A prosecutor warns supporters of embattled news outlet Adam Bol on January 23 that they are breaking Kazakhstan’s stringent public assembly laws.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have taken a hard line against would-be protesters, rounding them up and throwing them in police cells to prevent them attending a public meeting in defense of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine that has been closed down.
The arrests came in the middle of a visit to Kazakhstan by a UN rapporteur to monitor how Astana upholds the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Police arrested Guljan Yergaliyeva, the editor-in-chief of the Adam Bol outlet (who is on hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine), editors Ayan Sharipbayev and Miras Nurmukhanbetov, and prominent freedom of speech activist Rozlana Taukina as soon as they set off to attend the event on Almaty’s main Republic Square January 23.
“I understood [the police] were waiting for me, but I still intended to go and I went out to go and meet our readers, but our car was forcibly stopped and I was forcibly dragged out [by police officers],” Yergaliyeva said in a video address posted on Facebook after her release.
“They break the law themselves, they repress us,” added Yergaliyeva, who is on the sixth day of a hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine last November on the grounds that its reporting on Ukraine contained calls for war or violence.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has de facto blocked a popular and hard-hitting news website with the argument that reporting on terrorism is akin to supporting terrorists. Authorities seem to have pressured the website’s local host to disconnect its servers.
ProHost said on December 15 that it would immediately kick Kloop.kg off its servers following a request from the State Agency for Communications, Kloop co-founder Bektour Iskender informed readers through Facebook.
The block has been looming since November 24, when Kloop reposted a video from Britain’s Daily Mail featuring a propaganda video that showed Kazakh children allegedly training as jihadists in Syria. Officials in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both insist Kloop has aided the terrorist Islamic State by republishing the video.
Kloop was swiftly blocked in Kazakhstan after refusing a written request from the Kazakh prosecutor’s office to remove the offending material; harassment from Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry quickly followed.
Kyrgyz authorities have stepped up pressure on the media in recent months. In October President Almazbek Atambayev broadly blamed journalists for sullying Kyrgyzstan’s reputation abroad.
Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s on-again, off-again experiment with democracy, the Central Asian country has fewer journalists in jail than most of its neighbors. But over the last few months, a number of officials have signaled a cooling attitude toward the fourth estate. A theme stands out: Journalists are the reason Kyrgyzstan has a poor reputation; they must write nice things and stop criticizing.
Together with restrictive new legislation the officials’ comments paint a profile of an elite increasingly intolerant of criticism. Journalists are worried; one local editor says the attacks are encouraging self-censorship.
President Almazbek Atambayev deployed a wide brush on October 27, venting at a session of the national council on sustainable development:
“For the image of a country where corruption is a real disaster, even by comparison with African countries, we have our journalists to thank. Not in a single [other] country does the press pour dirt on officials like ours. They write that everything is bad in Kyrgyzstan, that corruption is blooming. This is disrespect for the country and for the truth. There’s this idea that the more dirt a journalist has poured on, the more freedom-loving and better he is.”
“[Journalists] get offended, because I say this very often, but this is the truth. I hope that the conscience of the majority awakens and they will start publishing impartial information.” [Sources: first paragraph Vechernii Bishkek; second paragraph BBC Monitoring translation of KyrTAG, which is paywalled.]
By reporting on terrorist propaganda, is a journalist propagating terrorism? Journalists often debate how to cover terrorism without doing more harm than good. But prosecutors in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a cut and dry answer.
Earlier this week, Kloop.kg – an innovative, independent news outlet in Kyrgyzstan – published a story about an Islamic State recruiting video that purports to show Kazakh-speaking children training for jihad in Syria and threatening to slaughter infidels. In its story, Kloop included stills the Daily Mail had reproduced and a link to video embedded in the Daily Mail's story. Few Kazakhstan-based news outlets covered the story, likely fearing Kazakhstan’s anti-extremism legislation.
Indeed, the day the story started circulating, November 24, Kazakhstan’s prosecutor warned media that Kazakhstani law forbids the “propaganda and justification” of terrorism.
The Kloop story was quickly blocked in Kazakhstan, as were several other stories about the video. (EurasiaNet.org’s story, although it did not include a link to the IS recruitment video, was also blocked in Kazakhstan.)
Editors at Kloop received an email from a Kazakhstani government agency calling itself the “Computer Emergency Response Team,” which demanded Kloop remove the material. Kloop, the email said, had violated not just Kazakhstani laws on the “justification of extremism and terrorism,” but international law, too.
Kazakhstan’s journalistic community has long debated how to face the pervasive influence of Russian media in the Central Asian country. The topic has increased in urgency with the bitter international standoff between Russia and Ukraine, which is partly playing out on Russian television.
Russian state channels like Rossiya, NTV, and First Channel – which critics see as Kremlin propaganda tools – enjoy huge popularity in Kazakhstan, the Media Kurultai (an annual gathering of journalists in Almaty) heard on November 14.
This creates a national security threat to Kazakhstan, where viewers are swallowing their poisonous coverage about Ukraine, speakers told a panel on information security.
The public mindset in Kazakhstan is being shaped by Russian officials and TV presenters like Dmitry Kiselyov, who is well-known for his anti-Western tirades, opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov told the conference. This means Kazakhstanis end up “viewing events in Ukraine through the eyes of [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov or Kiselyov,” he said.
Yet Astana is itself pushing viewers into the arms of Russian TV, Kosanov argued, by controlling the Kazakhstani media so tightly that it becomes unattractive.
“The challenge to information security emerges from governmental policies,” agreed Adil Nurmakov, a journalism professor at Almaty’s KIMEP University. “It’s a vicious circle.”
“Now [government officials] have found themselves in a situation when they’re wondering why people are not watching Kazakhstani TV channels and why they’re not reading the Kazakhstani press,” Nurmakov told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the forum. “But there’s nothing to read and nothing to watch.”
Uzbekistan has introduced new no-go areas for bloggers, tightening up a media environment that is already among the most repressive in the world.
Bloggers are now banned from using online platforms for a long list of activities, the Anhor website reported: from calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order to questioning Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity; and from promoting pornography and narcotics to disseminating information inciting ethnic or religious enmity.
Promoting war, violence, terrorism, extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism is also a no-no, under amendments to the law governing IT affairs which came into force on September 5. So is divulging state secrets, and publishing information that may harm someone’s reputation and violate their right to privacy (a provision likely to act as a deterrent to whistleblowers).
The ban on calling for the overthrow of the state and questioning territorial integrity come as Uzbekistan, like other states in the region, appears rattled by the conflict in Ukraine and by Russia’s aggressive expansionist rhetoric. This year has witnessed a spate of online calls for independence for Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region, and – while the credibility and motives of those posting them under pseudonyms is in question – the material has no doubt raised eyebrows in Tashkent.
The legislation introduces a broad legal concept of a blogger, as an individual posting “generally accessible information of a public-political, socioeconomic, and other nature, including for discussion by users.”
There is no mention of criminal sanctions for those deemed in violation of the law, but the sites they use can be blocked.
A lawsuit brought against an independent journalist by Kyrgyzstan’s secret police suggests the country’s democratic gains are backsliding, a prominent human rights group says.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) has demanded 1 million soms (over $19,000) in damages from journalist Shorukh Saipov. The GKNB says its reputation was marred by an article the journalist wrote for Fergana News in May in which he quoted an unnamed source complaining that the secret police extort money from Muslims with threats to prosecute them for religious extremism. It is this type of claim that has led young Muslims to flee Kyrgyzstan to join Islamic extremists fighting in the Middle East, EurasiaNet.org reported recently.
Fergana News says the charges are “unfounded” and characterizes them as “harassment.” The outlet quotes a GKNB official as saying that Saipov’s article is “unfounded” and “directly undermines the credibility [and] authority of our body in the eyes of the public.”
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee said on August 25 that the case is a reminder of the tactics President Kurmanbek Bakiyev used to silence his critics before he was ousted in bloody street riots in 2010.
The NHC is concerned that the libel suit could mark the beginning of a return to practices associated with the period preceding the April 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan, when harassment and libel suits against journalists were commonplace. In the time since, Kyrgyzstan’s media freedom record has improved markedly, setting it apart from practices in several neighboring Central Asian states. […]
A popular Russian social networking site appears to have become the latest target of Tajikistan’s Internet sentinels.
Odnoklassniki.ru became inaccessible in Tajikistan this weekend, users say.
Tajik officials often block websites that carry material critical of the government. As usual, the communications agency has said little, today even denying it knows of the problem. But a representative of one leading Internet Service Provider (ISP) said he had received an oral order to block the site.
Odnoklassniki is popular among the million-plus Tajik migrant workers abroad who use it to communicate with their families back home.
Some users told Radio Ozodi that the site may have been blocked because some Tajiks fighting alongside jihadists in Syria have used it to post extremist content. Others point out that, like Facebook – which also has been blocked at times – Odnoklassniki is frequently used to spread material critical of the government and its strongman president.
YouTube also has been unavailable for a few weeks though authorities deny they are responsible. In June, when YouTube was also blocked, all other Google products were unavailable as well for a few days, though that appeared to be a technical side effect of the YouTube block (Google owns YouTube).
As such obstructions have become common in recent years, many Internet users have turned to proxy services. But the authorities are catching up and appear to be hindering access to those, too.
A court in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, has slapped an enormous fine on a journalist for “threating public security” after he criticized local authorities. The case was prosecuted so quickly, in only three days, that the journalist was unable to secure a lawyer.
On June 28, the Shayhantahur District criminal court fined Said Abdurakhimov, who writes under the penname Sid Yanyshev, 9.6 million sums ($3,200 at the black market exchange rate), or 100 minimum monthly wages. The court found Abdurakhimov guilty of working without accreditation and for "producing or storing materials threatening public security and public order for distribution," the Moscow-based Fergana News website reported. The court also ordered the seizure of Abdurakhimov’s video camera.
The offending article, published by Fergana News on June 25, discussed authorities' failure to compensate residents whose homes were destroyed to build a highway.
The independent Uznews.net website said that following the publication, police in Tashkent had forced two women who had spoken to Abdurakhimov to file a complaint against him.
In the short period between the publication, the charges, and the court hearing, Abdurakhimov was not able to hire a lawyer and learn the case material, Uznews.net said. Fergana News said he would appeal.
Activists in Kyrgyzstan say they lost another battle against creeping authoritarianism this weekend when President Almazbek Atambayev signed a so-called “False Accusation Law.” The US Embassy says the law could “suppress legitimate news stories, as well as intimidate or punish journalists reporting on matters of public interest."
The new law, which Atambayev signed on May 17, makes intentional defamation a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Kyrgyzstan decriminalized libel in 2011.
The author says the law – which passed parliament on April 16 with a vote of 85-8 – does not violate freedom of speech, but will stop the publication of slanderous reports.
“Freedom of speech [does not include] making false reports about a crime. The key word here is a crime … there is the presumption of innocence. No one can be accused of a crime unless his guilt is proven in a lawful manner,” Deputy Eristina Kochkarova told EurasiaNet.org. If a journalist has published a report incorrectly charging someone with a crime, she argues, it’s not the journalist who would be punished, but his source. “The rights of a person end where the rights of others’ begin. Freedom of speech is not the only part of democracy,” said Kochkarova.
But the law is vague enough, civil society activists fear, for it to be selectively enforced should, for example, a politician not like the work of a muckraking journalist.