Kazakhstan’s crackdown on independent media continues
On the same day as the Prime Minister and his cabinet unexpectedly stepped down in Astana, yet another independent newspaper was ordered to close in Almaty. The newspaper Assandi Times has been covering cases also critical to the government since 2002, but was closed after a 1 April 2014 court decision following a trial that none of the staff of the newspaper were informed of.
– According to the court decision, the Assandi Times are defined as part of the “single media outlet titled Respublika”, making the closure directly linked to the crackdown on independent media after the Zhanaozen shootings in 2011, says Lene Wetteland, Advisor on Central Asia with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, at present in Almaty. – Amidst discussions on a restrictive reform of a criminal code, large fines for attending a picket and frequent libel and slander cases against journalists, the situation is bleak for independent voices in Kazakhstan.
At a press conference in Almaty today, attended by local journalists and a representative of the French consulate, the Chief Editor Sergey Duvanov and the newspaper’s lawyer Tamara Simahina aired their concerns with yesterday’s unpleasant visit in the newspaper’s redaction and its consequences. Journalists described in detail how two unidentified men dressed in black barged into the office without knocking, and started opening cupboards and checking computers. On the staff’s protests and demands to see any document justifying their actions, they responded “Let’s not talk about rights” and went on to threaten to seal the office if anyone continued filming them or trying to write anything on social media. See video of the raid here
Despite the unconstitutional acts of the law enforcement, the newspaper is law-abiding and announced they will not continue distribution of the newspaper after the closure. Still, they are going to appeal the behaviour of the judicial executors as well the decision itself. However, this will not be straightforward as the judicial executors tore the copy of the receiving order out of the hands of the journalist inspecting it, making it hard to formally appeal its contents, the lawyer stated. She was also concerned that the court decision mentioned newspapers in plural, meaning the authorities might now establish a precedent to target other newspapers at their behest later.
-There is no logic and no law in this closure, warned the Chief Editor Sergey Duvanov. The Assandi Times is a completely independent newspaper with no link to the “single media outlet titled Respublika”. Some of the staff in Assandi Times have previously worked in Respublika, but since when are any individuals prohibited in carrying out their profession?
Tamara Kaleeva of the NGO Adil Soz, Free Speech, reminded the audience of a range of recent incidents jeopardizing freedom of speech and the freedom of the press in Kazakhstan: A recently published decree outlining the limitations for press in the case of state of emergency of a social character, suggested amendments to the Criminal Procedural Code outlining larger imprisonment sentences for spreading rumours than for murder, and the ongoing case against the journalist Valeriy Surganov in Astana, who is accused of slandering the judge and creating a criminal group, merely for protecting his sources in a row of articles describing the court proceedings in a rape case.
-The closure of one of the last remaining independent news outlets illustrates how Kazakhstan’s promises to the international community are little but empty promises, concludes Wetteland. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee urges Kazakhstan to reconsider this decision and implement its human rights obligations that are incremental if Kazakhstan is to fulfill its stated strategy to become one of “the 30 most developed countries of the world” by 2050.
During the seven-month long strike in Zhanaozen in Western Kazakhstan, oil workers demanded an independent trade union that would advocate their labour rights. The strike ended with government forces shooting at the strikers and other civilians, leaving 16 people dead in Zhanaozen and neighbouring Shetpe. Investigations following the incident bear signs of determining scape goats rather than addressing the core issues of the conflict. For more information click here.
Since the Zhanaozen events the pressure on independent voices in Kazakhstan has intensified; activists are imprisoned, demonstrations hindered, and independent media outlets closed or involved in court cases. For more information click here.
Kazakhstan has recently become formal member of the Venice Commission and the UN Human Rights Council, and aspire to join the “the group of 30 most developed countries” OECD, all amidst promises of respect for human rights, democracy and transparency. However, on the ground the situation is increasingly negative, and the NHC together with central human rights activists in Kazakhstan recently published the report “Kazakhstan: A cunning democracy”. The report analyzes the current situation for democracy in the country, and summarizes some of our current concerns with regards to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion or belief.