The front page of a March 20 newspaper shows President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned the previous day. Kazakhstan's press was restricted and censored under his long rule. (Reuters/Pavel Mikheyev)
The front page of a March 20 newspaper shows President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned the previous day. Kazakhstan's press was restricted and censored under his long rule. (Reuters/Pavel Mikheyev)

Nazarbayev’s long rule leaves toxic legacy for Kazakhstan’s media

In 2011, I observed an astonishing spectacle in the Respublika newspaper offices in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s financial capital. Journalists were putting a modern-day twist on samizdat, a practice in the Soviet Union whereby dissidents laboriously copied illicit material to circumvent censorship.

This was both a throwback to a totalitarian past and a premonition of the future for the press under Nursultan Nazarbayev who, until his resignation last month, had ruled for three decades.

Samizdat had arisen anew in the internet age because of efforts by Nazarbayev’s regime to gag media that refused to toe the official line. Respublika was facing a selective refusal by printing houses to publish it. Hence samizdat, to keep the presses rolling. Printers spewed out sheets of newsprint; reporters collated makeshift newspapers for delivery to press kiosks in the dead of night.

Respublika, closed by court order in 2012, became a symbol of media muzzling under Nazarbayev’s rule–and of the indefatigable spirit of the journalists asserting their right to freedom of expression.

Kazakhstan insists it assures free speech, but its record tells a different story: gagging the press, jailing journalists, harassing reporters, violating citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information. “The situation is, unfortunately, alarming, and the tendency is toward deterioration,” Tamara Kaleyeva, of Adil Soz (Free Speech), a local non-governmental watchdog, said. Kaleyeva cited planned changes to media law that would impose further restrictions on journalists and the general public.

“I think that during the transition period, the ever-more tightening media environment will keep being pressured, as authorities repeatedly said they want the smoothest transition of power,” said freelancer Aigerim Toleukhan.

Toxic legacy

After the USSR’s collapse in 1991, feisty outlets sprang up. But, by 1998, Nazarbayev was threatening critical media with “well-deserved punishments.” Then the firebombing of an opposition-linked newspaper heralded a rollback of media freedoms.

Intimidation and violence, or the threat of it, became a recurrent feature in the early 2000s, as CPJ and other international rights groups documented at the time. Masked attackers assaulted prominent journalist Gulzhan Yergaliyeva. Respublika’s office was firebombed, its editor received a funeral wreath, a decapitated dog was pinned to its wall. Assailants beat up another well-known journalist, Sergey Duvanov, then he was jailed on rape charges that CPJ decried as designed to silence “his critical reporting about official corruption.” CPJ is investigating at least two other killings to see if they were connected to the journalists’ work: Gennady Pavlyuk, who was hurled from a window in 2011, and Askhat Sharipzhanov, who was killed in a road accident in 2004, while preparing an expose.

Other cases included the near fatal attack in 2012 on Lukpan Akhmedyarov, who was shot and stabbed. While four attackers were jailed, investigations have so far failed to identify and bring to justice a mastermind. In 2017, Ramazan Yesergepov, previously imprisoned on charges of disclosing state secrets, was stabbed while traveling to brief diplomats on press freedom, prompting CPJ to express concern about journalists’ security.

Under Nazarbayev, the state acquired an armory of legal weapons, from punitive defamation laws and the criminalization of “false information” to stringent controls over media operations and powers to block online communications. Journalists can be banned from practicing their trade, as Zhanbolat Mamay was when he was convicted on money-laundering charges in 2017 that CPJ deemed were aimed at “silencing dissenting voices and muzzling independent media.”

Reporters face restrictions covering stories that officials wish to hush up, watchdogs including Adil Soz and Freedom House have found. In 2016, around 50 reporters were detained on one day, covering demonstrations against land reforms. Last month, RFE/RL reported how one of its reporters, Saniya Toiken, was arrested while covering protests and convicted of disobeying police orders. After Nazarbayev’s resignation, RFE/RL correspondent Svetlana Glushkova was detained covering demonstrations, then convicted on assault charges that she described as an “order” from above. These cases were “trumped up to close the mouths of independent journalists,” Kaleyeva, of Adil Soz, told CPJ.

The Ministry of Information and Communication did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

Media silenced

In 2015, I visited Gulzhan Yergaliyeva, who had taken a radical step to protest legal maneuvers to close her magazine, Adam bol, for allegedly incendiary reporting. Yergaliyeva was on hunger strike–to no avail: a court ordered the shutdown. A successor publication was closed on a legal technicality over its registration.

This was one of the few independent sources for news left after the mass closure of over 30 outlets in 2012 for allegedly promoting extremism in their reporting on fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen. CPJ’s appeal to Nazarbayev to halt the crackdown fell on deaf ears. Nowadays, a tiny number of independent media exist, precariously.

For the authorities, the press is not a fourth estate to hold the powers-that-be accountable, but a tool to shape public opinion in their favor. The government spends around $150 million annually on subsidies for reports painting a positive picture of life in Kazakhstan, according to 2017 figures from a Kazakhstan-based non-governmental watchdog, Legal Media Center. Now, state media are glorifying the outgoing president.

This is the beleaguered media environment that Nazarbayev bequeaths his country. With his considerable post-retirement powers, including the chairmanship of the powerful Security Council and the right to intervene in policy-making, journalists are pessimistic about the future.

“Prospects for an improvement in the situation with freedom of speech are not on the horizon,” said Duvanov, who is now a campaigner at the non-governmental watchdog Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. “There can be no liberalization on this front because nothing fundamental has occurred, in principle, with Nazarbayev shifting to the position of Security Council chairman. Conceptually, nothing has changed with respect to the rights and liberties of citizens.”

Another reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said, “Given the general political situation in Kazakhstan and the further tightening of the screws on civil liberties, I don’t see any improvements coming in the media sphere.” The reporter added, “I don’t think the authorities will allow any liberalization of the media environment because this might upset the balance during the political transition. I see people getting annoyed with the latest political developments, and in order to stifle public dissent, the authorities won’t allow the media greater freedoms.”

Amirzhan Kosanov, a veteran journalist and opposition activist, said he believes a free media would create an existential threat to the system the powers-that-be wish to preserve. “With Kazakhstan on the threshold of presidential and parliamentary elections, I don’t think there will be any liberalization of state information policy. This is not about specific personalities but the system itself — it would not survive in conditions of free speech.”