(Brussels) – Kazakhstan opened a criminal investigation of two prominent independent media outlets on March 30, 2018, for “disseminating knowingly false information,” Human Rights Watch said today.
Police on April 2 interrogated four journalists and executed search warrants at the offices of Forbes Kazakhstan and an analytical news portal, Ratel.kz. Police also searched the homes of several journalists from those outlets who are apparently implicated in the case, including a now-deceased Ratel.kz journalist. In a civil action brought by prosecutors, an Almaty court on March 31 preliminarily approved blocking Ratel.kz and its affiliated websites.
“Kazakh authorities have been quick to carry out searches and confiscate material from Ratel.kz and Forbes Kazakhstan while details of the alleged criminal conduct remain a mystery,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The ease with which the criminal defamation case was brought against Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel.kz underscores the fragility of media freedom in Kazakhstan.”
Kazakhstan is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and high level government officials assert that the country has a free press. But journalists in Kazakhstan frequently face criminal defamation lawsuits and heavy fines.
Almaty police told the media on April 2 that they had opened a criminal investigation on March 30, on a complaint from Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, a businessman and former finance minister, who claimed that the outlets published false information that damaged his reputation. Kakimzhanov had previously lodged a successful defamation complaint against the same outlets in December 2016.
Police confiscated computers and documents from both media offices. Local news reports and comments from journalists at both outlets on Facebook said the police refused to give a copy of the search warrant to staff at either outlet or to permit the journalists to photograph it.
Police searched the homes of Aleksandr Vorotilov, deputy editor-in-chief of Forbes Kazakhstan; Marat Asipov, chief editor at Ratel.kz; Sapa Mekebaev, its deputy editor; Anna Kalashnikova, a Ratel.kz journalists; and Gennady Benditskii, a deceased Ratel.kz journalist.
Forbes Kazakhstan’s chief editor Askar Aukenov wrote on his Facebook page on April 2 that the search at Forbes’ Kazakhstan office, from 12:30 to 3 p.m., ended after police “drafted a protocol, took [Vorotilov’s computer] processor, his work notebooks, flash drives, and for some reason, [his] bank cards.”
Tatyana Shumilina, Vorotilov’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that four police officers arrived with Vorotilov to search her home sometime between 1 and 2 p.m. on April 2. The officers “behaved properly,” but did not leave a copy of the protocol, an official record of the search and items confiscated. She said the police also confiscated her bank card and mobile phone.
Benditskii’s widow told a Ratel.kz colleague, Vadim Boreiko, who posted the information on his Facebook page on April 2, that four police officers searched her home and confiscated four computers, approximately 200 audio cassettes, old VHS videos, and CDs, and a wi-fi router. She told Boreiko that the police did not allow her to call a lawyer.
Police took Vorotilov of Forbes and Asipov, Mekebaev, and Kalashnikova of Ratel.kz to a police station for questioning on April 2. The journalists’ colleagues reported on Facebook that the four were released at about 9 p.m. and were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. They were also told they have the status of “witness with the right of defense.” After further questioning Asipov on April 4, the police changed his status to “suspect.”
On April 3, Internal Affairs Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov, was quoted in the media saying, “On March 30, 2018, the police received a complaint from Mr. Kakimzhanov asking [the police] to take action against the distribution of false and defamatory information on the website Ratel.kz, as well as Forbes Kazakhstan. His complaint was registered…and an investigation opened on charges of article 274, part 3 of the Criminal Code.”
Article 274, part 3 of the Criminal Code, or “disseminating knowingly false information,” carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
In January 2017, an Almaty court began hearing the defamation lawsuit Kakimzhanov and his son, Ilkhalid Kakimzhanov, had filed against Ratel.kz, its journalists Asipov, Bendinskii, Mekebaev, and Forbes Kazakhstan and Vorotilov, demanding retractions for a series of articles published between May and December 2016. The articles allege misconduct in Kakimzhanovs’ business dealings.
Tamara Kaleeva, the director of Adilsoz, a local media watchdog organization, told Human Rights Watch that its legal experts analyzed 10 of the articles in question, and found nothing defamatory. The Almaty court hearing the case declined to enter Adilsoz’s analysis into evidence.
In April 2017, the court ruled in favor of the Kakimzhanovs and awarded total damages of 50,200,000 tenge (at the current exchange rate, approximately US$158,000). The court required the outlets to remove the articles from their sites and issue a retraction.
The media outlets appealed, but the decision was upheld. A Forbes Kazakhstan staff member told Human Rights Watch that Forbes paid the damages, deleted the articles from its website and issued a retraction.
Ratel.kz also paid the damages, but sought clarification from the first instance court about what information the court expected it to retract. It received no response and did not delete the articles or issue a retraction.
Kakimzhanov in a Facebook post on April 2 explained his decision to file a complaint. He wrote: “Despite court rulings, select media outlets and their authors do not comply with the court rulings and continue to publish similar articles.”
The Medeu district court in Almaty issued a preliminarily order on March 30 to block Ratel.kz and Balborsyk.kz, an alternative site on which Ratel.kz publishes its content, and to forbid Asipov from publishing any material under the Ratel.kz name. Ratel.kz and its affiliate sites have not been accessible since the ruling.
After the first hearing on April 5, which Boreiko tried to attend, he noted in a Facebook post that the district prosecutor brought the lawsuit for violating the “Rules for Registration, Use and Distribution of Domain Names in the Kazakhstan Internet Space.” No observers were permitted in the Almaty courtroom for the hearing. The court set another hearing for April 10.
In its most recent concluding observations on Kazakhstan, issued in August 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, expressed its concern “about laws and practices that violate freedom of opinion and expression, including: (a) the extensive application of criminal law provisions to individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression, …including …dissemination of information known to be false” and said Kazakhstan should “consider decriminalizing defamation and, in any case, countenance the application of criminal law only in the most serious of cases…”
“For the Kazakh government’s claim of a free press to be credible, Kazakhstan should abolish criminal defamation, and stop using defamation and similar laws to harass journalists who are doing their jobs,” Rittmann said. “This latest action against Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel.kz smacks of yet another attempt to silence independent media in Kazakhstan.”