Kazakhstan: stay off criticism or else!

Rainer Jensen

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Critical journalists in Kazakhstan are slapped charges of having committed “ordinary” crimes like rioting or libel and so, their arrest is seldom formally an issue of press freedom, it transpired at a recent seminar organized by Internews in Almaty, which lost its status as the country’s capital in 1997 to Astana.

The seminar’s participants from the Central Asian country said such imprisonment happens quite often though most journalists know where the “line” is drawn about what is possible to report on.

Yet often seen as violating this line, the independent media in Kazakhstan is losing its role in media information to the population in Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country wedged between Russia and China.

Restrictive in practice

Although the country’s constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and the press, the government severely restricts them in practice. Criticizing the president is a criminal offence and is used as a pretext to silence journalists. An analysis done by media freedom group Article 19 found that Kazakhstan’s civil law regime “fails to provide safeguards for free expression and meet international defamation standards.” In 2014, repressive amendments on mass media were added to the Criminal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Administrative Offences Code. These amendments entered into force on January 1, 2015.

Private media under fire

Privately-held and opposition media are subjected to harassment and censorship. Several newspapers and television channels ​have disappeared, with authorities citing foreign connections. Kazakhstan is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2015, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2015, Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2014, and receives a democracy score of 6.61 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 as the worst possible score, in Nations in Transit 2015.

According to the Moscow Times political opposition and independent media is routinely stifled.

On August 27, Nakanune.kz, known for critical reporting, lost an appeal of a decision against it assessing damages of roughly $82,000 for publishing a letter to the editor alleging corruption at a Kazakhstani bank. A judge in Almaty had found Nakanune.kz guilty of libel. In addition to the verdict, the court had levied a $107,000 fine against the domain name owner, Guzyal Baydalinova.

The same day, ADAM was found guilty of an administrative violation for publishing only in Russian while its media registration said it was a Russian and Kazakh publication, resulting in a fine of $8,000 and suspension for three months.

Independent watchdog organization Freedom House resented the court decisions.

“It is shameful that the government of Kazakhstan continues to use the courts to try and silence media that holds it to account,” said Susan Corke, director of Eurasia programs. “These two cases perfectly illustrate the funhouse world that is Kazakhstan, where a bank can win tens of thousands of dollars in damages for a letter to the editor, or you can be suspended for not publishing.”

Printing presses under govt orders

Kazakhstan’s government owns and controls all available printing presses in the country and uses this as leverage over independent publications. One newspaper, Respublika, photocopied editions when access to a printing press was denied in 2010. Last year the Kazakhstani government used the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a US federal statute, to sue unnamed “Doe” defendants in federal court in New York. The suit followed a series of damaging email and document leaks – nearly 70 gigabytes’ worth – that came to light a year ago.

Instead of targeting the leakers directly, however, the Kazakhstani government sought to use the CFAA to block opposition media that would report on the leaked documents. They’ve gone after Respublika, one of Kazakhstan’s longest-tenured opposition voices, and one of the few to survive the government’s demolition of non-state media. Respublika remains online only yet the outlet suffers continual distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

Change for the worse

“This is a disturbing shift for a country that enjoyed some semblance of independent, if relatively constrained, media through the first two decades of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule,” said the Moscow Times.

State media, lobbyists and politicians have been presenting Kazakhstan as an island of stability in a sea of political chaos and say that since Kazakhstan became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, their president Nursultan Nazerbayev has increased the GDP ten times.

According to them, the economy continues to grow and people have few complaints.