(Berlin) – A court on April 21, 2014, ordered the closure of one of Kazakhstan’s few remaining independent newspapers, Human Rights Watch said today. The order compounds other measures in recent weeks to tighten controls over freedom of expression and the media. Kazakh authorities should immediately seek to set aside the court order prohibiting the Assandi Times from publishing.
The Almaty court ruled that the Assandi Times, a weekly newspaper with a national circulation of about 7,500, should cease publication as it was a part of Respublika, a newspaper that was banned in December 2012. In recent months, several other newspapers have been suspended or closed down in unrelated cases, including Pravdivaya Gazeta at the end of February.
“This absurd case displays the lengths to which Kazakh authorities are willing to go to bully critical media into silence,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Union and the United States should make it clear that they will not sit quietly as the Kazakh authorities muzzle what’s left of Kazakhstan’s independent and opposition media.”
Respublika and its affiliate newspapers and websites were shut down in December 2012 after various courts ruled that they constituted a single media entity and that they “incite(d) social discord” and “propagandize(d) the violent overthrow of government.” Respublika had covered the prolonged oil workers’ strike in 2011 and the related violent clashes that broke out in Zhanaozen, in Western Kazakhstan, in December 2011.
The Assandi Times was not informed of the case against it until April 2, when court bailiffs came to the newspaper’s office and confiscated all the hard copies of the paper in the office, Oksana Makushina, a journalist at the Assandi Times, told Human Rights Watch. The bailiffs cited an April 1 court order suspending the publication or distribution of the Assandi Times pending the court’s consideration of a lawsuit to shut it down. Makushina also told Human Rights Watch that none of the staff had been notified of the lawsuit, or of the April 1 order, so the Assandi Times was not able to defend itself at the initial hearing.
During an April 15 hearing, which a member of Human Rights Watch staff attended, the prosecutor contended that the Assandi Times should be considered the same entity as Respublika, and shut it down on that basis. The prosecutor said that several journalists who had worked for Respublika now work for the Assandi Times, that the Assandi Times’s editorial board has several members in common with the former Respublika editorial board, and that several of the same articles had been published in both newspapers. None of this violates the law. The prosecutor did not present any evidence of wrongdoing.
“Shutting down the Assandi Times because of its links to Respublika rather than because of specific wrongdoing is clearly an attempt to punish particular critical views,” Williamson said. “The shutdown order amounts to a de facto ban on the journalists themselves.”
The action against the Assandi Times takes place amid a broader crackdown on freedom of expression and media in Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 15, police tried to prevent journalists in Astana from covering a peaceful protest outside the prosecutor general’s office by blocking them from filming or taking pictures and pushing them away from the scene, leaving Viktor Guzd, a journalist with the web-based video portal 16/12, with a wound on his forehead. He told other reporters at the scene who were filming that officers had twisted his arms and forced him to turn off his video camera.
On April 12, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, the editor-in-chief of Uralskaya Nedelya (Urals Weekly), an independent newspaper in western Kazakhstan, was quoted in the media as saying that Internet users in Kazakhstan could not access the newspaper’s website. Akhmedyarov expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that the paper may have been targeted after it provided coverage of a forum critical of Kazakhstan’s membership in the Eurasian Customs Union. After several days, the website became accessible again.
Journalists in Kazakhstan have frequently faced defamation lawsuits and heavy fines. In mid-March, though, prosecutors took the unprecedented step of charging Natalya Sadykova, an Assandi Times journalist formerly based in Aktobe, a town in western Kazakhstan, with criminal libel. The charges carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Media reports said that a former member of parliament accused Sadykova of libel and sued her for moral damages, alleging that she had written an article in Respublika in December 2013 under the pseudonym Bakhyt Ilyasova falsely implicating him in corruption. Fearing criminal prosecution, Sadykova left Kazakhstan with her family in early March. On March 17, a warrant was issued for her arrest. In an interview published on Forbes.kz after Sadykova left Kazakhstan, she denied writing the article.
“Journalists in Kazakhstan are already under enormous pressure,” Williamson said. “But instead of protecting journalists from harassment and undue restrictions on their important work, Kazakh authorities are contorting the law to use it against them.”
Human Rights Watch and other local and international rights organizations, including Adil Soz, have called on the Kazakh authorities to decriminalize libel.
Yet the country’s proposed new criminal code, which passed its second reading in parliament on April 9, not only retains criminal libel but increases penalties for the offense. For example, under article 130, part 1, the draft code introduces a penalty of imprisonment for up to one year and increases the maximum fine from 200 monthly indices (US$2,270) to 1,000 ($11,350).
The draft criminal code also introduces stiffer penalties for insulting public officials, introduces criminal liability for “spreading false information,” and expands the scope of the vague and overbroad charge of “inciting social discord,” among other restrictive amendments. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has expressed concern about provisions in the criminal code on defamation of public officials and has called on Kazakhstan to bring its legislation in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Each of these provisions puts journalists and others at risk of criminal prosecution for investigative reporting into sensitive issues, such as corruption, human rights abuses, and criticism of the government or high-ranking politicians, vital functions of the press, Human Rights Watch said.
A new implementing decree related to Kazakhstan’s state of emergency law allows censorship during times of emergency. The decree, which went into effect on April 12, allows Kazakh authorities to review print, radio, and television material before publication, and to suspend or terminate media publications during states of emergency with minimal judicial oversight.
On April 11, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s representative on media freedom, Dunja Mijatović, expressed serious concern about these legislative changes as well as about an amendment to the law on communications that “might result in undue restrictions of public debate in the media and access to the Internet.” Mijatović called on Kazakh authorities “to reconsider these changes.”
“By backtracking on legal guarantees for free speech, the Kazakh government is undermining one of the basic pillars of a free society,” Williamson said. “The authorities should end their relentless assault on free speech and let Kazakhstan’s people write and speak as everyone in a democratic society is entitled to expect.”