Kazak Journalists Face Brutal Intimidation

Unidentified "hooligans" wage reign of terror on opposition journalists.

Kazak Journalists Face Brutal Intimidation

Unidentified "hooligans" wage reign of terror on opposition journalists.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

A government crackdown on the opposition press has taken a new and sinister turn. Unidentified attackers have firebombed one newspaper office, sent a funeral wreath to the paper's editor and tied a decapitated dog to the publication's window bars.

On May 22, an unidentified group of assailants lobbed petrol bombs into the offices of PR Consulting, publisher of Delovoye Obozrenie Respublika (Republic Business Review), destroying the premises.

"This is what happens when you start criticising the president, his family members or his policy," said one nervous journalist, there to examine the damage. PR Consulting director Guzel Baidalimova who was clearly shaken by the incident, said, "We've lost at least two million tenge (13,000 US dollars) in the bombing."

The Republic Business Review is an opposition publication owned by former minister Mukhtar Abliazov, arrested recently along with the ex-governor of Pavlodar region, Galymzhan Zhakianov. Both are leaders of the opposition party, Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, set up last year by a number of government officials and Kazak businessmen.

Two days before the firebomb attack, journalists found a decapitated dog outside the publication's office. A note had been nailed to the animal with a screwdriver. It read, "There will be no next time." Editor-in-chief Irina Petrushova subsequently found the dog's head outside her house, with a similar note nailed to its skull. A few days later she was sent a funeral wreath.

Republic Business Review is not the only paper to come under attack. In recent weeks, equipment at Tan TV, an important opposition mouthpiece with connections to Abliazov, was damaged during a gun attack; and in Atyrau, western Kazakstan, a private printing house was burnt to the ground in an arson attack.

On May 21 four men broke into the offices of SolDat, another opposition newspaper in Almaty. SolDat is linked to ex-prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin's opposition Republican's People Party. Correspondents Bakhytgul Makinbai and Kenje Aitpakiev said the assailants beat them, stole property and threatened to return if the paper continued publishing.

Adil Soz, a campaign group concerned with freedom of the press, reports violations of press freedom on an almost daily basis nowadays.

This latest wave of repression started soon after President Nursultan Nazarbaev rounded on the opposition media in a speech on February 11. "Look at our media," he said. "All they do is vilify everything. Our prosecutors won't budge if you don't prod them. What are we paying them for?"

Government agencies reacted swiftly. Inspectors, auditors and court bailiffs came knocking on every opposition newspaper door. "Over the past couple of months, the government has been waging an all-out war on those journalists who are bold enough to tell the truth," said statement by the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan.

The besieged media have been scrambling to protect themselves. Tan TV, for example, has set up a community watch group. Old ladies from the pensioner's Pokolenie (Generation) movement stand guard outside the building everyday. Other publications have buckled under the pressure and are now operating under self-censorship.

But pensioner Zinaida Petrova is unconcerned by the latest crackdown. "Everyone knows what's going on," she said, "but freedom of press will not be stifled. If something really important happens and the media doesn't cover it, we will find out anyway through the grapevine, just like in Soviet times."

The authorities, meanwhile, are refusing to comment on the situation. All government agencies contacted by IWPR declined to be interviewed. Senior police officers attributed the attacks on independent media premises and journalists to "hooligans".

Interestingly, these "hooligans" have so far failed to attack any pro-government media outlets or employees.

Joldas Babaev is the pseudonym of an Almaty-based journalist.

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