Kazakhstan is at the center of a fresh controversy over freedom of speech, following the suspension of a hard-hitting magazine which was one of the country’s few remaining independent voices.
International press freedom watchdogs have expressed outrage over the suspension of the Adam (Person) magazine over a linguistic technicality, in a court ruling that editor-in-chief Ayan Sharipbayev says is political.
“In Kazakhstan the closure of any media outlet is a matter decided by political bodies,” Sharipbayev told EurasiaNet.org on September 2. “Of course this is connected to politics.”
He said Adam — known for its gutsy reporting and criticism of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev — would appeal the three-month suspension handed down by an Almaty court on August 27.
When Adam registered with the authorities earlier this year (after the courts had closed a previously existing independent magazine called Adam Bol), it gave its languages of publication as Kazakh and Russian – but in fact it prints only in Russian.
The ruling was “discriminatory and utterly disproportionate,” Johann Bihr of the France–based Reporters Without Borders press freedom watchdog said in a statement on September 1.
“The use of such absurd bureaucratic pretexts is typical and cannot hide the fact that the authorities clearly want to close this publication for good because they regard it as a nuisance,” he said. “We urge them to rescind this unjust decision and to end this persecution, which has gone on for too long.”
Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz (Free Speech) watchdog said the ruling was anti-constitutional, and that Adam has the right “to print in all or any of the languages” it registered, “according to its own choice.” (TV and radio are obliged by law to broadcast at least 50 percent of their output in Kazakh, but there are no such requirements for print media.)
The ruling came on the same day as an independent news website lost an appeal in a libel case that has also raised concerns over freedom of expression.
That case was brought by Kazkommertsbank against journalist Guzyal Baydalinova over a report published by the Nakanune.kz website containing allegations of sleaze and graft in Almaty’s construction industry.
Baydalinova is now liable to pay damages of 20 million tenge ($83,000) — a sum which could bankrupt Nakanune.kz, an outlet set up by journalists who used to report for the independent newspaper Respublika until its closure in a sweeping, internationally condemned ban on independent media outlets in 2012.
The government says freedom of speech is guaranteed in Kazakhstan, which languishes near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom ranking (at 160th out of 177 countries).
Human rights campaigners believe the cases against Adam and Nakanune.kz are symptomatic of the authorities’ intolerance of dissident views.
“Journalists and media outlets should not be punished for critical reporting,” said Mihra Rittmann of Human Rights Watch in a statement published on September 1. “Unfortunately, Kazakhstan’s media environment is highly restrictive, and Kazakh authorities have a track record of shutting down independent media critical of government."