Kazakhstan - Increasingly suffocating climate for media freedom

by Reporters Without Borders | Reporters Without Borders
Thursday, 3 April 2014 12:27 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Reporters Without Borders is very disturbed by the decline in media freedom in Kazakhstan, with arrests and trials of critical journalists and bloggers and the adoption of legislative tools that allow the authorities to tighten their grip on the media.

Another opposition newspaper closed

Part of the premises of the opposition Assandi Times newspaper was placed under seal yesterday, a day after the newspaper was banned by a court in Almaty, the economic capital, in a hearing without any members of its staff present.

"The Kazakh courts are pressing on with the job of eliminating the remaining opposition news outlets," said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

"The ban on the Assandi Times is an illegal decision by a justice system that follows the government's orders. The lack of independence of the judges is so blatant that they have long been flouting legal procedure by holding hearings in absentia, trampling on defence rights and arbitrarily lumping different newspapers together. Only by overturning this decision on appeal will the Kazakh justice system show that any vestige of independence and impartiality survives."

The newspaper's staff was stunned by the arrival of court bailiffs yesterday morning. Editor Sergei Duvanov and deputy editor Oksana Makushina told Reporters Without Borders they had not been notified of the judicial proceedings and had not been invited to attend the hearing.

The bailiffs initially tried to make all the journalists leave and put the entire premises under seal, but the staff resisted because the bailiffs had no official document. In the end, just one room was sealed and the journalists are continuing to work in the adjoining rooms after making the bailiffs accept that, legally, they have ten days to appeal against the court's closure order.

The court order treats the Assandi Times as being one of the offshoots of the opposition newspaper Respublika, which were banned for "extremism" in December 2012. While some of the Assandi Times' employees used to work for Respublika, they are legally quite distinct.

The Assandi Times was created after Respublika's closure and is not on the list of opposition news outlets – eight newspapers and 23 websites – that were banned at the end of 2012. They were convicted of "extremism" on the basis of evidence presented at the November 2012 trial of Vladimir Kozlov, a government opponent, at which none of the journalists concerned were represented.

Other critical media have been banned in a series of sham hearings since then. An Almaty court ordered the closure of the opposition newspaper Pravdivaya Gazeta at the end of February. An appeal against the closure is to be heard on 11 April. Reporters Without Borders learned on 24 March that Natalia Sadykova, a journalist being investigated on a trumped-up charge of defamation, had fled abroad. A warrant has been issued for her arrest

Prior censorship during rioting

Just before announcing its resignation yesterday, the government published a decree dated 28 January reinforcing the measures that can be taken in "emergency situations of a social nature". Widely used in former Soviet countries, this term is much broader that a state of emergency and covers all forms of social unrest, including riots, local or regional conflicts, strikes and large demonstrations.

In such situations, all the media in the areas affected will henceforth be subject to prior censorship. News media will be required to submit each newspaper issue or programme to the competent authorities "for approval of content" 24 hours before publication or broadcast.

When such a long lead time is impossible, for example, with news bulletins, submission just before broadcast will be allowed. Failure to comply could result in closure. The decree also provides for the suspension of the activities of political parties or NGOs that "prevent" a return to normality.

Bihr added: "We can only wonder about the goal of these draconian measures and their extremely belated publication. It is hard to see what gap in Kazakhstan's legislation this decree is meant to fill. Given the elasticity of the concept of ‘emergency situation,' prior censorship just offers the increasingly authoritarian regime an additional way to control information. What little was left of media freedom in Kazakhstan has been reduced still further."

The decree echoes proposals announced by the information minister in September 2012, which Reporters Without Borders regarded as very dangerous, and seems designed to address situations like the December 2011 rioting in Zhanaozen, which led to unprecedented censorship and to the regime adopting its current ultra-authoritarian course.

(Photos : STR/AFP, AFP/Viktor Drachev)