February 16, 2012
His Excellency Nursultan Nazarbayev
President of Kazakhstan
Ak-Orda Presidential Residence
Via facsimile: +77172 74 56 67; +7 7172 74 56 31
Dear President Nazarbayev,
The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by the ongoing crackdown by Kazakhstan’s security service, the KNB, against independent journalists. The imprisonment of Vzglyad editor Igor Vinyavsky and interrogations of independent reporters by KNB agents appear to be reprisals for critical reporting on government policies, including a December 2011 confrontation in which authorities killed civilians.
Repression against the media, local journalists have told CPJ, stems from critical coverage of deadly clashes between police and oil workers–then on a months-long strike–in the western town of Zhanaozen on December 16. On that date, what had been a peaceful protest against unfair wages turned violent after unidentified men sparred with authorities, prompting the police to fire live rounds. Following the clashes, authorities imposed a curfew and barred journalists’ access to the town; mobile and Internet access were shut down. Authorities said 14 died and 64 were wounded in the clashes, and defended the use of live ammunition.
The KNB crackdown against government critics began on January 10, when KNB officers in Almaty first raided the newsroom of the independent broadcaster Stan TV, then summoned all 15 of its reporters for interrogation. Security agents demanded all materials recorded during and after the clashes in Zhanaozen, Elina Zhdanova, a founder of the Stan TV production company, told CPJ. At the KNB, the investigators told reporters that their interrogation was connected to the December clashes, but focused primarily on the reporters’ general journalistic work, Zhdanova told CPJ.
Two weeks later, KNB agents in Almaty simultaneously raided the newsroom of independent daily Vzglyad and Vinyavsky’s apartment, confiscated all of the newspaper’s computers and the editor’s personal computer, and arrested Vinyavsky on accusations of “making public calls through the media to violently overthrow Kazakhstan’s constitutional regime.” At the time of his arrest, KNB did not explain to the editor, his family, or colleagues in which of his articles Vinyavsky allegedly made those calls. Three days later, the Almalinsky District Court ordered his imprisonment for two months; the ruling was made at a closed hearing at the KNB headquarters in Almaty, regional press reported. If convicted, the journalist faces up to seven years in jail.
The KNB accused Vinyavsky of authoring and distributing a leaflet calling on the Kazakh people to oust their president. Vinyavsky denies these allegations, and insists the charges against him were fabricated in retaliation for his journalism. Local journalists told CPJ they believe that coverage of the Zhanaozen events in Vzglyad prompted the editor’s arrest.
The KNB is yet to provide Vinyavsky or the public with further evidence supporting the charges against him. Meanwhile, the security service has been interrogating and harassing those who have disputed the legal basis of Vinyavsky’s imprisonment as well as those who have reported independently on the December clashes.
A week after Vinyavsky’s arrest, KNB agents in Almaty summoned Oksana Makushina, deputy editor of the independent weekly Golos Respubliki. The agents interrogated her for two days in connection with a press conference where she spoke against Vinyavsky’s imprisonment, Makushina told CPJ. She was also questioned about her work at Golos Respubliki. Next, KNB agents raided her newsroom and confiscated a printer and laptop. The KNB also summoned Vinyavsky’s wife, Lana Vinyavskaya, and media lawyer Sergey Utkin, who were questioned in connection with their participation in the same press conference.
Last week, security agents interrogated several staffers from Vzglyad and Golos Respubliki, who were forced to sign a pledge not to disclose any details of their questioning, Makushina told CPJ. The KNB has yet to return all confiscated computers and production equipment from the Vzglyad and Golos Respubliki newsrooms.
President Nazarbayev, we call on you to exercise the high authority of your office to ensure that the KNB cease its crackdown on the independent and pro-opposition press. In particular, we urge you to ensure that Igor Vinyavsky is immediately released from prison; that all newsroom equipment is immediately returned to Vzglyad and Golos Respubliki; and that the KNB stops interrogating, intimidating, and harassing journalists for their work. The press has a right and a duty to investigate and report on important events in your country.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.