Reporters Without Borders condemns a wave of harassment of news media and journalists critical of a proposed referendum that would allow President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled since 1989, to continue in office until 2020 without having to run for reelection in 2012.
“This attempt to perpetuate a dictatorial regime in flagrant violation of basic democratic principles is liable to be accompanied by more repression of critical media and a sharp deterioration in freedom of expression,” Reporters Without Borders said. “As Nazarbayev himself is officially said to be opposed to the referendum, it is astonishing that all those who try to criticize it are immediately silenced.”
The press freedom organization added: “The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Kazakhstan held the rotatating presidency in 2010, must move urgently to protect media freedom and to press the Kazakh authorities to stop all forms of abusive treatment of journalists.”
The idea of a national referendum to extend the president’s mandate was launched by a group of Nazarbayev supporters in December and was adopted unanimously by parliament on 14 January. To be held in March, the referendum is needed to approve the required changes to the constitution. All attempts to protest against this initiative have been firmly suppressed.
A truck distributing the latest issue of the leading opposition weekly Golos Respubliki (usually referred to in Kazakhstan as Respublika) was intercepted at 2 a.m. on 14 January by police and members of the Internal Affairs Department (UVD), accompanied by a prosecutor, who seized the 3,000 copies they found on the grounds that it was “disseminating illegal information.” Members of the newspaper’s staff who were in the truck were taken to police headquarters in Almaty and then released. Fortunately, the police failed to find most of the print-run and the other 19,000 copies were distributed. According to members of the staff, the seizure was prompted by articles critical of the proposed referendum and alleged government corruption.
Golos Respubliki editor Tatyana Trubacheva said her newspaper has been hounded for more than a year: “This is the continuation of the harassment to which our newspaper has been subjected. We were forced to close Respublika after the BTA bank’s lawsuit, which virtually bankrupted us. Then they took away the permit we had for Moya Respublika, which was mislaid in the press ministry’s files. The harassment of Golos Respubliki is now been stepped up. The newspaper has been published online for the past year and half. Now we are encountering problems in distributing the print version in Kazakhstan.
“We send the newspaper’s online version to our readers by email but the Internet does not exist in many regions and in certain villages. Banning distribution is the next stage in the process of eliminating Respublika in all of its various manifestations. The harassment has increased since the end of 2010, when Kazakhstan ceased to preside the OSCE. This is why we are seeking help in order to save the newspaper and keep offering people the possibility of reading alternative news and information.”
The harassment that Golos Respubliki is experiencing is typical of the pressure that is put on news media and journalists whose views and news coverage are at variance with the government’s.
Six journalists who were protesting against the referendum in the northwestern city of Uralsk on 6 January were arrested and fined the equivalent of 10 to 15 months in salary (100 to 150 euros). Two of them, Uralskaya Nedelya reporter Lukpana Akhmedyarova and Nadejda reporter Sanat Urnalyev, were held for five days for allegedly resisting arrest.
Members of the NGO Rukh Pen Til, including the journalist Inga Imanbayeva, were briefly detained on 11 January for enacting the “burial of democracy” in protest against the extension of the president’s mandate.
Journalists in Distress, a Reporters Without Borders partner organization, meanwhile held a news conference on 11 January in support of journalists who have been jailed in Kazakhstan. Particular attention was drawn to the case of Alma-Ata Info editor Ramazan Esergepov, who was arrested on 6 January 2009 by members of the National Security Committee (KNB) and has been held ever since despite serious health problems.
Sentenced to three years in prison on 8 August 2009, at the end of a trial accompanied by serious irregularities, he qualified for parole last August on completing a third of his sentence. Reporters Without Borders condemns the refusal to release him and reiterates its appeal to the authorities to respect his rights and to free him.
The Journalists in Distress news conference also cited the cases of Alpamuis Bekturguanov and Kamalitdin Dulatov, who were freed in 2010 after being held for a year, and Tokberguen Abiyev and Mukhtar Mukhambetjan, who are still being held. At the end of the news conference, the participants began a silent street procession displaying the names of the detained journalists but it was cut short by police and a prosecutor within three minutes, and the participants were briefly detained.
Reporters Without Borders regards the protest as a commendable initiative and is shocked that the authorities stopped this restrained and silent demonstration in support of imprisoned journalists and carried out arrests.
The press freedom situation in Kazakhstan has become much worse in the past year. Rozlana Taukina, the president of Journalists in Distress and Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent, said: “The trend is towards more harassment of media that criticize and oppose the authorities. The government is seeking complete and unanimous support for the referendum extending the president’s mandate for another 10 years. That is why it is trying to eliminate the alternative media. The repression is going to increase.”
The OSCE and European Union need to act quickly to check the decline in media freedom in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia.