(Bishkek) – The February 26, 2015 decision by an Almaty appeals court to uphold an order to close a media outlet known for its critical articles weakens media pluralism in Kazakhstan.
ADAM bol (“Be A Person”), an independent weekly, is the latest media outlet to be shuttered in Kazakhstan since late 2012, when authorities began a concerted crackdown on free speech and critical voices in the country.
“With the decision to close ADAM bol, Kazakh authorities have taken another swipe at silencing independent and opposition media,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately reverse course, lift unnecessary restrictions on journalists, and allow the closed media outlets to reopen.”
The closure of ADAM bol stemmed from a November 18, 2014 lawsuit by the Almaty mayor’s office’s Department of Internal Policies. The mayor’s office claimed that an article published in late August 2014 about the conflict in Ukraine “contains attributes of war propaganda and agitation,” violating article 20 of Kazakhstan’s constitution, which prohibits propagandizing for war.
On November 20 an Almaty court issued an injunction suspending publication of the journal and halting the distribution of the latest print edition, and on December 24, the court stripped ADAM bol of its media license and shut it down. The court delivered its ruling toward midnight, in the absence of either the publication’s lawyer or a staff representative.
In a statement on November 26, the media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, called the suspension of the journal and confiscation of printed copies “drastic and disproportionate measures … which endanger pluralism in Kazakhstan and contribute to an atmosphere of fear for members of the media.”
This case against ADAM bol is not the only time the publication and its staff appear to have been targeted in recent months, Human Rights Watch said.
In early October, traffic police stopped Ayan Sharipbaev, an editor at ADAM bol, as he was driving into the yard of his apartment building. The police accused him of driving drunk and threatened to charge him with “resisting authority.” He was tested and found to be sober, and no charges were brought. Sharipbaev told Human Rights Watch that he believed he was targeted because of his work at the journal.
On December 23, Guljan Ergalieva, ADAM bol’s editor-in-chief, was attacked as she waited for the elevator in her apartment building. The assailant hit her in the head, but took nothing from her. She declined to file a police report, but connected the attack to her professional activities.
On January 24, 2015, during an official visit to Kazakhstan by Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, activists organized a protest to support ADAM bol. Sharipbaev told Human Rights Watch that police detained him before he could reach the protest site, held him for several hours at a police station, and then released him. Guljan Ergalieva and two other journalists were similarly detained and then released. At the time, Ergalieva was on a hunger strike to protest the court actions against the journal and to call for a fair and objective review of the decision shutting it down. She ended her hunger strike on February 5.
In a statement delivered on January 27, at the end of his visit, Kiai concluded that in Kazakhstan, “there is very limited space for the expression of dissenting views.” He said that “more tolerance and openness to free expression, especially of criticism, dissent and opposition, will serve to build a more just and stable society.”
ADAM bol is one of many independent media outlets critical of the government to be suspended or closed in recent years on the basis of vague or undefined charges, such as “inciting social discord,” or for minor technical administrative violations, Human Rights Watch said.
In late 2012, authorities closed down Golos Respubliki and dozens of other related newspaper outlets in rushed and perfunctory trials, claiming that information they published incited social discord and called for the overthrow of Kazakhstan’s constitutional order. The prosecutor contended that the outlets engaged in “extremist” speech and activities. The media outlets appealed, but the decisions to shut them down were upheld.
The Kazakhstan media watchdog Adil Soz reported that 12 media outlets were suspended or closed in 2013. Seven others, including the independent newspaper Assandi Times, were suspended or closed in 2014.
“Kazakh authorities have closed and suspended critical media outlets one after the other,” Rittmann said. “Protecting and upholding the right to freedom of speech means ensuring that even the most provocative media are able to carry out their work free from undue interference and fear.”