Reporters Without Borders condemns the media and communications blackout that has been imposed on the western province of Mangystau, especially the city of Zhanaozen, following deadly clashes between protesters and police there on 16 December.
“The strict control of news and information that the Kazakh authorities are trying to maintain is intolerable,” Reporters Without Borders said. “If they want to prove that they are as ‘open’ and ‘transparent’ as they claim, they must immediately lift the many restrictions that have been imposed on journalists, do everything necessary to restore communications with Mangystau province and end Internet censorship.
“The international community must not remain indifferent to such unacceptable practices by a government that held the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s rotating presidency in 2010.”
Three days after the outbreak of the deadly unrest, it is still hard to obtain information about what really happened and about the current situation. Zhanaozen, the epicentre of the protests, and the surrounding towns continue to be without telecommunications and Internet connections and are cut off from the outside world. Officially, this has been attributed to damaged cables.
Kazis Toguzbayev, a reporter for Radio Azattyk (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Kazakh- language service), told Reporters Without Borders that all connections have been severed from about Zhetybai, a town 65 km outside Zhanaozen, onwards. Sending or receiving SMS messages or mobile phone Internet connections are impossible in the rest of the region, including Aktau, the provincial capital, where tense demonstrations have taken place.
Twitter was restored on 17 December after been suspended throughout the country on the first day of the riots but several leading news websites continue to be inaccessible, including Guljan.org, the Russian citizen news agency Ridus.ru, and the site of the opposition newspaper Respublika. Several sources said YouTube was partially blocked last weekend, especially the independent satellite TV station K+’s account.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has declared a 20-day state of emergency in Zhanaozen and checkpoints have been set up around both Zhanaozen and Aktau. Journalists cannot enter Zhanaozen without accreditation from the provincial government. The first journalists to enter the city were escorted everywhere by soldiers. They said the streets were almost deserted aside from the heavily armed men patrolling them. In these circumstances, it is very hard to talk to residents, who for the most part are saying nothing.
“A few women venture on to the streets, but hardly any men because they are immediately stopped and searched,” a reporter said. “The soldiers allowed us to visit the hospital and the morgue, but not to cover the funerals of people who had been shot (...) In Aktau, the special forces keeping demonstrators under surveillance refused to answer our questions. We wanted to know why they are equipped with automatic firearms instead of non-lethal weapons such as water cannon.”
The authorities are now trying to monitor and control journalists rather than prevent them from working altogether, as they did during the first few days. Vladimir Solovyev, a reporter with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, photographer Vasily Shaposhnikov andLenta.ru correspondent Ilya Azar were detained for several hours at a Zhanaozen police station on 18 December for “contravening the state of emergency.” The content of their computers, USB flash drives and audio recorders was closely examined.
Special forces imposed severe restrictions on the movements of reporters from Stan TV, Radio Azattyk, Associated Press and Al-Jazeera on 18 December when they went to Shetpe, another town in the province, where clashes at its station the previous day left a toll of one dead and 11 injured.
The blogger Murat Tungishbayev was roughed up and threatened when he tried to film a police check. “Two members of the special forces asked me to delete what I had filmed,” he told Reporters Without Borders. “When I refused, they forced me to the ground and put a gun to my temple. Then they hit me and confiscated my identity documents.” He got his ID papers back later the same day.
The clashes began in Zhanaozen on 16 December when oil workers who have been on strike for months disrupted celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence. In still unclear circumstance, the police fired live rounds on a crowd of demonstrators, triggering riots throughout the city in which many government buildings were set on fire. Officially, the toll was 13 confirmed dead but other sources say it was much higher.
On the next day there were violent clashes at Shetpe station, where strikers tried to block the rail line, and in other surrounding villages. The atmosphere is extremely tense in Aktau, the province’s largest city, where there have been demonstrations in support of the strikers for the past two days.
The media freedom situation has deteriorated considerable this year in Kazakhstan, where unrest is growing. The strikes and protests in Mangystau have being going on for more than six months, despite a heavy-handed crackdown. The growing harassment of independent news media is linked in large part to the autocratic government’s desire to restrict coverage of this problem.
(Photo: Vasily Shaposhnikov/ Kommersant/ AFP)