CPJ asks OSCE to put Kazakh press freedom on agenda

July 14, 2010 

OSCE Secretariat 
Wallnerstrasse 6 
1010 Vienna 
Via facsimile: +43 1 514 36 6105

Dear Members of the OSCE Ministerial Council,

In advance of your July 16-17 meeting at the Ak-Bulak Resort in Kazakhstan, the Committee to Protect Journalists—an independent advocacy group that defends the rights of journalists worldwide—would like to draw your attention to the poor press freedom record of Kazakhstan, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

You are set to discuss the agenda of a possible OSCE summit to take place in Astana later this year. Given Kazakhstan’s failure to meet its OSCE commitments regarding human rights and press freedom, CPJ calls on you to make Kazakhstan’s press record a main focus of the summit’s agenda.

Halfway into its OSCE chairmanship, Kazakhstan is holding at least one journalist and one prominent human rights activist in prison in retaliation for their work; at least two independent newspapers have been shut down under government pressure; censorship has crept up into the only remaining oasis for free expression, the Internet; and the state has continued to use bureaucratic pressure—including politicized audits on printing houses—to stifle independent coverage.

Kazakhstan made commitments in November 2007 in Madrid to improve conditions for the press in the months preceding its assumption of the OSCE chairmanship. Specifically, then-Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin told the OSCE’s 15th Ministerial Council that Astana was committed to bringing Kazakhstan’s media laws in line with international standards; he singled out the need to decriminalize libel.

Almost three years later, not only has Kazakhstan not decriminalized libel but President Nursultan Nazarbayev has signed into law new, restrictive Internet and privacy bills. One equates Internet sites—including personal blogs, chat rooms, and social networking sites—with traditional media, subjecting them to the same restrictions. The vaguely worded privacy law chills critical reporting on government officials by carrying penalties that include closing media outlets and imprisoning journalists.

Despite an international outcry against the new restrictions, Kazakh authorities announced the creation of the Service to React to Computer Incidents under Kazakhstan’s main state communications regulator, known by its acronym AIS. Kuanyshbek Yesekeyev, then head of AIS, told the Kazakh Parliament in March that the service had begun checking “destructive” websites. Yesekeyev mentioned the existence of “black lists” but failed to clarify which sites were on them or how a site qualifies as “destructive.” Attempts by local journalists and media groups to receive further information about this newly created service and its purpose have gone unanswered.

Meanwhile, the website of the embattled independent weekly Respublika remains inaccessible to the majority of Internet users in Kazakhstan. The site, which publishes criticism of Kazakh authorities and investigations on sensitive subjects such as official corruption and nepotism, is accessible only through proxy servers and is forced to rotate Web addresses constantly. Respublika’s case is a good example of the lengths to which Kazakh authorities go to muzzle alternative information. The paper has had to re-register under different names 10 times in 10 years to avoid repeated, official attempts to close it down. The weekly is now close to bankruptcy as a result of a politically motivated defamation lawsuit brought by a partially state-owned bank. No printing house would produce the paper for fear of official retaliation, and an Almaty court banned Respublika’s distribution until it had paid off damages in the amount of 60 million tenge (about US$400,000) to the allegedly defamed bank. The paper’s staff currently produces the weekly on office equipment.

In addition to going after entire independent media outlets, Kazakh authorities have muzzled individual journalists.

In January 2009, exactly one year prior to Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship, authorities seized Ramazan Yesergepov, the ailing editor of his now-defunct newspaper Alma-Ata Info, from his bed in an Almaty hospital, where he was being treated for hypertension. In November 2008, Yesergepov had published two internal Kazakh security service (KNB) memos, which attested to the agency’s attempts to influence a prosecutor and a judge in a criminal tax evasion case. Eight months into his detention, following a closed trial riddled with procedural violations—including denial of defense counsel, and denial of access to his case file and verdict—Yesergepov was sentenced to three years in prison for “collecting state secrets.” All of his appeals have been denied. In June, frustrated at what he saw as inaction in the face of rights violations in Kazakhstan, Yesergepov wrote an open letter to the heads of OSCE member states: “In pursuit of your own interests, you forgot the key function of the once-authoritative organization and became involuntary accomplices in what goes on in my country today.”

CPJ has interviewed dozens of independent journalists who expressed disappointment that the summit could become a public relations opportunity for Nazarbayev and who emphasized the conspicuous absence of press freedom and human rights from the summit’s proposed agenda.

When Kazakhstan entered the OSCE in January 1992, it voluntarily accepted all the commitments contained in the organization’s key documents, including provisions on freedom of the media. But OSCE documents do not only spell out individual member state responsibilities; they also chart collective obligations. The Moscow Document of October 1991, in particular, states that issues of human rights and fundamental freedoms are not to be treated as internal affairs of one state but as matters of international concern. The Moscow Document says that participating states accept those issues as “foundations of the international order,” and they commit to “fulfill all of their human dimension commitments and to resolve … any related issue, individually and collectively, on the basis of mutual respect and co-operation.”

CPJ calls on you to act now and prevent the further trampling of press freedom and human rights in Kazakhstan. You can start by insisting that a precondition of holding an OSCE summit in Astana this year is the placement of the current chair’s press freedom record high on the agenda, and by demanding the participation of independent journalists, and media rights, press freedom, and civil society activists in related discussions.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.


Joel Simon

Executive Director