March 19, 2016 - Updated on March 21, 2016

No free press means no free elections in Kazakhstan

The campaign for tomorrow’s parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan was marked by the lack of an alternative to the ruling party – a lack of pluralism that also characterizes the Kazakh media landscape.

The witchhunt against critical media is not letting up in Kazakhstan, which is ranked 160th out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index. Made paranoid by the economic crisis and the advanced age of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president since independence in 1991, the authorities have been steadily reinforcing their media and information monopoly.

“Independent media are indispensible for a democratic debate and, without them, no election is credible,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“We urge the international community to draw the necessary conclusions from this predictable farce. It would be disgraceful if the European Union, in particular, were to ratify its Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan when this country is openly violating its own undertakings.”

Imprisoned journalists

Guzal Baidalinova, the editor of the independent news website, has been held for nearly three months in the southern city of Almaty on a trumped-up charge of spreading false news about the Kazkommertsbank. Her lawyer, who says he has not yet been allowed access to her case file, fears that that her provisional detention will be extended when the current period expires on 23 March.

A reporter, Yulia Kozlova, was meanwhile finally acquitted and released on 29 February after being arrested on a trumped-up drug possession charge last December.

Encouraged by the way national media outlets are persecuted, provincial strongmen do not hesitate to silence troublesome journalists either. In the northeastern city of Pavlodar, local newspaper editor Yaroslav Golyshkin’s sentence to eight years in prison and confiscation of his property was upheld on appeal on 23 February.

Convicted on charges of blackmail and extortion, Golyshkin is one of the scapegoats of a spectacular scandal involving the regional governor’s son. The Pavlodar court took two days to reject his appeal, which was heard in his absence. His lawyer is now preparing to appeal to a national court in the hope that it could prove more neutral and less sympathetic to the governor than the local court.

Stifled media outlets, controlled Internet

The only remaining independent, Kazakh-language national newspaper, the daily Jas Alash, was ordered to pay 40 million tenge (more than 100,000 euros) in libel damages to the director of a clinic on appeal on 4 March. This ruinous damages award, which threatens the newspaper’s survival, is a method that has been used systematically against independent media outlets in recent years.

In late October, the authorities got the better of the opposition newspaper ADAM, previous versions of which had been published year after year only to be always banned. Tired of this cat-and-mouse game, owner Guljan Yergaliyeva has decided for the time being not to publish any more versions.

The Kazakh Internet has long ceased to function as space for free expression. Since 26 January, Internet users and access providers have to get a “national security certificate” from state-owned Kazakhtelecom that gives the authorities direct access to their connection data and allow them to decrypt encrypted traffic. The list of activists who have been given jail terms for their Facebook posts includes Yermek Narymbayev, Serikhan Mambetalin and Bolatbek Bialov.

The already fraught climate for the media in Kazakhstan became suffocating after the bloody crackdown on rioting in Zhanaozen in December 2011 and the closure of all the leading national opposition newspapers a year later.

(Photo: AFP photo / Stanislav Filippov)