With raids against independent journalists and arrests of government critics becoming routine in Kazakhstan, the battle against dissemination of information is taking on a systematic quality.
On December 18, police once more targeted the Almaty offices of Nakanune.kz, one of a handful of embattled outlets that has come under sustained pressure in the past year.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyk, reported that police closed off the entrance to the office as a search carried on inside.
Nakanune.kz is a website that arose from the ashes of a long-suffering newspaper that went by several names but was best known as Respublika. That newspaper, which still exists in electronic form, was edited by Oksana Makushina, who is now at Nakanune.kz.
Radio Azattyk reported that police also searched the homes of Nakanune.kz owner Guzyal Baidalinova and a journalist with the website, Yulia Kozlova.
Yet another outspoken reporter, Rafael Balgin, phoned an acquaintance early in the morning to inform him that his apartment too was being searched.
Almaty police said in a statement that they have initiated pre-trial investigations against Respublika and Nakanune.kz for allegedly disseminating false information about the activities of Kazkommertsbank, Kazakhstan’s largest lender, and other unnamed parties.
The aim of the investigation is to establish who ordered the smear against the offended parties, police said.
“The published material bore a patently made-on-order quality and contained knowingly false information and provocative statements without concrete factual basis,” the police statement said.
Authorities say that what they are describing as smears were paid for in cash sums.
Irina Petrushova, founder of Respublika, claimed in a posting on her Facebook page that police found narcotics during a search of Kozlova’s home. Petrushova insisted the drugs must have been planted by police to force Kozlova’s sister, who lives at the address and has a previous drugs-related conviction, to provide an incriminating testimony.
“Moreover, they could take Yulia and her sister to undergo a drug test at the clinic on Makatayev street and forge the results. That is standard police practice,” Petrushova wrote.
The forward and backward of unverifiable claims between the government and its critics prevails in Kazakhstan, where all but largely loyal media have been muzzled.
Critics of the government's heavy-handed stance against independent media describe the crackdown seen over the past year as an attempt to silence outlets trying to hold authorities to account.
While there is much anecdotal evidence to support the suggestion that the practice of interested parties paying outlets to smear rivals is rife, the selective behavior of law enforcement authorities does little to reassure the public.
And with publications as relatively marginal as Nakanune.kz and Respublika, raids and arrests could only generate the unintended effect of enhancing credibility, not diminishing it.
That is especially so when the state’s accusations are themselves so flagrantly inaccurate.
A clumsily worded warrant presented by police during the searches on December 18 appears to suggest that Nakanune.kz published 55 suspect articles about Kazkommertsbank.
But as Petrushova noted in her Facebook postings, the website has in fact only mentioned the bank in two or three articles.