A woman films a building burned in the city of Almaty during nationwide protests in Kazakhstan. While Kazakh authorities have largely reasserted control over the country, local journalists report continued attacks, detentions, and harassment. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

Journalists detained, news crew attacked, as Kazakhstan state of emergency continues

Stockholm, January 10, 2022 – Kazakh authorities should ensure the ability of the country’s media to work freely and release detained journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov. They should also fully investigate assaults on the country’s press, including an attack on a convoy that killed one Almaty TV employee and injured another and an arson attack on the offices of five local television stations, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

While Kazakh authorities have reportedly reasserted control over the country following the nationwide anti-government protests that claimed dozens of lives last week, local journalists report continued detentions and harassment of media workers by authorities, and at least one foreign correspondent has reported being denied entry to the country by Kazakh authorities.

On January 7, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqayev accused “so-called ‘free’ media outlets” of facilitating and inciting the disturbances in an address and promised to “respond harshly” to “acts of legal vandalism.” The country remains under a state of emergency, with increased penalties for media-related offenses, such as spreading false information.

The same day, a court in the north-western city of Uralsk sentenced independent journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov to 10 days’ detention on charges of participating in an illegal demonstration, according to news reports and the journalist’s lawyer, Mereke Gabdualiev, who spoke to CPJ by telephone. Gabdualiev said Akhmedyarov was covering the demonstration as a journalist, but at one point addressed the crowd to urge them to remain peaceful.

“Kazakh authorities must do all in their power to ensure that the appalling attacks on staff at Almaty TV and the offices of five television stations do not go unpunished,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “At the same time, CPJ is concerned by the continued detention of journalists, including Lukpan Akhmedyarov, as well as the blocking of news sites and the vilifying language used by President Toqayev in relation to the press. We once again call on the Kazakh government to ensure that journalists are free to work without obstruction or fear of retribution.”

The internet, shut down nationwide on January 5, has been intermittently available, with major interruptions to telecommunications, according to CPJ’s communications with local journalists. Internet access was briefly restored in riot-hit Almaty today, before government officials once again initiated a nationwide shutdown. (Due to the communication shutdown, CPJ was unable to independently confirm several local media reports.)

Around 9 p.m. on January 6, unknown assailants in the southern city of Almaty opened fire on two vehicles carrying the local government-owned Almaty TV’s camera crew and city officials including the mayor, as the group was traveling to record a mayoral public address, according to news reports. As a result of the gunfire, the station’s driver, Muratkhan Bazarbayev, died, and technician Diasken Baitibayev had two fingers amputated in the hospital.

CPJ called, messaged, and emailed Almaty TV for confirmation of this information, but did not receive any response.

In the evening of January 5, as previously documented by CPJ, a crowd of protesters stormed two buildings in Almaty housing the offices of state-funded television stations Qazaqstan, Khabar and First Channel Evrazia, Commonwealth of Independent States-funded broadcaster Mir 24, and KTK, reportedly owned by a foundation set up under the name of Nursultan Nazarbayev, former president of Kazakhstan, whose withdrawal from politics has been demanded by protesters.

The following day, reports stated that offices of the five TV stations had been severely damaged by fire. All employees were safely evacuated from the building, these reports said, though protesters inflicted a minor injury on a lawyer working for Qazaqstan. CPJ called and emailed the stations for confirmation that no media workers were injured in the incident but did not immediately receive a reply.

According to independent free speech organization Adil Soz, journalists in Kazakhstan reported that protesters and law enforcement officers generally treated them well in the initial stages of the protests, but after demonstrators began to act aggressively toward them from the evening of January 5 some media workers removed their press jackets.

In addition to violations previously documented, CPJ is aware of the following incidents since January 5:

  • Around midday on January 5, a group of demonstrators wearing masks and carrying sticks accused Almaz Kaysar, a photo correspondent with independent news site Vlast, of filming them on behalf of the security services and grabbed and smashed his cell phone, according to a report by Adil Soz, which stated that Kaysar subsequently took off his press jacket to avoid further trouble.
  • Around 4 p.m. on January 5, Farkhat Abilov, a reporter for independent newspaper Ak Zhayik, was filming demonstrators and police clashing in the western city of Atyrau, when he was approached by unidentified individuals who swore at him, threatened to break his phone, pushed him, and struck him on the arms to make him stop filming, according to the same report.
  • On the afternoon of January 8, soldiers in Almaty detained Stanislav Obishchenko, a freelance correspondent with Russian-funded broadcaster Russia Today, according to a report by his employer and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app. Obishchenko was filming military vehicles on the city’s main Republic Square when a vehicle full of soldiers approached, threatened him with automatic weapons, and ordered the journalist into the vehicle, according to a statement by Russia Today producer Mikhail Krasnov. Special forces officers questioned Obishchenko on the square before transferring him to a local police station, from where he was released later that evening, he told CPJ.
  • In Almaty on January 8, armed individuals in unmarked uniforms fired shots at the feet of Vasiliy Polonskiy, a reporter for independent Russian television station Dozhd, and Vasiliy Krestyaninov, a camera operator for independent Latvia-based Russian news site The Insider, while they were filming the arrest of a man outside a local morgue, according to a report by Dozhd.
  • At 11 p.m. on January 9, Aktobe police conducted a search at the home of Ardak Yerubaeva, a freelance reporter for independent Kazakh news site Orda, and took her to Aktobe regional police station, according to a Telegram post by the journalist’s employer and Adil Soz. Officers questioned Yerubaeva about social media publications before releasing her after two hours without charge, according to Adil Soz.
  • Today, independent Central Asia-focused Russia-based news site Fergana reported that Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Information issued a written demand to remove an article by the site’s director, Daniil Kislov, on the alleged role of former President Nazarbayev’s relatives in the unrest and warned the site about criminal charges for “knowingly spreading false information.” Such an offense committed during a state of emergency carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison, according to Kazakhstan’s criminal code. Fergana’s website appears to have been blocked in Kazakhstan, according Kislov’s Facebook post.
  • Relatives of Makhambet Abzhan, a journalist with independent outlet Exclusive and author of the popular Telegram channel Abzhan News, have been unable to contact him for the last five days, the journalist’s wife told Radio Azattyq, U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakh service today. On January 4, plainclothes police officers surrounded Abzhan’s apartment, turned off the electricity and prevented him from leaving, as CPJ reported at the time. Abzhan’s wife told Radio Azattyq that Abzhan managed to leave the apartment on January 6 and the family has not heard from him since.

CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Information of Kazakhstan for comment but did not receive any response.

[Editor’s note: The text in the seventh paragraph has been updated to correct the date that the Almaty TV convoy was attacked.]