December 19, 2011 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Western province cut off as government cracks down on protests

Reporters Without Borders condemns the media and communications blackout that has been
imposed on the western province of Mangystau, especially the city of Zhanaozen, following
deadly clashes between protesters and police there on 16 December.

“The strict control of news and information that the Kazakh authorities are trying to maintain
is intolerable,” Reporters Without Borders said. “If they want to prove that they are as ‘open’
and ‘transparent’ as they claim, they must immediately lift the many restrictions that have been
imposed on journalists, do everything necessary to restore communications with Mangystau
province and end Internet censorship.

“The international community must not remain indifferent to such unacceptable practices by
a government that held the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s rotating
presidency in 2010.”

Three days after the outbreak of the deadly unrest, it is still hard to obtain information about what
really happened and about the current situation. Zhanaozen, the epicentre of the protests, and
the surrounding towns continue to be without telecommunications and Internet connections and
are cut off from the outside world. Officially, this has been attributed to damaged cables.

Kazis Toguzbayev, a reporter for Radio Azattyk (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Kazakh-
language service), told Reporters Without Borders that all connections have been severed from
about Zhetybai, a town 65 km outside Zhanaozen, onwards. Sending or receiving SMS messages
or mobile phone Internet connections are impossible in the rest of the region, including Aktau, the
provincial capital, where tense demonstrations have taken place.

Twitter was restored on 17 December after been suspended throughout the country on the
first day of the riots but several leading news websites continue to be inaccessible, including, the Russian citizen news agency, and the site of the opposition newspaper
Respublika. Several sources said YouTube was partially blocked last weekend, especially the
independent satellite TV station K+’s account.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev has declared a 20-day state of emergency in Zhanaozen and
checkpoints have been set up around both Zhanaozen and Aktau. Journalists cannot enter
Zhanaozen without accreditation from the provincial government. The first journalists to enter the
city were escorted everywhere by soldiers. They said the streets were almost deserted aside from
the heavily armed men patrolling them. In these circumstances, it is very hard to talk to residents,
who for the most part are saying nothing.

“A few women venture on to the streets, but hardly any men because they are immediately
stopped and searched,” a reporter said. “The soldiers allowed us to visit the hospital and the
, but not to cover the funerals of people who had been shot (...) In Aktau, the special
forces keeping demonstrators under surveillance refused to answer our questions. We wanted
to know why they are equipped with automatic firearms instead of non-lethal weapons such as
water cannon.”

The authorities are now trying to monitor and control journalists rather than prevent them
from working altogether, as they did during the first few days. Vladimir Solovyev, a reporter
with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, photographer Vasily Shaposhnikov and
correspondent Ilya Azar were detained for several hours at a Zhanaozen police station on 18
December for “contravening the state of emergency.” The content of their computers, USB flash
drives and audio recorders was closely examined.

Special forces imposed severe restrictions on the movements of reporters from Stan TV, Radio
Azattyk, Associated Press
and Al-Jazeera on 18 December when they went to Shetpe, another
town in the province, where clashes at its station the previous day left a toll of one dead and 11

The blogger Murat Tungishbayev was roughed up and threatened when he tried to film a
police check. “Two members of the special forces asked me to delete what I had filmed,” he told
Reporters Without Borders. “When I refused, they forced me to the ground and put a gun to my
temple. Then they hit me and confiscated my identity documents.” He got his ID papers back later
the same day.

The clashes began in Zhanaozen on 16 December when oil workers who have been on strike for
months disrupted celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence. In
still unclear circumstance, the police fired live rounds on a crowd of demonstrators, triggering riots
throughout the city in which many government buildings were set on fire. Officially, the toll was 13
confirmed dead but other sources say it was much higher.

On the next day there were violent clashes at Shetpe station, where strikers tried to block the
rail line, and in other surrounding villages. The atmosphere is extremely tense in Aktau, the
province’s largest city, where there have been demonstrations in support of the strikers for the
past two days.

The media freedom situation has deteriorated considerable this year in Kazakhstan, where
unrest is growing. The strikes and protests in Mangystau have being going on for more than six
months, despite a heavy-handed crackdown. The growing harassment of independent news
media is linked in large part to the autocratic government’s desire to restrict coverage of this

(Photo: Vasily Shaposhnikov/ Kommersant/ AFP)