Officials have raided the editorial office of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent newspapers, as it emerged that a court has ruled in secret to close it down.
Bailiffs “burst into the office” of the Assandi-Times in Almaty on April 2 and announced that they planned to seal the premises, the newspaper reported on its Facebook page. The bailiffs cited a court order that the newspaper’s staff said they knew nothing about.
A court had ruled to shut the newspaper down on April 1, the Adil Soz (Free Speech) media freedom NGO said in an April 2 statement, although “none of the newspaper’s staff had been informed about the trial or about the legal claim.”
The court ruled after deeming the Assandi-Times to be part of a banned group of media outlets under the “Respublika” brand. Prosecutors closed the investigative Respublika newspaper and associated outlets in 2012 after alleging that their coverage of fatal riots in the western town of Zhanaozen the previous year was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state.
Prosecutors asserted at the time that around 40 media outlets that were subsequently all banned were funded by oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, a staunch foe of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The authorities alleged that Ablyazov – who is in detention in France awaiting the outcome of an appeal against his extradition in an embezzlement case – stoked the Zhanaozen unrest. He denies all the accusations.
Now the court has ruled that the Assandi-Times, which was not on the original list of outlets allegedly associated with Respublika, is part of the group and must close. The outlets’ staff always argued that they were not a single group and should be treated separately.
Well-known for its hard-hitting reporting, Respublika over the years operated in Kazakhstan under enormous pressure. At one point staff resorted to setting up a print operation to roll copies off the presses by hand after publishers within the country refused to print them.
On April 2 the government approved new rules giving it greater control over what the media can report during emergencies, allowing officials to check material that outlets plan to broadcast or publish. Of course, it’s the government that defines what makes an “emergency.”