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Kazakstan: Free Speech in Danger

London event highlights use of criminal law to punish dissent.
By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

As part of the ongoing media crackdown in Kazakstan, the authorities are deploying laws against incitement and extremism to discredit their critics and suppress press freedom, participants of an event in London this week said. 

The February 25 debate, “Kazakh Night: Celebrating Free Speech from a Country Without” was hosted by Article 19 and brought together media and rights activists to discuss the challenges facing freedom of expression in Kazakstan.

“We wanted to show the trend that independent media and anyone who wants to criticise are at risk,” Nathalie Losekoot, senior programme officer at Article 19, said.

Speaking at the event, Tamara Kaleeva, head of the media support group Adil Soz, described the difficulties facing journalists from recently banned opposition media outlets.

In December, a court in Almaty banned eight newspapers and 23 websites affiliated to the Respublika newspaper along with the K+ satellite TV channel, Stan TV and the Vzglyad newspaper, on the grounds that they articulated extremist views.

Some of these media outlets are connected to the Alga opposition party and to Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former banker and now regime opponent living in exile.

Kaleeva noted that these news outlets were the only ones in Kazakstan to provide consistent coverage of months of oil industry strikes in 2011, and their violent culmination in December that year, when police fired into crowds of protesters in the western town of Janaozen, leaving 16 dead.

In the aftermath of Janaozen, oil workers were imprisoned, the Alga political party was shut down and its leader Vladimir Kozlov jailed, and opposition media linked to Alga were accused of stirring up the 2011 industrial unrest.

Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, pointed out that opposition media with no connection to Ablyazov were also being targeted. He cited the closure in January of the independent newspaper Molodezhnaya Gazeta, which had reported on trade union activism and protests at the copper and zinc mining giant Kazakhmys.

“This keeps happening to other media,” Bihr said. “Over the past year since Janaozen, we have seen such a wide crackdown that I won’t be sure that any media is safe.”

Speakers at the London event noted that the authorities are using existing criminal laws and passing new ones to legitimise the onslaught on free speech. (See Kazak Media Freedom in Reverse Gear for a rundown of these laws.)

“Journalists in Kazakstan are very concerned, and they have every reason to be. There is a whole legislative straightjacket which surrounds their professional activity,” said Bihr, who visited Kazakstan in January. “The law on inciting social hatred is used in a brand-new manner to suppress dissent and suppress free speech. It was not the case in the past.”

Bihr noted that the vague definition of “social hatred” means that the law can be applied broadly.

“This allows any kind of interpretation by the courts and the courts, since Janaozen, use it to crush free speech,” he said.

In addition, Bihr said, the use of justice ministry experts to provide courts with a legal opinion as to whether published material counts as extremist is questionable.

Andrew Smith, a legal officer with Article 19, said ambiguous legislation was compounded by the lack of a truly independent judiciary in Kazakstan.

“When the judiciary is not playing [its proper] function, there is no check on the government... it is able to do whatever it wants,” Smith said.

Bihr said the media crackdown contravened a number of international conventions to which Kazakstan is a signatory, and flouted the basic principle that restrictions on free expression needed to be proportionate to the danger of unrest and incitement.

“Banning all opposition media is not proportionate,” he added.

Kaleeva noted that the authorities waited nearly a year after Janaozen to move against critical media outlets. The court action against them began on November 20, eight days after an announcement that Kazakstan had secured membership of the UN Human Rights Council.

According to Kaleeva, the media community in Kazakstan sees the action taken to suppress newspapers, websites and TV channels as “a ban on the profession”.

The Kazak evening also featured a poetry reading by imprisoned dissident Aron Atabek, who is serving an 18-year sentence. He was convicted of organising protests against the demolition of a slum area called Shanyrak in 2007. At the end of last 2012, he was placed in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison for writing a piece critical of President Nursultan Nazarbaev while in jail.

“Criticism comes in different forms. It is not just media. People protest, people write poetry in one way or another,” Losekoot said.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London. 

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