Stockholm, July 22, 2022 – Kazakh authorities must fully and transparently investigate the recent attack on journalist Olesya Vertinskaya and ensure her safety, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
On the morning of Tuesday, July 19, an unidentified man attacked Vertinskaya, a correspondent for the independent news website and advocacy group Dorozhniy Kontrol, outside her home in the western city of Atyrau, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview and shared security footage of the attack, and a report by independent local free speech organization Adil Soz.
The man approached Vertinskaya and asked for help with a problem that he said “only [she] could solve,” and then punched her in the face, kicked her in the face as she fell to the ground, and then fled when a passerby approached, Vertinskaya told CPJ, saying her nose was broken in the attack.
Three days before she was beaten, Vertinskaya received a threatening text message from an unknown phone number that referenced her recent reporting on a local company selling fish in the area and told her to “be careful,” she said; immediately after the attack, the same number texted her again and said the company’s owner “will not leave it at that.”
Police have detained a suspect in the attack, according to the journalist and news reports, which said the suspect, who was not identified, was under investigation for assault and could face up to three years in prison.
“This vicious attack and ongoing threats against journalist Olesya Vertinskaya are entirely unacceptable and demand a firm response from Kazakh authorities,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities must send a clear message that such brutality against the press will not be tolerated by swiftly holding all the perpetrators to account, including anyone who may have ordered the attack.”
Dorozhniy Kontrol (“Road Control”) covers the police and incidents involving drivers, according to its website, which says the organization also helps people file complaints against traffic officers. Vertinskaya told CPJ she mostly covers the work of traffic police, the courts, and other law enforcement bodies.
On July 15, Dorozhniy Kontrol’s branch in the Atyrau region published a video report showing police shutting down stalls set up without permission by a company selling fish, and said Dorozhniy Kontrol had contacted the police about the stalls. The following day, the account published another report alleging the company had been selling protected species of fish.
In the threatening messages she received on July 16, the sender told Vertinskaya that the fish company’s owner was friends with the head of the local National Security Committee office, the journalist told CPJ.
Following the attack, Vertinskaya was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where she was treated for her broken nose and released, she said.
Neighbors later told Vertinskaya that the man had been waiting for her for around half an hour before she left her home, she said.
Vertinskaya told CPJ she believed the attack was most likely retaliation for that coverage of the fish sales company, but noted that she had also recently covered other sensitive topics, including allegations of mistreatment by the National Security Committee’s border guard department. She said she did not have any personal conflicts that could have led to the attack.
On Friday, Vertinskaya told CPJ that the unnamed suspect in police custody told officers he attacked her in retaliation for her reporting on a local amusement park. Vertinskaya told CPJ that she did not believe that was the real reason for the attack, however, as authorities had sided with the park after the outlet’s reporting.
Police previously detained and threatened Vertinskaya twice during her coverage of nationwide protests in Kazakhstan in January, according to the journalist and news reports. During one of these detentions, police forced her to delete video footage, punched her in the head, kicked her, and told her she “should be shot and have her head cut off,” according to those sources.
CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Kazakhstan for comment, but did not receive any reply.