Reporters Without Borders condemns a 21 April ruling by a court in the western city of Ural ordering a local newspaper, Uralskaya Nedela (Ural Week), and one of its reporters, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, to pay 20 million tenges (136,000 dollars) in damages to an oil industry company, especially as the size of the award could force the weekly to close.
The press freedom organisation supports the newspaper’s decision to appeal and hopes that the ruling will be overturned or that, at the very least, the size of the damages award will be reduced significantly.
In an article headlined “Hidden invitations to tender” that was published on 6 August 2009, Akhmedyarov criticised the fact that the company Tengizneftestoy seemed to be so sure of winning a contract that it began assembling equipment and workers before companies had been asked to submit bids.
Tengizneftestoy acknowledged during the trial that it had acted as Akhmedyarov claimed but nonetheless insisted it had been defamed by the article. Reporters Without Borders is puzzled by the verdict. Why has the newspaper been found guilty if it reported the facts correctly? The article simply provided information with no defamatory content.
Reporters Without Borders is particularly shocked by the size of the damages, even if less that the amount demanded by the company. The court was clearly aware that it would have the almost certain effect of bankrupting the newspaper. Reporters Without Borders believes the aim was to silence it for good.
An administrative court in the southern city of Almaty meanwhile fined Guljan Ergalyeva, the editor of newspaper Svoboda Slova (Free Expression), 250 dollars on 23 April for depositing flowers at the independence monument in the city’s main square and for talking about the importance of freedom of expression and assembly during a banned demonstration on 17 April by the opposition party Azat after its congress. The court accused her of organising the demonstration. Reporters Without Borders regards the fine as disproportionate.
Two members of the “For a free Internet” movement appeared in court on 23 April for participating in a “flash-mob” protest against the telecommunications company Kazakhtelecom, which blocks access to websites without having the authority to take such action. Irina Mednikova got a warning while Zhanna Baytelovoy, the alleged organiser, was fined under article 373 of the administrative code.
Reporters Without Borders urges the Kazakh judicial authorities to overturn all of these rulings. As holder of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s rotating presidency, Kazakhstan should make an effort to bring its legislation and judicial practices into line with international standards.