Media rights groups are warning that official moves to ban major opposition TV and press in Kazakstan will destroy the limited amount of pluralism that still exists there.
On November 21, the prosecution service announced it had asked the courts to ban the K+ satellite TV channel, Stan TV, the Vzglyad newspaper, and eight papers and 23 websites affiliated with the Respublika newspaper, which has registered under many alternative names to avoid past moves to close it.
Prosecutors made their move on November, a day after Alga opposition party leader Vladimir Kozlov lost his appeal and his seven-and-a-half year prison term was upheld. Kozlov was convicted of orchestrating dissent among striking oil workers in western Kazakstan last year and calling for the forcible overthrow of the government. (See Kazakstan: Opposition Activist Jailed.)
The Alga party and at least some of the press and broadcast outlets which prosecutors are trying to ban are linked to Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former banker and a staunch Nazarbaev opponent now living in exile. In the prosecution’s case against Kozlov, Ablyazov was portrayed as the mastermind of subversive actions designed to bring down the current administration.
Some analysts view the case both as a way of crushing Kazakstan’s most outspoken opposition group and as a convenient diversion from the unpleasant facts about events in Janaozen last December. Months of protests by striking oil workers in this western town ended with police gunning down unarmed civilians, leaving 16 dead. The government has since tried to suggest that it was not at fault, and that instead dark forces were working behind the scenes to stir up unrest.
Prosecution service spokesman Nurdaulet Syindikov said the legal action against the media outlets was a direct consequence of the Kozlov appeals verdict, which confirmed that Alga and the Khlalyk Maidany movement, and hence all media outlets connected with them, held extremist views and were a threat to national security.
The prosecution service’s request to ban multiple media outlets has drawn heavy criticism at home and abroad.
“The government of Kazakstan has abandoned all pretences to democratic values, pluralism of thought, and freedom of speech,” said Susan Corke, Eurasia programme director at the Washington-based media rights group Freedom House.
Reporters Without Borders said it was “appalled” by the move.
“We urge the court to reject the request, which is extremely dangerous for freedom of information in Kazakstan,” a statement from the Paris-based group said. “If granted, pluralism would quite simply cease to exist in this country. The government is using the pretext of combating extremism to launch an unprecedented offensive against its critics.”
Human rights and media groups in Kazakstan also warned that the lawsuits had brought the country one step closer to “the complete abandonment of democratic values”.
Tamara Kaleeva, head of the free speech group Adil Soz, said the media community was planning legal action to challenge the prosecution service, and would also hold demonstrations.
Andrei Grishin of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law said the attempt to silence opposition-friendly media was the next logical step in a campaign to eliminate vocal criticism in the aftermath of the Janaozen violence.
“These are probably the only opposition media to depict all sides of life in Kazakstan, including what’s going on inside the Ak Orda [presidential office]. There are other opposition newspapers, but they aren’t as well-informed as these media resources,” he said.
Grishin noted that Respublika and K+ TV were already based outside Kazakstan, following earlier moves to obstruct their work.
Kaleeva said these outlets would be able to carry on reporting on Kazakstan from outside, but it would become much harder for them to operate. “Their main source of information was inside the country. They had their correspondents and TV crews here,” she said.
Commentators say Kazakstan is beginning to look more and more like neighbouring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where there are no independent media.
“We’ve come very close to it in recent years, and this [planned closure] would turn the country into something similar to them,” Kaleeva said.
Reporters Without Borders urged the international community to take action now, as it would be “too late when this regional giant has fully adopted the ultra-authoritarian model of its Uzbek and Turkmen neighbours.”
Pyotr Svoik, a political commentator and leading member of the opposition National Social Democratic Party, said that while the prosecution service was targeting media outlets whose criticism of the regime was especially fierce, this conflict was not just “between anti-democracy and democracy”, but also between the state and its political foe Ablyazov.
Seen in that light, he said, the ongoing campaign to eliminate media associated with Ablyazov indicated that the Kazak leadership felt vulnerable, beset as it was by industrial disputes, internal power-struggles in the elite, rising food prices and a banking sector struggling to right itself.
“When regime was fairly confident and strong, it could afford to pretend to be a democracy, for example such as by chairing the OSCE [in 2010]. It could allow opposition democratic political parties to operate,” he said.
Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor.
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