Kazak Media Crackdown Counterproductive

Observers say restrictions have merely increased interest in leaked recordings purporting to reveal official wrongdoing.

Kazak Media Crackdown Counterproductive

Observers say restrictions have merely increased interest in leaked recordings purporting to reveal official wrongdoing.

Analysts say the harsh measures the Kazak government has taken to stop the media publishing potentially damaging material have only served to make people more curious about the offending information. Nor does it do Kazakstan’s international reputation much good.



Several opposition websites have been blocked over the last two months after they published audio recordings of conversations which appeared to be of high-level officials admitting corruption as well as a plot to eliminate President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s disgraced ex-son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev.



In May, Aliev was sacked as ambassador to Austria and the OSCE after he was charged with kidnapping two former top managers in Nurbank, in which he was a major shareholder.



Aliev said at the time that his fall from grace was politically-motivated, as he had told Nazarbaev he planned to run for the presidency in 2012.



The president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva, divorced Aliev in June.



In late October, the authorities blocked several opposition sites, offering technical problems as the explanation. This came after audio recordings and transcripts of telephone conversations supposedly between high-level officials appeared on the internet, in which the speakers discuss ways of silencing Aliev to stop him making statements that might compromise the authorities.



In November, more material appeared on the sites, once again ostensibly intercepted phone calls between senior figures, but this time concerning the funding of the president’s party Nur Otan.



The origin of these recordings is unknown, and their authenticity has not been confirmed. The Kazak prosecution service and interior ministry have said the recordings are fake.



A Radio Liberty report from November 2 said that four opposition weeklies which were planning to publish material relating to Aliev were turned away by their publishing houses and prevented from going to print amid veiled threats from the authorities.



Meanwhile, internet users in the country reported problems accessing external Central Asian websites such as Ferghana.ru.



In a telephone interview with Radio Liberty on October 26, Aliev effectively accused his former father-in-law of ordering the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides in 2006.



On November 8, a trial began in Almaty in which Aliev stands accused of involvement in abduction, financial wrongdoing, and abuse of official powers. The trial is taking place in absentia, as Austria has refused to extradite Aliev, on the grounds that there was no guarantee that judicial proceedings would be fair.



The same day, the prosecutor's office issued a warning to media outlets to refrain from publishing material that violated the privacy of personal correspondence and telephone conversations. Prosecutors have ordered an investigation into how the recordings were produced, how they ended up on websites, and whether they represent a breach of anyone’s privacy.



Adil Jalilov, head of the MediaNet NGO in Almaty, said the country has continued to use restrictive measures left over from Soviet times to control the media.



“The blocking of sites showed that there are no new methods of dealing with media. Blocking is the most primitive way of exercising control,” he said.



Media in Kazakstan already face many restrictions, and the country ranks 125th out of 169 on the Press Freedom Index produced annually by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. While a handful of newspapers in the country offer alternative sources of information, opposition material is mostly available only on the internet.



Online news services have faced similar restrictions in the past. Many came under severe pressure after publishing articles on “Kazakgate” – the high-profile trial of Nazarbaev’s former energy adviser, who is accused of arranging bribes for top Kazak officials in exchange for granting oil contracts in the Nineties.



The Coalition for Torture Prevention in Central Asia, which unites human rights organisations across the region, issued a statement condemning the latest media blockade.



“The simultaneous blocking of online media agencies disloyal to the Kazak government - such as Zona.kz, Kub.kz, GEO.kz, Inkar.info - and inspections conducted on the offices of the Respublica, Svoboda Slova, Vzglyad.kz and Tasjargan opposition newspapers leaves no doubt there is a campaign against the independent mass media designed to force them to stop work,” it said.



Vyacheslav Abramov, representing the coalition, said the media crackdown was unprecedented in its intensity and scale. The information blockade was organised and highly efficient, and extended to more media outlets than similar actions had done in the past.



Abramov noted that the campaign against media outlets had achieved its aims, as many had agreed to new restrictions.



Culture and Information Minister Yermuhamet Yertysbaev confirmed that several opposition media had told him they “promised not to support the criminal Aliev, not to give him a voice on their pages, not to publish malign information passed to them by Aliev, and not to insult the president’s reputation”, according to a Respublica newspaper report from November 9.



Abramov added that while he personally believed the websites had no right to publish transcripts of private telephone conversations, the tactics used by the authorities had been harsh.



By contrast, the head of the Kazak media organisation Journalists in Trouble, Rozlana Taukina, said that there was no personal information contained in the audio files, so media outlets had every right to make them publicly available.



“The statement [prosecutor’s warning] was absolutely unconvincing because there is nothing secret or personal about it,” she said. “It is information in the public interest that relates to officials who run the country and are involved in party politics. It cannot constitute a breach of private correspondence or of state secrecy.”



Taukina predicted that the government’s response to attempts to publish further revelations will be both swift and harsh, “As soon as [such] information appears, I’m sure that newspapers will be closed down, and their electricity could be turned off.”



She argued that the fallout from the media crackdown had been more damaging to the Kazak authorities than the content of the audio files.



“The state’s efforts to prevent this information spreading has created suspicions,” she said. “Times have changed. One cannot withhold information published on the internet, and we’re now witnessing a dramatic rise in public interest in the blocked websites.”



The chairman of the Journalists’ Union, Seitgazy Mataev, agreed that the attempt to block information had been counterproductive. People have continued to access blocked websites through proxy services or else they’ve got friends to email them the reports, he said.



Mataev added that this media scandal could undermine Kazakstan’s bid to chair the OSCE bid in 2009, a decision on which will be announced later this month.



“This is a big minus for the country. For other OSCE members, this counts as curtailing freedom of speech, and of course that’s true. Such things don’t happen in other countries, because they’re aware it’s pointless.”



Elina Karakulova is an IWPR editor in Bishkek.

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