Riot police officers patrol in a street during anti-government protests in Almaty, Khazakstan on January 5, 2022. The protests posed challenges to journalists coveirng them. (AFP/Abduaziz Madyarov)

‘Nothing like this ever happened here before’: Journalists describe covering mass protests in Kazakhstan

The nationwide antigovernment protests that erupted in early January 2022 in Kazakhstan – which left 225 dead, according to official figures – upended the country’s reputation as one of Eurasia’s most stable authoritarian regimes. They also posed an enormous challenge to Kazakh journalists.

Journalists working to cover the unrest were detained by riot police and targeted by mobs; they also had to contend with a nationwide internet blackout and widespread telecommunications disruptions.

To get a sense of how journalists dealt with these obstacles – and for a look at the future of press freedom in Kazakhstan now that unrest has died down — CPJ spoke by phone and email with two journalists who covered the protests and the head of local free speech organization Adil Soz. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

CPJ emailed Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry for comment but did not receive any reply.

Madina Alimkhanova, correspondent for international news agency KazTAG

You were reporting from Almaty, where the most significant unrest and violence took place. What was it like to work in such circumstances?

On January 4 things were relatively calm. There were lots and lots of protesters – we’ve never had such large demonstrations in Kazakhstan before. Among the demonstrators there were young guys who were protecting journalists and preventing people from attacking police, constantly reminding them that it was a peaceful demonstration.

On January 5, things changed. There were still peaceful demonstrators, but they were the minority. When we started to film people throwing paving stones at National Guard vehicles, one of them rushed towards us and tried to grab and smash our camera. Peaceful protesters managed to drive him back, shielding us while we got into our car, but an aggressive group of people started hitting the car as we tried to drive away.

We had to take off our press jackets and hide the camera. We planned to film with our phones, but angry protesters accosted anyone they saw with a cell phone – presumably they were worried their faces would be captured on film. Police had their hands so full dealing with the angry crowd that they had no time to think about journalists.

No one expected that this kind of thing could happen in Kazakhstan. Nothing like this ever happened before. And no one expected this kind of aggression towards journalists from protesters.

Bek Baitas, chief editor for independent news site’s Kazakh-language edition

You were detained covering protests in Almaty. What happened?

On January 4, I was in the area around Almaty Arena [a sports stadium]. There were around 100 to 150 demonstrators and opposite them stood SOBR troops [a special rapid response unit]. Suddenly the troops charged the demonstrators and started to detain them. Then I saw a guy emerge from the police van with blood over his face and went over to him to record this. While I was filming, a SOBR officer grabbed me by the waist and struck me on the shoulder. I said I was a journalist and managed to take my press ID out of my pocket to show him, but he paid no attention to this and pushed me into the van, ripping my coat. I wasn’t wearing a press jacket but I had a press armband.

They didn’t tell us where they were taking us. When we got to Almaly district police station [in central Almaty], they took our phones – the officer twisted and almost broke my arm in the process.

We arrived there a bit before 8 p.m. At around 8:30 they started to interrogate me. This lasted for about 40 minutes – they asked me if I knew the DVK [the banned opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan] and whether I was part of it, whether I mix with people who are DVK activists, and so on. I told them I was a journalist, showed my press card, but they said nothing about why they had detained me or when they would let me go. After this they kept me there for around another two hours, releasing me around 11 p.m. So far I haven’t heard anything about any charges.

You also sustained an injury covering the protests the next day. What happened?

We received reports of gunfire so we went to investigate. At the intersection of Baytursynov and Karasay Batyr Streets, we saw police cars with smashed windows, soldiers with riot batons, and behind them stood police with helmets, carrying shields, batons, and stun grenades; they were shooting rubber bullets. Protesters had their hands raised and were shouting “Don’t shoot!” Suddenly, all at once, police started to throw stun grenades; it all happened so fast that we had no time to react. One of the grenades hit me right under the eye before falling to the ground and exploding. We treated the wound quickly with some medication from the pharmacy and I was able to carry on working.

Tamara Kaleyeva, president of Adil Soz, an independent Kazakh free speech organization

You have been monitoring press freedom in Kazakhstan for more than 20 years. What’s your assessment of the current unrest?

What makes the current situation stand out is working in conditions of mass disturbances and armed clashes. Our journalists were not prepared for this – after all, no one, including us, seriously expected Almaty to turn into a conflict zone. As a result, an employee at Almaty TV station was killed, another was seriously injured, and many have come away with cuts and bruises.

One major problem has been the lack of internet, shut down across the country [on January 5 and restored on January 11]. It was a shame to watch reports from Almaty on foreign TV when our journalists had better material but were unable to broadcast it. Those who were quick to publish reports online – such as KazTAG news agency and – were quickly blocked.

[Editor’s note: As of publication, KazTAG and are no longer blocked.]

Then they allowed state TV channel Khabar and a few “dependable” media platforms to report on how the authorities were bringing the situation under control. This was a blatant violation of the principle of equal rights for media outlets – outlets that were not among the most popular previously suddenly gained unprecedented audiences. On the other hand, it prevented a barrage of wild, provocative, and alarmist fake news.

Relatively few journalists were arrested. As far as we have been able to establish, none of these arrests were justified. Human rights defenders are now trying to help them, but I fear that nothing will come of this. In Uralsk [a city in the west], for example, journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov was reporting on the demonstration, and when he saw that the demonstrators were moving to storm local government headquarters, he tried to stop them and called for negotiations. Even though this was clearly recorded on video, they arrested him, charged him with participating in an unsanctioned demonstration and sentenced him to 10 days’ detention.

For around two weeks, many parts of Kazakhstan were under a state of emergency, which has since been lifted, and and authorities increased penalties for offenses like “knowingly spreading false information.” President Qasym-Zhomart Toqayev recently accused “so-called ‘free’ media outlets” of “facilitating” and “inciting” the riots.

I’m worried that once the state of emergency is lifted, a “witch hunt” will begin. The authorities are scared, so any controversial views will be perceived as malicious fake news, though bloggers and activists will be the main targets. They might close a couple of the boldest online outlets. Pressure from the authorities in the form of verbal instructions to media outlets will increase – “publish this, don’t write about that.” Some will obey out of habit, others will resist. Long-term pressure on the media will mainly come in the form of orders, decrees, and laws.

Toqayev is well-educated, intellectual, unlike his predecessor; he worked for some years as deputy secretary-general of the U.N. – he can’t possibly have such a blunt attitude to freedom of speech, I would hope. I’m less optimistic about those around him, who will determine all real government actions going forward. Law enforcement and security agencies will also have a say, with their automatic reflex to control members of the media. There are difficult times ahead.