State-owned Internet provider blocks Kazakh news sites

New York, April 29, 2010—Kazakh authorities must order the state-owned Internet Internet provider Kazakhtelecom to immediately restore access to the independent news portal Respublika and the Web site of its sister publication Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Access to both news portals, which often criticize Kazakh authorities for corruption and human rights violations, has been blocked today for all clients of Kazakhtelecom, the independent regional news Web site Ferghana reported. Respublika said in a statement its research showed that clients of other Internet providers in Kazakhstan, as well as Web users abroad, were able to access the online publications.

Both Web sites were blocked immediately after the two-day Eurasian Media Forum—an annual international conference hosted by Kazakh authorities—ended on April 28 in Almaty, regional press reported. Forum participants, including high-ranking Kazakh government officials, foreign diplomats, and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representatives, discussed media freedom, citizen journalism, and questioned the need for Internet regulation. Kazakhstan is the current chair of the OSCE.

“It is hypocritical for the main state telecommunications provider to block access to two critical outlets just after Kazakhstan hosted a media conference ostensibly aimed at affirming the country’s press freedom commitments. We call on Kazakh authorities to immediately restore access to these Web sites,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “The OSCE chair must abide by the organization’s mission and defend human rights and press freedom.”

According to the Kazakh service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a protest by Respublika’s journalists at the forum may have prompted official retaliation. Wearing banners that said “OSCE, remove your rose-colored glasses!” Respublika staffers distributed leaflets on press freedom violations to participants on Tuesday. A recent article in Respublika, which questioned the chances for presidency by Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Karim Masimov, who is an ethnic Uighur, could be another reason for retaliation, the broadcaster said. On April 23, Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye ran a piece titled “Who is behind Kazakhtelecom?” which investigated the ownership of the provider. The piece concluded that Masimov and a family member of President Nursultan Nazarbayev hold controlling shares in the company.

Kazakh authorities have often retaliated against Respublika and Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye for their critical publications, CPJ research shows. Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye is litigating against an official distribution ban, which authorities imposed in February as a fulfillment of the court verdict in a civil lawsuit filed last fall by a state-owned BTA bank. On Tuesday, Almaty City Court denied the weekly’s appeal, citing technical violations in the filed document, leaving a distribution ban in place, Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye reported. The newspapers’ lawyers said they plan to appeal this decision in a higher court.