A burning police car on January 5, 2022, in Almaty during nationwide protests in Kazakhstan. Since the protests, authorities in Kazakhstan have sentenced at least four journalists to detention and summoned six others for questioning. (Reuters/Pavel Mikheyev)

Kazakhstan authorities jail, question journalists in protest aftermath

Stockholm, January 20, 2022 – Authorities in Kazakhstan must stop jailing and summoning for questioning journalists who covered the recent nationwide protests, and allow the press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since January 7, Kazakh authorities have sentenced at least three journalists to periods of detention ranging from 10 to 15 days, and summoned at least six journalists for questioning in connection with their coverage of nationwide protests that broke out on January 4, according to multiple news reports, a preliminary report on violations of journalists’ rights during and after the protests by independent local free speech organization Adil Soz, an unpublished document from the Kazakh Ministry of Information on incidents involving journalists shared with CPJ, and CPJ interviews with local journalists.

“It is unacceptable that Kazakh authorities should jail journalists for reporting and commenting on events of huge public importance, and outrageous that journalists should be questioned about links to so-called ‘extremist’ organizations simply for doing their jobs,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Investigations into the protests must not be used as a pretext to settle scores with critical journalists. Authorities should quash the convictions of journalists Daryn Nursapar, Nurzhan Baimuldin, and Lukpan Akhmedyarov, and cease summoning members of the press over their presence at the demonstrations.”

In addition to the January 7 sentencing of critical independent journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov to 10 days’ detention, as previously documented by CPJ, CPJ is aware of the following journalist convictions:  

  • On January 7, law enforcement officers in the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk arrested Daryn Nursapar, editor of state-owned local news website Altaynews.kz, and charged him with participating in an illegal demonstration, Adil Soz reported, and on January 9, a city court sentenced the journalist to 15 days’ detention. Management from the news site’s parent company had forbidden its journalists from attending the protests, but Nursapar felt it was his professional obligation to cover the protest, and posted videos in Ust-Kamenogorsk on his Facebook page on January 5, according to Adil Soz. On January 17, an East Kazakhstan regional court reduced the journalist’s sentence to seven days, at the prosecutor’s request, and freed him, according to a report by Adil Soz. 
  • On the morning of January 12, Kokshetau police arrested Nurzhan Baimuldin, chief editor of independent news agency Kokshetau-Asia, for comments the journalist posted on Facebook suggesting that President Qasym-Zhomart Toqayev “reported to” Russian President Vladimir Putin, and charged him with inciting public order violations during a state of emergency, according to news reports and a post on Baimuldin’s Facebook page. That evening, a city court sentenced the journalist to 10 days’ detention, but on January 17, a Kokshetau city appeals court reduced the sentence to five days, at the prosecutor’s request, and freed him, according to an Adil Soz report, which also stated that the journalist plans to appeal the conviction.

Separately, Makhambet Abzhan, the author of Telegram channel Abzhan News who was reported missing by his family on January 6, announced today on the channel that he is alive, well, and has been in hiding for the last two weeks for reasons he “will explain later,” adding that he was questioned yesterday by police, according to reports. Authorities opened a criminal case against Abzhan, the journalist told CPJ via messaging app but said he was unable to provide more details as he signed a non-disclosure agreement with investigators.

Abzhan actively covered the initial stages of the protests on his Telegram channel and commented on events for Russian television, before announcing on the night of January 4 that plainclothes police had surrounded his apartment, switched off the electricity, and were preventing him from leaving, as CPJ previously reported. The Interior Ministry of Kazakhstan this week denied a criminal case had been initiated against the journalist, according to those same reports.

In addition, since January 11 CPJ is aware of the following incidents of police summoning journalists for questioning:

  • On January 11, police in the northwestern city of Aktobe summoned Zhanalyk Akhash, a correspondent for broadcaster KTK–reportedly owned by a foundation set up under the name of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev–and questioned him for around an hour about why he was at protests in the city and whether he was a member of various organizations, including opposition group Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), according to the Adil Soz report. DVK is banned as an extremist group in Kazakhstan but has been declared a peaceful opposition movement by the European Union.
  • On the evening of January 11, police in the western city of Atyrau summoned Ainur Saparova and Farkhat Abilov, reporters who covered the protests for Ak Zhayik, a local independent newspaper known for its criticism of local authorities, and questioned them for around two hours about why they attended the protests and who told them to do so, according to the Adil Soz report and Abilov, who spoke to CPJ by telephone. Abilov told CPJ that police demanded his photos and videos of the protests, including photos of a protester who died from a bullet wound, but he refused to hand them over, adding that before and after the interrogation, unknown individuals called and messaged him, threatening to kill the journalist, and demanding he hand over his recordings. Abilov has since fled Kazakhstan for his safety.
  • On January 12, Aktobe police summoned Zhanagul Zhursin, a correspondent who covered protests in the city for U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakh service, known locally as Radio Azattyq, and questioned her for around three hours as a witness “with a right to a lawyer” in an unspecified criminal case, according to a report by the journalist’s employer, which stated that witnesses with such a status often become suspects. Zhursin’s colleague Darkhan Omirbek told CPJ by messaging app that investigators refused to inform the journalist which article of the criminal code the case was based on. Investigators asked Zhursin why she attended the protests, who she spoke to there and what they said to her, as well as what her views are on DVK and the movement’s leader Mukhtar Ablyazov, this report stated.
  • Also in Aktobe on January 12, police summoned and interrogated Dmitry Matveyev, a correspondent covering the protests for independent news website Ratel.kz, according to the Adil Soz report and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ by telephone. Matveyev told CPJ that investigators questioned him for around three hours about why he was at the protests and whether he has links to DVK before demanding that he give them videos and photos taken at the protests, which he refused.
  • The same day, Aktobe police summoned and interrogated Zhanar Kozhanova, a correspondent covering the protests for independent broadcaster 31 Kanal, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ by telephone. Kozhanova said that police questioned her for around an hour about why she was at the protests.

In a separate incident, on January 6 police in the northern city of Kokshetau arrested Baqyt Smaghul, chief editor of independent local newspaper Bukpa, and later that day a court sentenced him to five days’ detention on charges of organizing a peaceful gathering during a state of emergency, according to a January 13 Adil Soz report and Smaghul, who spoke to CPJ by phone. Smaghul had been appointed by local authorities to a committee formed to prevent youth from violently protesting, he told CPJ. On January 6, the journalist saw a crowd of youth gathered in the city and approached them, both as a journalist and a committee member, and tried to calm them, when police arrested him alongside the protestors.

Smaghul said he believes the police and court ignored his rationale of acting as a committee member because Bukpa covers topics that state-owned newspapers avoid, such as corruption. CPJ did not include this case in the total number of journalists detained for their protest coverage, as CPJ was unable to confirm that Smaghul was detained in direct connection with his journalism.

CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry and the office of the prosecutor-general of Kazakhstan for comment on the detentions and questioning of journalists, and requesting details about the charges against Abzhan, but did not immediately receive a reply.

[Editor’s note: The 16th paragraph has been updated to reflect that Nursapar was released January 17, and the quote was updated to reflect that Nursapar and Baimuldin have been released. The spelling of Dmitry Matveyev’s name and a typo in CPJ’s name in the first graph have also been corrected.]