Kazakh authorities censor news on deadly clashes

New York, December 20, 2011–Authorities in the Mangistau region of western Kazakhstan have attacked and detained independent journalists and blocked access to news outlets to suppress coverage of unrest there, news reports said. The Committee Protect today called on Kazakh authorities to allow the media unfettered access.

Following clashes on Friday between the police and striking oil workers in the town of Zhanaozen, in which at least 15 people were killed, authorities blocked local access to several independent news websites and Twitter, shut down mobile phone networks, and briefly detained journalists, according to local sources and press reports.

Access to Twitter was restored on Sunday, but independent news portals Respublika and Guljan and the Web-based pro-opposition TV channel K-plus remained blocked, according to regional press reports and Respublika‘s Anastasiya Novikova.

“The media not only has a right but a duty to investigate and report the deaths of strikers and protesters,” CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said. “The Kazakh authorities have a history of censoring news and blocking access. This must stop. Journalists should be allowed to report freely on these important events.”

Among those briefly detained on Saturday in Zhanaozen were Ilya Azar, journalist with the independent Russian news website Lenta, and Vladimir Soloviyov and Vasily Shaposhnikov with the independent business daily Kommersant. Police said the journalists violated the state of emergency declared Saturday by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which bans photo and video recording in the area, Lenta reported. According to Azar’s account, police took the journalists’ reporting equipment for what they called a “check-up,” and deleted all the interviews from his voice recorder before returning it. All three were released the same day.

In a separate incident on Sunday, regional police in the village of Shetpe, Mangistau region, physically assaulted blogger Murat Tungishbayev, who recorded and uploaded to YouTube videos of a local rally protesting the crackdown in Zhanaozen, the Kazakh service of U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. According to press reports, police agents knocked Tungishbayev to the ground, put a pistol to his temple, and demanded that he delete all the recorded material. The blogger was let go after other journalists at the scene rushed to help.

On Monday, regional authorities organized a press tour to Zhanaozen, and announced today that mobile phone networks were restored and functioning in the area, local press reported. But CPJ sources disputed the official account. Novikova told CPJ that police escorting the press tour – needed for security, authorities said — prevented the reporters from gathering news and interviewing eyewitnesses to the conflict. Novikova also told CPJ that her newsroom had difficulty contacting its reporter in Zhanaozen by phone.