Recent developments in an ongoing libel case in Kazakhstan indicate that Astana's responsibilities as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's chairman may be exerting a moderating influence on official attitudes toward free-speech issues.
In the past, given Kazakhstan's restrictive media environment, the outcome of a libel case involving a well-connected public official and an independent-oriented media outlet would have been a foregone conclusion - one ending in a ruling against the offending news organ. In this case, however, journalists have spied a glimmer of hope that Astana, feeling the weight of its OSCE duties, is treading lightly, and may even be willing to slightly ease free-speech restrictions.
Helping to raise hopes was a judicial victory won by media outlets being sued for libel by Timur Kulibayev, who is married to President Nursultan Nazarbayev's middle daughter, Dinara Kulibayeva, and who is deputy head of the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund. On February 9, a judge issued an unprecedented ruling that lifted an injunction against reporting on Kulibayev. "For the first time a judge has earned applause -- weak applause, true, but it was earned," Azat OSDP party deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov told reporters after the decision was announced.
The libel case stems from allegations made by London-based businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov - who is wanted in Kazakhstan on fraud charges that he denies and which he maintains are politically motivated. Ablyazov claimed that Kulibayev had engaged in corrupt practices, and in an attempt to prove his point, he sent a dossier to the Prosecutor-General's Office. The dossier's contents also ended up on the Internet. The authenticity of the documents has not been independently verified.
The dossier reportedly relates to the $150-million acquisition by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) of the Kazakhstani government's 25.12 percent stake in the CNPC-AktobeMunayGaz joint venture. According to the dossier's unproven allegations, now under investigation by the financial police, Kulibayev allegedly conspired to sell the stake below market price in a way that allowed him to personally profit from the deal. Kulibayev was not available to comment on the allegations.
The allegations were published by several private media outlets in Kazakhstan. Kulibayev -- who is often mentioned as a possible successor to Nazarbayev -- responded by filing a libel suit against Ablyazov and several independent-minded newspapers: Respublika and the associated outlet Golos Respubliki, Vzglyad and Kursiv. On February 1, an Almaty court issued an injunction imposing stringent reporting restrictions on those outlets, banning them from mentioning Kulibayev's name pending the outcome of the libel case, and ordering the confiscation of print runs.
The ruling sparked a domestic and international outcry. "The practice is forming -- has formed -- in the country by which the courts carry out a political order and ignore the country's laws," Respublika columnist Sergey Duvanov told a news conference on February 3. The injunction, he suggested, was designed to "shut the mouths" of critics.
Kazakhstan, which assumed the OSCE chair on January 1, found itself in the uncomfortable position of being on the receiving end of sharp criticism from the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. "Shooting the messenger of bad news is an old habit of autocracy that democratic media freedom standards have banned as a dangerous attempt at censorship," Miklos Haraszti said in a statement on February 8.
In Kazakhstan, bailiffs had already moved to seize newspapers from newsstands -- not always successfully. "I hid them," one newsvendor still displaying a pile of the offending publications told EurasiaNet on February 8. "I was tipped off that they were coming." Some over-zealous bailiffs reportedly targeted other independent periodicals not named in the injunction: Svoboda Slova editor-in-chief Gulzhan Yergaliyeva estimated that 10 percent of her paper's print run was seized.
On February 8, journalists from Svoboda Slova, Vzglyad and Respublika, together with a foundation called Kazakhstan's Journalists in Danger foundation, sent a joint letter to the prosecutor-general and Supreme Court chairman, complaining about the injunction against reporting on Kulibayev. "We believe that with the ruling the judge has overstepped her powers and directly violated the constitution, introducing censorship for mentioning the name of President Nazarbayev's son-in-law Timur Kulibayev in the country," it said. "We are against censorship and the suppression of freedom of speech in Kazakhstan!"
The outlets appealed against the injunction, and on February 9 the same Almaty court that issued the initial ruling surprised observers by lifting the injunction, citing procedural violations.
In a statement the following day, the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders hailed the ruling as "a victory for independent news media and press freedom organizations over a government bid to impose de facto censorship throughout the country."
Tamara Kaleyeva, the head of Adil Soz, a non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom, expressed surprise at the overturning of the injunction, adding that the OSCE had had a positive impact. "The fact that yesterday [Haraszti] made such a statement and today this situation has arisen -- I think the OSCE is playing a big role," she told a press conference on February 9.
Editors of independent newspapers were cheered by the lifting of the injunction. Yergaliyeva characterized the original decision to impose a ban on reporting on Kulibayev as "unprecedented, really, from the legal point of view, and absolutely audaciously provocative from the political point of view." But independent-minded journalists cautioned against premature jubilation: the libel suit will still go to trial, if the two sides fail to reach an out-of-court settlement. "This is a victory, but it is not the end," Yergaliyeva warned.
Meanwhile, Vzglyad editor-in-chief Igor Vinyavskiy said his newspaper offices and those of Golos Respubliki are under surveillance by people he believes are from private -- not state -- security structures. His remarks came in the wake of bellicose comments by Timur Kulibayev's father, Askar Kulibayev, to the KazTAG news agency on February 3. The elder Kulibayev denied any wrongdoing by his son, adding that the journalists who published the corruption allegations were "rogues [who] should be put up against a wall and shot!"
"We view this [Askar Kulibayev's comments] as a direct threat to our security," Vinyavskiy told a news conference, adding that Golos Respubliki and Vzglyad would pursue legal action over the remarks.
The newspapers are now moving to seize the initiative: Vinyavskiy and Yergaliyeva have threatened to sue Kulibayev for material losses in newspaper sales and moral damages to their outlets' reputations.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.