Update May 23, 2016
An Almaty court on May 23, 2016, convicted Guzyal Baidalinova, an independent journalist, on charges of “disseminating false information,” and sentenced her to 18 months in prison. She and her co-defendant, Tair Kaldybaev, were ordered to jointly pay nearly $430,000 USD in damages. She plans to appeal.
(Berlin) – The prosecution of an independent journalist on charges of “disseminating false information” will commence before a court in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on May 5, 2016, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today.
Authorities detained Guzyal Baidalinova, 47, a journalist and the owner of Nakanune.kz, an independent online news site, on December 23, 2015 as a suspect in the case, and have held her in pre-trial detention since her formal arrest three days later, despite multiple requests for bail.
“Baidalinova shouldn’t be in detention: she should be granted bail while she fights these dubious charges and she should have a fair trial,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Her pre-trial detention for alleged ‘disseminating false information’ has never been justified and has had a chilling effect on media freedom.”
In December, authorities opened a criminal investigation into allegations that KazKommertsBank, one of Kazakhstan’s largest banks, had suffered damages in the amount of approximately $440,000 as a result of the publication of allegedly deliberately false information about the bank’s activities on Nakanune.kz and Respublika-kaz.info, another independent news website. On December 18, the authorities executed search warrants of Baidalinova’s apartment, the home of her colleague Yulia Kozlova, and the Nakanune.kz office, confiscating computers and other equipment. On December 26, Baidalinova was placed under arrest.
According to a police statement issued on December 18, “the posted materials were clearly commissioned and contained deliberately false, and often provocative, information, without any concrete facts. The customer paid in cash for the media’s actions, providing an informal channel of funding the media.”
In mid-December, the authorities also took action against Rafael Balgin and Makhambet Auezov, both journalists, and Tair Kaldybaev, a Kazakh businessman, alleging that Kaldybaev colluded with Balgin, Auezov, Baidalinova and other persons whom the investigation has yet to identify to publish the false information. Balgin and Kaldybaev were placed under arrest.
On January 11, Balgin was released on bail. Baidalinova had also requested bail, but despite multiple appeals between December and March 2016, the court has repeatedly denied her requests.
On January 12, Auezov and Balgin held a news conference in Almaty. They claimed that they colluded with Baidalinova and the editor-in-chief of Respublika-kaz.info news portal, Irina Petrushova, who does not live in Kazakhstan, to publish false information at Kaldybaev’s behest. They expressed guilt and remorse. Although they claimed they held the news conference of their own accord, its timing immediately after Balgin was freed raised concerns that authorities had pressured them to do so as a condition of Balgin’s release.
Baidalinova was not present or otherwise able to respond to these allegations and neither Auezov nor Balgin offered any material evidence of the alleged collusion to deliberately publish false information. As a result the news conference was prejudicial and may have undermined the impartiality of the investigation, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said.
Baidalinova and her lawyer are subject to non-disclosure requirements as prescribed in Kazakhstan’s criminal procedural code and as such, are barred from sharing information with third parties about the investigation. Little information is available to the public about the investigation and substance of the charges.
“Arresting Baidalinova and imposing a gag order on her defense are disproportionate measures that appear aimed at silencing her rather than ensuring the integrity of the investigation,” said Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have long restricted freedom of speech and the media, and have actively shuttered independent and opposition media outlets in recent years, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said. Nor is this the first time that Baidalinova has been targeted by the authorities. In September, a court ordered Baidalinova to pay damages to KazKommertsBank in the amount of 20 million tenge (approximately $60,000) after she lost a defamation suit.
International bodies, including the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, and the European Parliament, have expressed serious concern about restrictions on media freedoms in Kazakhstan.
In a separate case, Kazakh authorities from the State Anti-Corruption Agency are investigating two other journalists – Seitkazy Mataev, the head of the Kazakhstan Journalists’ Union and chairman of the National Press Club, and his son, Aset Mataev, director of the KazTAG news agency – on charges of embezzlement. Seitkazy Mataev is also under investigation for tax evasion. The National Press Club is seen as an important platform for a range of voices, including for government critics.
Authorities placed Seitkazy Mataev under house arrest on January 22, while Aset Mataev was placed under house arrest on March 28. Their appeals to be released on bail have been denied by Almaty courts. The Mataevs and their lawyers are also subject to non-disclosure requirements in law.
Local and international journalists and media watchdogs have expressed concern about the integrity of the State Anti-Corruption Agency’s investigation. They have called on the Prosecutor General’s office to take the investigation under its control, and ensure that both Mataevs are afforded their full due process rights, including the presumption of innocence.
“Against the backdrop of long-standing concerns about respect for media freedom in Kazakhstan, authorities should do everything in their power to safeguard the rights of Baidalinova, and of the Mataevs,” Engesland said.