Head of Kazakh journalists’ union detained

New York, February 22, 2016–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by today’s detention of Seytkazy Matayev, head of the Kazakh Journalists’ Union and the chair of National Press Club, in Almaty.

Agents of Kazakhstan’s National Anticorruption Bureau this morning came to Matayev’s home and that of his son, Aset Matayev, who is the director of the independent news agency KazTag, and detained them on suspicion of having committed tax fraud and embezzling state funds, local and international press reported. Authorities released Aset Matayev after questioning, but continued to detain his father, Aset told CPJ in a phone call. Neither man has yet been formally charged.

“If Kazakh authorities have evidence that either Seytkazy or Aset Matayev committed a crime, let them produce it,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator. “Otherwise, the Kazakh and Almaty governments should immediately stop harassing the two, and refrain from leveling unfounded accusations against journalists in an effort to intimidate them.”

In a statement, the Anticorruption Bureau accused Seytkazy Matayev of embezzling 380 million Kazakh tenge (about US$1 million) from funds transferred by the Kazakh Information Committee and state monopoly KazakhTelecom to the press club and KazTag under a contract to promote national policies. Authorities also accused Matayev of failing to pay 327 million tenge in taxes related to an unnamed illegal enterprise.

Anti-corruption authorities in the same statement said they were investigating whether Matayev mishandled 169 million tenge from contracts with local authorities in Almaty. The agency called Matayev’s alleged crimes “grave,” and noted that if convicted, he could face up to 12 years in prison and the confiscation of his assets.

Aset Matayev told CPJ that he believed the charges were baseless and retaliatory. “We always reported the truth. [We] depicted the facts about developments in Kazakhstan as they really were. Someone in power did not like it,” he said.

In a statement carried by KazTag, Aset Matayev said that both the news agency and the press club were indeed contracted by the state agencies to carry reports promoting national policies, and that both organizations fulfilled the contracts and reported on the all projects.

In a statement both Matayevs sent to Adil Soz, a local press freedom group, moments before their detention, the two said various state and city authorities started harassing them in January. The statement listed several agencies – including the Almaty tax police, the city’s Architecture Department, and the national anticorruption agency – that sent officers to visit the news agency and the press club, housed in the same building, to question them about various accusations.

In a press conference in Almaty today, Tamara Kaleyeva, head of Adil Soz, and local journalist Yermurat Bapi told journalists that charges against Seytkazy Matayev were retaliation for critical reports KazTag had published and the press club had published on its website ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled to be held March 20.