Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: New Press Freedom Fears

A series of incidents involving independent journalists is causing concern at home and abroad.
By Roman Sadanov

The new year has started badly for journalists in Kazakstan, and the imminent introduction of a new media law is unlikely to improve matters.

In the first three weeks of 2004, one reporter is facing a prison sentence for alleged slander, another has been beaten up in mysterious circumstances, and the offices of a newspaper owned by the limited company Rifma, based in the north-western city of Aktobe, have been raided by the authorities.

Rifma's independent newspaper Diapazon was raided by police on Tuesday, January 27. Kazak media non-governmental organisation Adil Soz reported that a list of the employees' work assignments and details of new staff members were removed.

In a press release issued on behalf of Diapazon by Adil Soz a spokesperson claimed, "The law enforcement officers behaved harshly, forbade the staff to move around, blocked all entrance doors and locked cameramen in back rooms."

The raid was launched after Rifma founder Vladimir Mikhailov apparently failed to abide by a court decision relating to the building it occupies. Adil Soz has protested against the raid, and has asked the authorities to explain how a list of employees will be of use in such a dispute.

According to Adil Soz president Tamara Kaleyeva, Mikhailov may have been targeted for a number of reasons.

Diapazon has a circulation of 33,000 compared with the official regional newspaper's 3,000, making it the most popular media outlet in the region. A radio station also owned by Mikhailov enjoyed similar popularity until its license was revoked in 2002.

Both were known for their criticism of the local administration and the regional prosecutor's office.

In Kaleyeva's view, the authorities may be trying to silence these outlets before the parliamentary election which is due to be held in the autumn. However, Adil Soz does not rule out the possibility that a take-over attempt may be in the offing.

This most recent incident has added to growing concerns over the current state of press freedom in Kazakstan, after a journalist with the national Vremya (Time) newspaper was prosecuted - controversially, under criminal rather than civil law.

Gennady Benditsky is currently on trial accused of slander after he wrote an article in November 2003 about the joint stock company Republican Innovation Fund - run by the former industry minister and ex-vice prime minister Asygat Zhabagin.

Zhabagin was so incensed by the article, which he claims slandered him, that he demanded the authorities launch a criminal prosecution against the journalist.

The case got underway on December 19, but was adjourned on January 8 to allow language experts to scrutinise Benditsky's article. So far, no indication has been given as to when the trial will restart.

Benditsky, an investigative journalist with a special interest in corruption, had previously been honoured by the state. In 1999, he was one of a handful of reporters presented with an award by President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Several international media organisations have been alerted to the trial, but these are making no statements until the proceedings are at an end, for fear of prejudicing the outcome.

However, local organisations have rallied to his cause. A support group has been formed under the banner "Protecting freedom of speech and fighting corruption", Kazak lawyers and Russian legal advisers have been appointed, and permission to hold a public meeting has been sought from the authorities.

Rozlana Taukina, president of the Journalists In Trouble organisation, told IWPR that, if official permission is granted, organisers hope that more than 20,000 people will attend the Almaty rally on February 7.

However, observers doubt that the government will allow the meeting to go ahead, as speakers would be bound to criticise a new media law currently being passed into Kazak legislation.

The Majilis, or lower chamber of parliament, passed the law on December 26, and it is expected to be rubber-stamped by the Senate, or upper chamber, within weeks.

Local and international media analysts agree that while the authorities claim that the legislation is being introduced to safeguard freedom of speech, in reality it will only complicate journalists' and broadcasters' working lives.

Journalists in Trouble's Taukina told IWPR that under the new legislation, the information ministry will now have nearly unlimited power over media activities, giving it the right to close down any outlet on the smallest pretext.

At the same time, the legislation doesn't contain any clauses to prevent any one person or company from commanding a monopoly, or make any reference to journalists' rights.

Oleg Katsiev, director of the international NGO Internews-Kazakstan, said, "In no way does this new law protect a journalist who tries to give the public information about corruption at high levels of authority. Almost the opposite, in fact.

"Unfortunately, there are few brave and principled journalists in Kazakstan. They work in defiance of circumstances and the Benditsky case is a vivid proof of this."

The third incident to raise fears for the future of the media in Kazakstan was an unprovoked attack on Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe journalist Juldyz Toleuova, who was badly beaten up in Astana at midnight on the night of January 9/10.

The journalist was attacked on a well-lit street on the day Russian president Vladimir Putin was on an official visit to the Kazak capital, and security was at its highest. However, there were no police officers nearby, and no witnesses to the assault, which left Toleuova with a broken nose and fractured skull.

While police describe the attack as a robbery, Toleuova's colleagues believe it was linked to her activities as a journalist - she is a parliamentary correspondent who has reported on the activity of the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakstan.

Deputy Serikbay Alibaev told IWPR, "I know Toleuova very well, and she always brings up issues that are sharp and unpleasant for the authorities. Therefore, her work for is bound to have attracted the attention of certain agencies. certain interest of particular agencies."

However, the head of the Kazak bureau of RL/RFE Toleutay Damiev noted that Toleuova had not been working on "any sensational or disclosing material" at the time of the attack.

One suspect was detained after the attack, but was released after questioning. It remains to be seen whether investigations into the case will continue.

Roman Sadanov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Astana.

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