New York, April 13, 2018--Kazakh authorities should stop harassing journalists with the independent news outlets Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel and dismiss criminal defamation suits against the two outlets and their journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Law enforcement officials this month raided the two newsrooms, confiscated equipment and journalists' personal belongings, detained journalists, and blocked Ratel's website and Facebook page in relation to a criminal defamation suit by a former government minister, according to media reports.
These actions come after Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel reported on the alleged corrupt business practices of the former minister, the reports stated.
"We call on Kazakh authorities to drop the criminal prosecution of journalists at Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel without delay, unblock Ratel's website and Facebook page, and stop this campaign of harassment against both outlets," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "The space for independent information and critical commentary in Kazakhstan has severely contracted over the past few years. Astana should start reversing this trend by abolishing criminal defamation as a first step."
Kazakh law enforcement officials on April 2 raided the Almaty-based offices of the magazine Forbes Kazakhstan, a Forbes licensee, and the news website Ratel, and confiscated the newsrooms' computers and journalists' passports, according to the outlets and media reports.
Askar Aukenov, Forbes Kazakhstan's chief editor, told CPJ that police showed him a copy of their warrant during the office search, but they did not allow him to keep a copy.
Police detained Forbes Kazakhstan's deputy chief editor Aleksandr Vorotilov, Ratel's chief editor Marat Asipov, his deputy Sapa Mekebaev, and the outlet's correspondent Anna Kalashnikova, and interrogated them at an Almaty police station. They were released late that evening after Vorotilov and Asipov signed non-disclosure agreements at the police's request, according to Aukenov and Ratel contributor Vadim Boreiko.
Kazakh police also searched the homes of Vorotilov, Asipov, Mekebaev, and Kalashnikova as well as the former residence of Gennady Benditsky, the late Ratel founder who died in December, and confiscated their personal documents, credit cards, and electronic equipment, including cell phones, Aukenov said. None of the confiscated items have been returned, according to the editor.
The next day, Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov told local media that the raid was conducted after Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, Kazakhstan's former finance minister, on March 30 filed a criminal defamation suit against Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel. Asipov is listed as a defendant, and Vorotilov that of a witness with "right to hire legal defense," according to Aukenov and Boreiko.
The two journalists said that if Vorotilov and Asipov are found guilty they may face up to seven years in prison. CPJ was unable to determine what penalties the news outlets could incur if convicted.
On April 4, an Almaty court ordered Ratel to be blocked and its Facebook account deleted while the case is pending, Boreiko told CPJ. The website and Facebook account have been unavailable since then, but Ratel journalists have been publishing from their personal Facebook accounts.
Both Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel independently reported on the alleged corrupt business practices of Kakimzhanov and his son, Ilkhalid Kakimzhanov, between May and December 2016.
Kakimzhanov wrote in an April 2 Facebook post from his personal account that "certain media outlets" had published over 70 "libelous" articles that "directly targeted him," though he did not name outlets or journalists.
In December 2016 and January 2017, Zeinulla and Ilkhalid Kakimzhanov filed four civil defamation suits against Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel, as well as Vorotilov, Asipov, Mekebaev, and Benditsky, according to reports.
In April 2017, an Almaty court ruled in favor of the Kakimzhanovs in one of the four civil cases and ordered the two outlets and the journalists to pay 50 million Kazakh tenge (US$160,000) in damages, delete the articles of concern, and issue retractions, according to local media reports. The fine was later reduced and Forbes Kazakhstan and its deputy editor, Vorotilov, each paid 5 million tenge (US$15,279) in fines. The outlet also deleted the disputed articles and issued a retraction in December 2017, Aukenov told CPJ.
Ratel and journalists Asipov, Benditsky, and Mekebaev paid the damages in full, but did not delete any content, saying that the court verdict did not specify which articles were to be deleted, according to Boreiko. The other three cases are pending, according to Aukenov.
"Freedom of speech and press freedom should be respected. If anybody disagrees with our reports, they should take us to a civil court. The current legislation on criminal defamation allows authorities to treat journalists like criminals. We are not criminals," Forbes Kazakhstan's Aukenov said.