including CPJ and the OSCE.
The Internet law
effectively equated all Web–based resources—social networking sites, chat
rooms, online forums, personal Web pages, and blogs—with traditional media,
spread liability to Internet users, and gave state agencies broad authority to
block or shut down any online resource critical of the government. It also
allowed blocking of access to any international Web site deemed in violation of
Kazakh legislation. The broadly worded privacy law restricts reporting on
government officials and carries penalties that include closing of a media
outlet and imprisonment of up to five years for journalists. Recently, the
government announced it has created an agency to monitor “destructive Web
sites” and counter “political extremism,” which local press freedom activists
told CPJ is really just another means of suppressing Nazarbayev’s critics.
against independent reporters and politicized arrests of government critics
continue to spread fear in the media. In the last 14 months, one journalist was
killed and at least four others have been assaulted with impunity in Kazakhstan. All
of the attacked reporters work for independent and pro-opposition media
outlets, including the U.S.
government-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which often criticizes
Nazarbayev and his government. Gennady
Pavlyuk, 40, an independent journalist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan was found unconscious on December 16,
2009, in the city of Almaty,
sprawled on the overhang of an apartment building entrance, his hands and legs
bound with tape; he died six days later without regaining his consciousness. Kazakh
authorities have yet to solve Pavlyuk’s brutal killing.
The OSCE chair’s reputation is also tainted by the politicized
imprisonment of government critics—independent editor Ramazan Yesergepov and
human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis—whose reports and commentary exposed
government corruption and ongoing human rights violations in the country.
Although Kazakh officials insist that both have committed crimes by allegedly
distributing state secrets and killing a pedestrian in a traffic accident, our
research shows that they were given prison sentences in retaliation for their
work. Yesergepov exposed abuses of power by state security service and Zhovtis spoke
out about Kazakhstan’s
press freedom and human rights record, including to the U.N., the U.S. Helsinki
Commission, CPJ, and the OSCE. Local
sources told CPJ that in both cases prosecutors fabricated evidence and denied
due process of law, and that state-controlled judges effectively denied
As the OSCE chair, the country is not only required to
fulfill the organization’s principles, but also is expected to lead by example
in the largely authoritarian region. But instead of promoting respect for human
rights and OSCE values in the former
Soviet territories, Kazakh authorities have been discrediting the organization
and sending a wrong message to the nations whose poor human rights and press
freedom records the watchdog is supposed to monitor.
When you meet with
President Nazarbayev on April 12, we ask that you remind him of the commitments
his government made as the OSCE
chair and as a member of the international community—to ensure that Kazakh
media law is brought up to global standards; that Yesergepov and Zhovtis are
released, and no government critics are jailed, beaten, or killed in retaliation
for their work; that censorship is eradicated in the media; and that state
officials learn to tolerate public scrutiny in the press.
Thank you for your
attention to these urgent matters.