Kazakh law enforcement officers surround a barricade in Almaty, Kazakhstan, during a January 5, 2022, protest triggered by increased fuel prices. Kazakh authorities arrested at least eight journalists, blocked two news sites and shut down internet and telecommunications as demonstrations spread across the country. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

Kazakhstan authorities block news sites, detain journalists during nationwide protests

Stockholm, January 6, 2022 – Kazakhstan authorities must allow journalists to report freely on ongoing protests in the country and ensure their safety from officials and protesters, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Since January 4, authorities in the Central Asian nation detained at least eight journalists reporting on mass protests in several cities and blocked at least two news sites following their coverage of nationwide protests, according to multiple news reports. Journalists reported being shot at by unidentified individuals, chased by protesters, and struck by law enforcement officers while reporting on the events. (CPJ could not independently confirm local media reports because of a communication shutdown.)

The protests began in reaction to a sharp rise in the price of liquefied gas, but have since expanded into wider anti-government demonstrations. Internet across the country and telecommunications in the capital Nur-Sultan and the country’s largest city of Almaty were shut down around 5 p.m. Wednesday and authorities declared a state of emergency in Nur-Sultan, the Almaty region, and the western Mangystau region where the protests began. Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Information warned media outlets that the emergency regulations authorized an increase in the maximum penalty for “knowingly spreading false information” to between three and seven years in prison.

“CPJ is extremely concerned by the developing situation in Kazakhstan as we receive reports of journalists’ arrest and acts of violence committed against them,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “We call on the Kazakh government to cease detaining members of the media, ensure the free flow of information, and take all possible measures to ensure the safety of journalists on the ground.”

Gulnara Bazhkenova, chief editor of independent news site Ordawrote in a Telegram post that the site became inaccessible within Kazakhstan after the outlet reported on Tuesday that protesters were calling for the resignation of the government and the withdrawal of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev from public affairs.

Shortly afterward, independent news agency KazTAG wrote on Telegram that its website became inaccessible after the agency refused to comply with a written demand from the Ministry of Information and Social Development of Kazakhstan to remove an article that the ministry claimed contained “knowingly false information” about police use of force against protesters.  

On January 4, Almaty police briefly detained Qasym Amanzhol, the acting head of Radio Azattyq’s Almaty bureau, the Kazakh service of the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, while he was filming protests in the city, according to a report by his employer. Despite Amanzhol showing them his press credentials, police held the journalist for two hours at the Medeu district police station before releasing him and apologizing, but without explaining the reason for his detention, according to the report.

In other arrests on January 4, police in the southern city of Taraz detained Aizhan Auelbekova, a correspondent with independent newspaper Vremya, Daniyar Alimkul, a correspondent with independent TV station 7 Kanal, and Nurbolat Zhanabekuly, a correspondent with independent TV station 31 Kanal, while they were covering local protests, according to news reports

Officers released Alimkul and Zhanabekuly at the scene but held Auelbekova for more than three hours in a Zhambyl region police station before releasing her without giving a reason for her detention, according to these reports and the journalist’s Facebook page.

In Almaty, police detained Bek Baitas, an editor for Orda, while he was filming protests on Monday evening, despite him showing his press card, according to a Telegram post by Bazhkenova. Bazhkenova said that police took Baitas to Almaly district police station where they twisted his arms and broke his phone, Bazhkenova wrote.  

In Nur-Sultan, plainclothes police in Nur-Sultan surrounded the apartment of Makhambet Abzhan, a reporter for independent news site Exclusive, who has been covering the protests on his Telegram blog Abzhan News and commenting on Russian television, turned off his electricity, and prevented him from leaving for the night, according to Telegram posts on Abzhan News.

Nur-Sultan police also arrested Radio Azattyq editor Darkhan Omirbek while he was reporting on Monday night’s protests, despite him presenting his press ID, according to a report by Radio Azattyq and a live stream broadcast by the journalist following his arrest. Police took Omirbek to Almaty district police station and questioned him for four and a half hours before releasing him, the report stated. The journalist told CPJ by messaging app that it is unclear if he is suspected of committing any offense.

On January 5, Bazhkenova reported that Orda journalist Leonid Rasskazov was hit in the back by a rubber bullet fired by police and Baitas was hit in the face by shrapnel from a police stun grenade while reporting in Almaty.

Also in Almaty, KazTAG reported that a protester ordered its camera crew to stop filming and then chased them with a paving stone. When the journalists reached their vehicle, protesters began to hit and rock the vehicle, the agency said.  

Omirbek told CPJ that unidentified individuals in Almaty shot at Radio Azattyq’s reporter Ayan Qalmurat and camera operator Sanat Nurbek on January 5, adding that Radio Azattyq had decided to recall its reporters in the city due to the dangerous situation. In Nur-Sultan, riot police hit Radio Azattyq reporter Nurgul Tappayeva in the back, said Omirbek.

Around 11 a.m. on January 5, police in Uralsk detained independent journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov and questioned him at a local police station over alleged participation in an extremist organization, according to reports. He was released around 2 p.m., with a summons to attend further questioning later that day at 4 p.m., but CPJ was unable to confirm any further details.

At around the same time, also in Uralsk, police detained Serik Yesenov, a reporter with the independent news site Uralskaya Nedelya, while he was filming army vehicles in the city center, according to a report by his employer. Yesenov informed police that he was a journalist, but they grabbed his camera, deleted his footage and took him to Abay district police station, before releasing him after an unspecified amount of time, according to the report.

On Wednesday afternoon, protesters in Almaty stormed a building housing the editorial offices of several broadcasters–including local Kazakh television station KTK, reportedly owned by the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation; the local offices of Commonwealth of Independent States-funded broadcaster Mir 24; and Russian state-funded broadcaster Sputnik–and raided these outlets’ offices, damaging equipment, news reports stated. Orda reported that protesters detained journalists in the building for around an hour before leading them out of the building. Mir 24 and Sputnik have since confirmed that their employees left the building safely.

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

Editor’s note: The dateline in the first paragraph has been updated to the correct year. The second paragraph of this report has been corrected to reflect that not all of the detained journalists were formally arrested. The 18th paragraph has been updated with ownership information for KTK.