Last week, Kazakhstan courts ruled against two independent news outlets, setting off alarm bells for Kazakhstan media freedom watchers – especially since this isn’t the first time the journalists involved have found themselves in the crosshairs.

In one of the two cases, Guzyal Baidalinova, a journalist and owner of the independent online news site Nakanune.kz, was up against a multi-million defamation case. In April 2015, Kazkommertzbank, one of the largest banks in Kazakhstan, sued Baidalinova, along with Media-Consult – a Russian company that owns the media-portal Respublika (which had previously been closed down in Kazakhstan by the courts) claiming the websites published false information implicating the bank in corruption.

An opposition activist attends a picket against the closure of opposition weekly magazine "Adam Bol" (which translates to "Be A Human") in Almaty January 24, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

Baidalinova maintains that the article published by Nakanune.kz contained credible allegations on a matter of serious public concern and should be investigated by police. Baidalinova’s lawyer also pointed out that the bank did not establish to the court any actual financial cost to the bank because of their article.

Baidalinova lost the case and was ordered to pay a bit more than US$100,000 in damages to the bank.

In the other case, the independent journal ADAM was fined approximately $800 and suspended from publication for three months, after city authorities claimed the journal had violated Kazakhstan’s law “on languages” by issuing copies only in Russian, rather than in both Kazakh and Russian. While ADAM’s registration certificate gives Kazakh and Russian as languages of publication, its editor-in-chief Ayan Sharipbaev explained that the journal is not legally required to publish in both languages.

The court ruled to suspend the journal for three months mere hours after city authorities notified the journal of a violation. Strikingly, this suspension comes eight months after authorities shut down its predecessor publication, ADAM bol, in December 2014.

When it comes to free speech, courts play a critical role in ensuring space for debate on matters of public interest. Journalists and media outlets should not be punished for critical reporting. Unfortunately, Kazakhstan’s media environment is highly restrictive, and Kazakh authorities have a track record of shutting down independent media critical of government.

With both ADAM and Nakanune.kz planning to appeal – Nakanune.kz for the second time – courts should ensure that Baidalinova and Sharipbaev get fair and impartial hearings, and that the importance of freedom of expression is central to their deliberations, putting to rest any concerns that the outlets are being targeted because of their critical reporting.