Kazakhstan escalates harassment of media, confines blogger to clinic

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for an end to the harassment of media and journalists in Kazakhstan, where – in the past few days – the authorities have searched two independent media outlets, blocked a news website, briefly detained four journalists and confined a woman blogger to a psychiatric clinic.

This latest crackdown has come amid growing tension among the Kazakh elite about who will succeed the country’s president for the past three decades, 77-year-old “Leader of the Nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev. The rivalry between various elite factions and the government's paranoia keep on having repercussions for the Kazakh media, from which the opposition media have long been purged.

Much of the equipment at the headquarters of the magazine Forbes Kazakhstan and the news website Ratel.kz was seized during raids in Almaty, the business capital, on 2 April. Access to the Ratel.kz site has been blocked and four journalists who were briefly arrested are now facing the possibility of up to five years in prison in connection with their coverage of alleged corruption involving a former minister.

The blogger, Ardak Ashim, was forcibly confined to a psychiatric clinic in the southern city of Shymkent on 31 March in connection with her popular blog posts criticizing the authorities.

“The persecution of Forbes Kazakhstan, Ratel.kz and Ardak Ashim sends a chilling message to all Kazakh journalists,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Cracking down on the media will not resolve the uncertainties the country faces. It’s high time the Kazakh authorities stopped harassing journalists and bloggers.”

Arrests and searches

Many computers, phones and files were seized in the raids on Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel.kz. Forbes Kazakhstan deputy editor Alexander Vorotilov was arrested as were Ratel.kz editor Marat Asipov, his deputy, Sapa Mekebayev, and one of his reporters, Anna Kalashnikova.

All were released that evening after questioning. The homes of these journalists were also raided and searched, as was the apartment of Ratel.kz founder Gennady Benditsky, who died in December.

The authorities confirmed yesterday that the two media outlets were the subject of a complaint accusing them of “disseminating false news,” a charge that carries a possible five-year jail sentence. It was filed by Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, a former finance minister who has been the subject of a series of articles about his alleged role in various corruption cases.

Kakimzhanov has repeatedly sued media outlets in recent years. Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel.kz were already ordered to pay record damages of 50 million tenge (128,000 euros) in April 2017 and to delete their articles about him. The case was held behind close doors and the defendants were banned from covering it or even commenting on it on social networks. Although the journalists insisted that their stories were based on official, public records, the damages were confirmed on appeal.

As a business magazine, Forbes Kazakhstan is not regarded as particularly critical of the authorities. Ratel.kz has already been repeatedly blocked in Kazakhstan and is one of the country’s most popular sites.

The latest blocking began on 30 March in response to a complaint against the editor by a local prosecutor. No one from Ratel.kz was summoned to attend the hearing at which the blocking was ordered. Ratel.kz continued to post stories on its Facebook page until that was blocked today.

Psychiatric clinic

The treatment of Ashim, a blogger and economist, recalls the Soviet era’s worst repressive methods. She responded to a summons to report to a police station in Shymkent on 31 March and, after arriving, a police inspector notified her of a court order confining her to a psychiatric clinic, to which she was taken directly from the police station.

The authorities briefly detained Ashim and searched her home in mid-March as part of an investigation into alleged “incitement of hatred.” A local judge told she was being investigated for “negative articles about the authorities” that she had reportedly posted on Facebook.

Ashim’s blogging about violations of human rights and the rule of law has long been popular in the south of the country. She attracted attention at the national level in February by protesting against a proposed government tax on self-employed workers.

The leading national opposition media were all closed in Kazakhstan in 2012. It is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 04.04.2018