OSCE must put Kazakh press freedom on summit agenda

New York, November 30, 2010–Heads of state and high-ranking officials representing 55 participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) must urge the current OSCE chair, Kazakhstan, to make good on its press freedom commitments when they meet in Astana for a regional summit this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ has repeatedly asked the OSCE to ensure that Kazakhstan’s poor press freedom record is placed high on the December 1-2 summit’s agenda. 

“The credibility of the OSCE is on the line. Ignoring Kazakhstan’s failure to honor press freedom commitments will further compromise the region’s biggest human rights watchdog,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Member-states must demand–publicly and unequivocally–meaningful and measurable press freedom reforms from Kazakhstan.”

Despite promised democratic reforms, in exchange for which the OSCE granted Kazakhstan the 2010 chairmanship of the regional human rights and security group three years ago, the country has failed to live up to its obligations. Not only did the government renege on promises to decriminalize libel, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed into law a restrictive 2009 measure governing the Internet, subjecting sites to the repressive regulations that have long governed the traditional press. Nazarbayev also ratified a law that expands privacy rights for government officials that carries penalties that include the closure of media outlets and imprisonment of up to five years for journalists.

Attacks on the press have continued unabated in 2010, CPJ found during a weeklong fact-finding mission to Almaty in October. 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 under government pressure; censorship has hit the Internet; the state has continued to use bureaucratic pressure–including politicized audits–to stifle critical news and information.

In mid-October, a CPJ delegation travelled to OSCE’s headquarters in Vienna and met with a top Kazakh diplomat, Ambassador Kairat Abdrakhmanov, who currently heads OSCE’s permanent council. Abdrakhmanov told CPJ that Kazakhstan is ready to bring its press laws in line with international standards, but he did not commit to a specific timeframe for enacting the necessary reforms, including decriminalizing libel, placing caps on defamation awards, and enacting access-to-information legislation. Abdrakhmanov told CPJ that press freedom will be discussed in events held parallel to the OSCE summit rather than during the summit itself.

“Kazakhstan’s press freedom record is too important an issue to be pushed to the margins of this historic gathering as if it were a warm-up act,” Ognianova said.

On November 5, court officials in Uralsk, western Kazakhstan, raided the newsroom of the independent biweekly Uralskaya Nedelya, after the paper was unable to pay 20 million tenge (US$135,550) in damages to an oil company for allegedly defaming its  reputation. The paper’s website has been inaccessible in Kazakhstan since November 2; its bank account was also blocked, the press freedom group Adil Soz reported. Also this month, the independent newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad and the opposition titles Azat and Alga! were targeted by arbitrary tax audits that ruled the papers had allegedly concealed revenues. They were fined 100 million tenge (US$677,736). Vzglyad‘s printers in Kostanaisky Region were simultaneously targeted by audits.