Kazakh workers polish a sculpture depicting former President Nursultan Nazarbayev outside the city hall in Almaty on March 1, 2020. Kazakh outlet HOLA News reported website blocks after covering a critical report on Nazarbayev. (AFP/Ruslan Pryanikov)

Kazakh outlet HOLA News reports website blocks after Pandora Papers coverage

Stockholm, October 20, 2021 – The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern today about apparent blocking of Kazakh independent news website HOLA News after reporting on the Pandora Papers offshore leaks. The website was widely inaccessible for 10 days after they published the coverage, and only became functional again after it was removed.

A statement on the outlet’s website on October 15 said that HOLA News founders Alisher Kaidarov and Adilet Tursynbek and chief editor Zarina Akhmatova had resigned after removing a news item to get access to their website restored. The item was not specified in the statement, but an empty entry headlined “Here was a title” previously carried an October 4 article referencing reports naming Asel Kurmanbayeva, the alleged mistress of influential former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, as the alleged beneficiary of a secretive offshore payment, according to news reports.

Internet users in Kazakhstan and abroad began reporting difficulty accessing HOLA News shortly after it published that article, according to the reports and the outlet’s Facebook account; it was not  available again until October 14. The few other local websites covering the topic were not affected.

The outlet’s statement said deep packet inspection (DPI) technology had been used to block their traffic, suggesting that internet service providers were deliberately obstructing the site.Akhmatova told CPJ by messaging app that HOLA News received no notification or explanation from authorities or service providers regarding the interruption.

On October 7, Information Minister Aida Balayeva told journalists that “according to preliminary information,” the Ministry of Digital Development–which is responsible for blocking access to unlawful online material–had not blocked the outlet, adding that the Information Ministry would continue to investigate why it was not functioning. Neither ministry answered CPJ’s telephone and email requests for comment.

“Kazakh authorities should investigate and explain the unacknowledged blocking of HOLA News and provide guarantees to all media outlets that news coverage will be permitted to be disseminated on all platforms without interference,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York.

HOLA News was among several local news sites to report on an investigation by the global investigative network Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and independent Kazakh news site Vlast, which said Kurmanbayeva received $30 million in 2010 for a stake in a British Virgin Islands-registered company that appeared to do no business. The reported deal involved two Kazakh oligarchs thought to be close confidants of Nazarbayev, the investigation found. Nazarbayev and Kurmanbayeva did not respond to requests for comment on the story, according to the OCCRP report. Most Kazakh media outlets writing about the Pandora Papers omitted any mention of the Kazakh elite, according to news reports.

Akhmatova said in an interview with a local YouTube channelthat she believed authorities had targeted HOLA News for “cumulative” refusals to “cooperate” with authorities. The site, which will continue to publish under new management, was founded in 2018 and has maintained its independence from both advertisers and government, it has said in published statements and interviews. HOLA News had also suffered cyberattacks including a DDoS attack after publishing a controversial interview with Nazarbayev’s grandson last year, according to news reports. The outlet reports 1.5 million unique visitors per month and had 279,000 followers on Instagram in mid-October.

Though Vlast and the remaining outlets which covered the issue were not blocked, Azamat Maitanov, chief editor of independent news site Aq Zhayiq, which ran a similar story, told CPJ by messaging app that a man introducing himself as a “well-wisher from the capital” had called and told him to remove it “to avoid problems later on,” though he did not comply.

Kaidarov, Tursynbek, and Akhmatova wrote in the October 15 statement that they were leaving because they had had to sacrifice their principles by removing a story. “We understood that there was nothing we could do, but to remain would have been a betrayal of ourselves and of journalistic principles,” Akhmatova told CPJ.