Crackdown of the independent media is an obvious attempt by the government to stifle critical voices in Kazakhstan, international free speech organizations evaluate unanimously.
Crackdown on oposition media
On 4 December 2012 the Bostandyk District Court in Almaty banned Stan.tv and prohibited all media, including online outlets, from distributing its content.
On 21 November courts in Kazakhstan banned the publication and distribution of Golos Respubliki and Vzglyad, their affiliated newspapers and online content. These orders have shut down each of the media outlets before courts have even reviewed the allegations against them, Human Rights Watch reports.
On 6 December, proceedings were initiated against the newspaper Golos Respubliki. On 12 December a court in Almaty has fined Tatyana Trubacheva, above, the editor in chief of Golos Respubliki, for placing her written material in the Azat (Free) newspaper on November 30, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) informs. Trubacheva says she will appeal the decision by the court.
In a separate case, in response to a suit filed by a district prosecutor in Almaty, another Almaty court suspended the activities of Guljan.org, an online news portal, and blocked access to the site in Kazakhstan for three months.
Banned for „extremist propaganda“
All four media outlets Stan.tv, K-Plus, Golos Respubliki and Vzglyad have been suspended since 22 November, two days after the Almaty Prosecutor’s Office sought their closure for “extremist propaganda” because of their reporting of the Zhanaozen strikes in December 2011 which had been critical of the government.
According to Article 19, this harassment of media outlets is part of a government crackdown on dissent following the Zhanaozen oil workers strikes, leading up to violent clashes between between police and protesters on 16 December 2011.
The clashes between striking oil workers, other people, and the police took place on Kazakhstan’s Independence Day on Zhanaozen’s central square. Police and government troops opened fire in response to the clashes and subsequent mayhem. 12 people were killed, three other died.
In October 2012, Vladimir Kozlov, below, the leader of the Kazakh opposition movement Alga!, was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison on charges of violence during the strikes.
The verdict against Kozlov named various media outlets, describing them as “extremist”. The newspaper Respublika petitioned the Court to remove this reference from the verdict but was unsuccessful.
Politically motivated measures
On 20 November 2012, the Almaty Prosecutor’s Office in Kazakhstan requested that the Almaty City Court ban four independent media outlets for reporting “extremist propaganda”. On the same day the Medeu District Court in Almaty suspended all four media outlets from publishing pending Court proceedings to determine their fate. Internet sites containing content from these media outlets have also been blocked, including Facebook pages.
It is alleged that these media “incited social hatred” and “called for the violent overthrow of constitutional order”.
“The Kazakh government is clearly intensifying its year-long clampdown on free speech under the umbrella of the vague and overreaching charge of “ inciting social discord“ and the pretext of state security,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
ARTICLE 19 believes that the suspension of these four media outlets are all politically motivated. These measures clearly violate international standards on the right to freedom of expression and seriously threaten to erode further the independence and plurality of the media in Kazakhstan.
From the outset, the proceedings have been marked by so many irregularities and inconsistencies that the fairness of the decision is highly questionable, Reporters Without Borders remark.
Extremism law will lead to challenge under ICCPR
ARTICLE 19 pays attention to the fact that the extremism law and the criminal law provisions for incitement to social hatred are vague and overly broad. It is unclear what is meant by “social hatred” because, unlike race, nation, or religion, social hatred can mean anything to do with individuals or groups. The laws do not give clear and precise information about what is prohibited, which leaves them open to arbitrary interpretation and potential abuse.
ARTICLE 19 also believes that these laws are being applied in a manner which will inevitably and undoubtedly lead to challenges under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
International law requires States to consider the necessity of restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. It also sets out a test for examining the legitimacy of any restriction on the grounds of protecting national security and public order. The Kazakh criminal law provisions, which criminalise incitement to social hatred and calls for the violent overthrow of the government, do not include such safeguards for freedom of expression, ARTICLE 19 notes.
The organization is also concerned about the manner in which the prosecution initiated these proceedings was politically motivated and is a violation of the rule of law. ARTICLE 19 considers that it is an abuse of the Prosecutors’ powers to initiate proceedings to ban media outlets in connection with articles which were published and broadcast a year ago.
Had there been evidence of extremism and incitement to social hatred by the media outlets, the Prosecutors should have acted immediately. They should not have used a Court decision which is unrelated to the activities of the media outlets. ARTICLE 19 believes that there is no social need to restrict the freedom of the media in this case.
ARTICLE 19 also believes that the Prosecutor is requesting disproportionate restrictions. A ban is severe and should be used only in the most serious of circumstances – that is, when other less restrictive measures have failed to protect the rights of others, or national security and public order. The closure of media outlets for the defamation of public officials is a grossly disproportionate response.
The London based organization views the banning of the four media outlets as an act of political control over Kazakh media. ARTICLE 19 is concerned that this action aims to scare the media and that it will lead to self-censorship and decrease media pluralism in Kazakhstan.
Zhanaozen – the wound still bleeds
In the year since the Zhanaozen violence, dozens of people have been convicted for allegedly bearing responsibility for the disturbances, despite serious and credible claims of torture by many of them. Human Rights Watch claims that the authorities have failed to carry out effective investigations into the torture allegations. The organization provides evidences of convictions of „guilty“.
In recent months lawyers and civil society activists who have been providing legal advice to those who suffered in Zhanaozen were temporarily sentenced on various accusations like for “petty hooliganism” and “resisting police officers”.