Kazakstan's Record Under Scrutiny at OSCE Event

Human rights meeting becomes platform for arguments that Kazakstan is not ready to chair European grouping.

Kazakstan's Record Under Scrutiny at OSCE Event

Human rights meeting becomes platform for arguments that Kazakstan is not ready to chair European grouping.

A major human rights gathering held this week by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, reflected two diametrically opposed views of the state of civil rights and media freedom in Kazakstan.

Human rights activists from Kazakstan took on the government at an event convened by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, took place in the Polish capital Warsaw between September 28 and October 9.

The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting brought together hundreds of government representatives, experts and human rights defenders to review progress made by OSCE member states in carrying out their commitments to human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Kazakstan’s democratic record has been under particular scrutiny in 2009 because next year, it takes over the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE.

While officials painted a picture of overall progress, their adversaries pointed to areas of concern such as a law restricting internet use, repressive legislation on religion, court cases against opposition newspapers, and the detention of participants in peaceful protests.

The debate around the recent imprisonment of leading human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis and newspaper editor Ramazan Yesergepov was particularly heated.

Zhovtis, who heads the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, was sentenced to four years in a low-security prison on September 3. He was convicted of dangerous driving following a road accident in July which resulted in a fatality. (for more on the concerns over this case, see Kazakstan: Jailing of Rights Activist Condemned, RCA No. 588, 10-Sep-09.)

Yesergepov, of the opposition weekly Alma-Ata Info, received a three-year prison sentence on August 8 on a criminal charge of “gathering information containing state secrets”.

Rozlana Taukina, head of the Journalists in Danger foundation in Kazakstan, called on the foreign ministers of OSCE members to reconsider the chairmanship “until political prisoners are released”, the weekly Vremya reported on October 7.

Other speakers included the head of the media support group Adil Soz, Tamara Kaleeva, who pointed out that two years ago, Kazakstan promised to abolish libel as a criminal offence, but nothing had been done since.

Irina Mednikova, representing the non-government Youth Information Service, told the meeting that the authorities were blocking a number of foreign websites and local online media outlets.

Control of the internet became more restrictive following amendments to the media law approved by parliament in June. The changes mean the internet is governed by the same rules that already apply to print and broadcast media, forbidding foreign nationals from using the web for electioneering or calling on workers to strike, and allowing the authorities to block access to websites based abroad if their content is deemed to contravene national laws.

Another concern in the area of media was the recent court case against leading opposition weekly Respublika. In September, a court ordered the newspaper to pay around 400.000 US dollars in libel damages to the state-controlled bank BTA.

In January, a court instructed another opposition newspaper, Tasjargan, to issue a retraction and pay around 25,000 dollars to a member of parliament for slandering him in an article about rising food prices.

As lawyer Sergey Utkin told IWPR, “Another couple of months, and there will be no newspapers critical of the authorities left in Kazakstan.”

In an interview to IWPR, Vyacheslav Abramov, director of the Almaty-based journalism centre Media.Net, who attended the OSCE meeting, added his voice to those who question Kazakstan’s democratic record.

“The fact that next year the OSCE chairmanship will be taken over by a country that has demonstrably violated the organisation’s principles is, in our view, a direct challenge to the OSCE and its fundamental values,” he Abramov said.

Viktor Kovtunovsky, a political analyst and head of the Civil Society foundation, expressed similar view to IWPR.

“Our country is gradually going down the road of winding down reforms,” he said. “In the early days of independence, we had free elections, a free press and freedom of expression. Now all that has been taken away from the citizens of Kazakstan.”

Other critical speeches were made by Ainur Kurmanov, leader of the Talmas movement, which defends the interests of small investors who have lost their money in the recent economic crisis, as well as the unemployed; and by a representative of Hare Krishna community, which is involved in a long-running battle with the Kazak authorities over property and buildings.

Yermuhamet Yertysbaev, President Nursultan Nazarbaev's adviser on political affairs, defended the government’s record at the meeting and in a subsequent interview for IWPR. He said the mood among most delegates at the human rights meeting was that Kazakstan should take over the OSCE chair.

At the OSCE meeting, he said in the interview, “I talked about the real situation of freedom of expression and media in Kazakstan. The Europeans were naturally impressed. I reminded them that 18 years ago, we had only ten national newspapers and magazines and around 20 TV and radio stations, whereas today there are 2,973 media outlets registered in Kazakstan. That’s been possible only because freedom of expression and creativity are guaranteed in the constitution.”

Yertysbaev said the very fact that criticism was being aired reflected the pluralism of opinion allowed in Kazakstan.

“The presence of a large number of Kazak NGOs which expressed strong and sometimes unpleasant criticism of authorities is proof that there is a real political pluralism in Kazakstan,” he said. “We must be tolerant of such criticism. When we take over the chairmanship in 2010, we will certainly take certain criticisms on board and make improvements.”

In other remarks quoted by the Vremya newspaper, Yertysbaev suggested that tensions between journalists and officialdom resulting in high-profile libel cases were not the result of illiberal policies, but rather the fault of over-zealous officials, on the one hand, and journalists who behaved unprofessionally, on the other.

“The relationship between government institutions, businesses, citizens and free media isn’t ideal and never will be,” he said. “Unfortunately, there will be always people representing government who would like to control, if not restrict, the press.”

As for the case of Yevgeny Zhovtis, Yertysbaev said it was inadvisable to discuss the matter for legal reasons, given that an appeal hearing is scheduled for October 20.

Sanat Urnaliev is an independent journalist in Kazakstan.

This article was produced under IWPR’s Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media programme, funded by the European Commission. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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