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Kazakstan: New Cyber Front in Media Battle

Kazak internet service providers restrict access to opposition web sites.

Online newspaper Navigator has found its site blocked by Kazakstan's major internet providers, as a new "cyber" front opens in the ongoing battle between the Kazak government and the independent media.

Widely regarded as one of the few independent internet newspapers, Navigator has regularly published material that's upset the Kazak leadership. Journalists on the paper are convinced that the sudden blocking of their site follows an order from above.

Recently, the title ran an interview with the general prosecutor of the Swiss canton of Geneva, Bernard Bertossa, who is running an investigation into the Swiss bank accounts of several high-placed Kazak officials, including President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Since May 20, it has become impossible to access the site - one of the main sources of Kazak news for people inside and outside the country.

Navigator is not the only internet outlet to experience problems. Eurasia, one of the first opposition sites, has been plagued by viruses and forced to change address several times as providers blocked access to it.

Russia-based Eurasia is linked to the ex-prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin and has also published compromising material on President Nazarbaev and members of his inner circle.

Eurasia says the two main national providers Kazaktelekom and Nursat are deliberately obstructing access to their site. "They stop users from reaching us. Nursat simply blocks the address and Kazaktelekom diverts users to a fake Eurasia site," reads an announcement on the title's homepage.

Asked by IWPR to confirm or deny that the sites had been blocked, the service providers responded that it was "not within their powers" to give such information.

The "technical problems" affecting websites come at a time when the internet has become a final refuge for the opposition press, which has suffered intimidation for some time.

The Republic Business Review, an opposition publication owned by the detained former minister Mukhtar Abliazov, was firebombed the day after a threatening note was dumped outside the editorial offices, pinned to the body of a decapitated dog. Soldat, another opposition newspaper linked to Akezhan Kazhegeldin's Republican's People Party, has suffered a break in. The government blamed both incidents on "hooligans".

The Kazak courts have also ordered the closure of the privately-owned television station Irbis for promoting pornography, after it showed the award-winning film Intimacy. Irbis, which is based in the Pavlodar region, is perceived as close to the opposition because of its support for the former regional governor Galymzhan Zhakianov, who is currently under house arrest. Similar treatment has been threatened against the privately-owned Tan station, also owned by Abliazov.

Abliazov and Zhakianov head the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DVK, movement. The DVK is part of a "second generation" opposition, which has replaced the scattered pro-democracy groups that appeared in the early 1990s. They comprised mostly intellectuals and in mid-90s were joined by big names from the private media who went out of business when the government put their licenses out to tender.

DVK was initiated by young business people and politicians, some of them with high profile government jobs - which has rattled the authorities.

The resulting intimidation has brought a degree of self-censorship to the press and television, which makes the outspokenness of independent websites all the more remarkable.

The government has been unable to exercise more direct control over the online media for legal reasons, according to lawyer Boris Suvorov. "According to the media law, websites are part of the mass media, but they do not have to register with the government," he said. "That is why the government is looking for other ways to suppress them."

Independent political analyst Vladimir Krasnov agrees that any website publishing material the government doesn't like faces a limited lifespan. "They'll find a way to shut their mouths," he said.

Asan Kuanov is an independent journalist in Kazakstan

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