What with arbitrary arrests, police violence, blocked telecommunications and Internet cuts – after four days of massive protests triggered by a fuel price hike and after the declaration of a state of emergency yesterday evening, journalists and media outlets trying to cover the protests continue to be the victims of the regime’s persecution.
Authorities trying to control news coverage have stepped up attacks on independent journalists in the past two days.
“The authorities are sparing no effort to control information about the protests and limit media coverage,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “This unrest must not serve as a pretext for censoring the media – quite the contrary. We call on President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to immediately restore access to the Internet and to blocked websites, and to allow journalists to operate freely, without fear of the police, so that they can cover a protest movement that is already historic in its scope.”
Physical attacks and intimidation
Many reporters wearing press vests have been arrested for no reason except that they were witnessing police violence against demonstrators.
They included Darkhan Umirbekov, who was covering the demonstrations in the capital, Nur-Sultan, for Radio Azattyq, the Kazakh service of the Prague-based US public broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Arrested on the evening of 4 January, he remained in police custody for four and a half hours. Claiming that he was just a “witness” having a “conversation” with the judicial authorities, the police prevented him from seeing his lawyer for more than two hours, she reported on the air to RFE/RL.
Kasym Amanzhol, Radio Azattyq’s Almaty bureau chief, was briefly detained along with several demonstrators earlier in the day on 4 January although he identified himself as a journalist to the police.
In Mangystau, the southwestern region where the protests began, three reporters were detained after the group of demonstrators they were filming were arrested. Two of them – Daniyar Alimkul, a local reporter for Channel 7, and Nurbolat Zhanabekuly, a local reporter for Channel 31 – were soon released but the police kept Aizhan Auelbekova, a reporter for the Vremya newspaper, in custody, colleagues said.
In the western city of Oral, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, the editor of the regional weekly Uralskaya Nedelya, was questioned for several hours about his alleged “implication in extremist activities.”
Aside from these arbitrary arrests, journalists have also been subjected to physical attacks and intimidation. Leonid Raskazov, a reporter covering the protests in Almaty for the Orda.kz news site, was struck in the back by a rubber bullet yesterday. Fellow reporter Bek Baytasov was wounded in the face by a stun grenade explosion.
Although the police strategy has been to target both journalists and protesters, journalists have also been targeted by the protesters themselves. Participants in one demonstration tried to grab the camera of a KazTag news agency crew and threatened to throw a cobblestone at them as they chased them away.
At the same time, the authorities have also clamped down on online media, the only ones normally able to provide unrestricted news coverage in Kazakhstan. The interior ministry blocked access to the Orda.kz and KazTag websites on the afternoon of 4 January after they published articles referring to police violence, as RSF reported at the time.
Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal all ceased to function at the start of the evening of 4 January. And the Internet was completely suspended throughout the country at around 1 p.m. yesterday, to the point that it was even impossible to connect using VPNs or other circumvention methods, according to the specialist NGO Netblocks. Internet access was temporarily restored in the evening – during a televised address by President Tokayev.
In response to the protests, in which several government buildings have been set on fire, Tokayev has had to dismiss his cabinet and request military assistance from Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Russia dispatched an initial contingent of “peacekeepers” today. Dozens of people have been killed and thousands wounded in the course of the clashes between police and protesters during the past few days.
Kazakhstan is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.