An international human rights watchdog has urged Kazakhstan to repeal controversial new legislation allowing the government to impose tight restrictions on journalists during emergencies.
The “blanket emergency restrictions” that came into force on April 12 are “unjustified and overreaching,” Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch said in an April 15 statement.
The new controls “expose just how far the authorities are willing to go to muzzle the media outlets and independent society groups they deem threatening,” Williamson added.
The decree governing “additional measures and temporary restrictions” obliges editors to seek prior government approval for anything they wish to publish during emergencies (which could include anything from political, social, or industrial unrest to natural disasters). It also gives the authorities the right to suspend or close media outlets and suspend political parties.
The restrictions are “barefaced government censorship,” Williamson said, and “extend far beyond any reasonable and proportional restrictions and violate Kazakhstan’s international commitments.”
The legislation comes into force as Astana watches the escalating crisis in Ukraine and seeks to keep a lid on any manifestations of discontent at home.
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.
I got to see a little bit of Uzbekistan, but only from the air. Here's what's left of the Aral Sea.
I wanted to shoot a story about Uzbek weddings, lavish affairs that are the stuff of legend among the Uzbek migrant population in Moscow, where I live.
As a Russian citizen, I don’t need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. But I knew the country is deeply suspicious of journalists of any sort. So as not to look too professional, I selected only a few lenses for my trip. And, another precaution: I deleted some phone contacts, cleared the browsing history on my iPad, deleted the Facebook app.
Around midnight last Wednesday I took off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and at 5.30 a.m. landed in Tashkent. My future fixer was at the airport to fetch me and take me to a barbeque at his home.
At passport control, I waited behind a crowd of Uzbek migrant laborers. But when it was my turn with the immigration officer, something was clearly wrong. He scanned my passport several times, then frowned and said, gesturing to a bench, “Bro, would you be so kind to wait a little bit over there?”
The crowd thinned and disappeared. After maybe half an hour, two polite men in the olive-green uniforms of border agents across the former Soviet Union asked me to follow them. As we walked, they asked if I’d ever been to Uzbekistan. Yes, I’d lived briefly in Tashkent as a first-grader, but I grew up in Russia. And I’d visited some friends there in 1998.
They looked disappointed. I asked what was happening and they said only that I was on a “blacklist” and that I was being sent home.
At the gate, the olive-green men approached an attendant for the return Moscow flight and said, “This guy is being deported back to Russia. Find him a free seat.” They handed her my passport.
A court in Dushanbe has ordered a local journalist to pay over $6,200 in moral damages for insulting a group of state-appointed intellectuals, local media reported on February 25. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is about $200.
The suit was in response to a commentary Asia-Plus editor Olga Tutubalina wrote last May, where she condemned the cozy relationships many writers and artists enjoy with the administration of President Imomali Rakhmon. Quoting a letter that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin supposedly wrote, she asserted that the official creative class – which receives extensive state perks for supporting the state – is “not [the nation’s] brains but its shit.”
The Firdavsi District court ruled that Tutubalina must apologize and that Asia-Plus must publish a retraction, in addition to the crippling 30,000 somoni in damages, according to Asia-Plus’s account.
Last summer, Tutubalina told EurasiaNet.org that she did not mean to insult anyone and insisted she had nothing to apologize for. “One particular segment of the intelligentsia does not deserve respect. I meant those who speak only when they get permission from above,” she said. Asia-Plus's lawyers plan to appeal.
Dina Baidildayeva's one-woman show of support for other bloggers got her arrested.
Kazakhstan has never been a bastion of press freedom, but the arrests of four Almaty bloggers in the past week have put Internet commentators in the country’s cultural capital on high alert.
In the latest case Dina Baidildayeva was detained by police on February 8 after staging a one-woman show of solidarity with three jailed bloggers, who were imprisoned on February 5 on hooliganism charges that they denied.
Nurali Aytelenov, Rinat Kibrayev, and Dmitriy Shelokov each received a 10-day prison sentence after protesting outside a restaurant where the mayor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov, was lunching with selected bloggers. The protesters, who had not been invited, accused the mayor of only wanting to hold a dialogue with “tame” bloggers.
In response, Baidildayeva, who is a blogger and also a social networks editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, took to Republic Square opposite Almaty city hall waving a poster reading: “Freedom to bloggers – Shame on Yesimov.”
“Mr Yesimov, resign! Freedom to bloggers who were jailed just because they wanted to ask questions to Mayor Yesimov, because they are not satisfied with his work!” she said. “He only gathered bloggers that he liked and who were loyal to him, and that’s not what an intelligent government does!”
Police watched the five-minute protest before moving in to detain Baidildayeva at the scene after she had finished speaking and packed away her poster. She complained that they did not specify what crime she had committed.
Umida Akhmedova -- with one of her "offensive" photos of life in her native Uzbekistan -- at the Moscow Biennale in September.
UPDATE, January 30: EurasiaNet.org has spoken with Timur Karpov. He was released this evening after a Tashkent court fined him and three others up to approximately $900 for participating in the unsanctioned rally. Of the eight detained January 29, three –including cultural critic Alex Ulko – have received 15-day sentences; one, Gulsum Osmanova, remains unaccounted for. It's possible she has been released or is still being held.
The whereabouts of at least six activists who had held a small rally to express support for Ukrainian protestors remain unknown after they were apparently detained by police January 29.
The six – prominent photographer Umida Akhmedova and her photojournalist son Timur Karpov, cultural affairs commentator Alex Ulko and three others – were detained two days after they picketed the Ukrainian Embassy in Tashkent in support of pro-democracy protestors, Fergana News reported. Fergana News believes the activists are being held in Tashkent's Khamza District police department, where an officer told Akhmedova's daughter late on January 29 that the group had already been released.
Akhmedova's husband Oleg Karpov fears the detainees, who appear to have not had access to a lawyer, may face "repressive measures" (such as torture, which is “systematic” in the justice system, according to Human Rights Watch). Activists throughout the region and further afield have called on Uzbek authorities to immediately release the group.
Participants at an annual gathering of Kazakhstan’s journalist community have called for authorities to ease tight restrictions on freedom of the media.
Opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov took the floor after a panel discussion in Almaty on November 27 to demand an end to what he described as de facto “censorship” and for dissident voices to be given access to the mainstream media. Kazakhstan’s opposition has long been marginalized from the media, and the situation has deteriorated since the courts last year closed down dozens of independent media outlets in the wake of late 2011's fatal unrest in western Kazakhstan.
The panel discussion at the sixth Media Kuryltay (“council” or “assembly”) pitted a government official against a prominent journalist who survived an assassination attempt that many observers suspect was linked to his outspoken reporting. The kuryltay offers a rare opportunity for an exchange of opinions between journalists reflecting all sides of Kazakhstan’s media spectrum – from strongly pro-government to staunch opposition – and bureaucrats from Astana.
Bolat Kalyanbekov, chairman of the Ministry of Culture’s Information and Archive Committee, offered a spirited defense of state media policy, pointing out that the government channels millions of tenge to the media every year. Lukpan Akhmedyarov of the regional Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper in northwestern Kazakhstan, who was lucky to survive a vicious attempt on his life last year, pointed out that the state might be throwing money at loyal elements of the media but this did not bring about greater media freedom.
Critical websites that have been blocked in Uzbekistan for years reportedly became accessible within the country in recent weeks. But sources tell EurasiaNet.org they are blocked again.
On October 27, Moscow-based Fergana News reported that from October 17 users in Namangan, Tashkent and Fergana could "freely access" Fergananews.com and other sites that frequently carry material critical of the Uzbek government and President Islam Karimov.
Sources in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org on October 28, however, that the sites, including EurasiaNet.org, are again blocked. (They can be accessed using proxy servers.) Uzmetronom also reports that the sites are again inaccessible from within Uzbekistan.
State media regularly warns about the supposedly harmful effects foreign media, culture, and social-networking websites have on young people, especially since the Arab Spring saw similar dictatorships toppled in the Middle East. Reporters Without Borders consistently ranksUzbekistan an "Enemy of the Internet."
Critical journalist Sergei Naumov has been freed after serving a short sentence for allegedly abusing a stranger on the street, Fergana News reports. Media outlets and human rights groups throughout the region had campaigned for his release.
Naumov was sentenced to 12 days on September 21 after he bumped into a woman who accused him of "harassing her, grabbing her breasts and insulting [her] with swear words." He denied the charges. He was held incommunicado, raising fears for his safety.
Naumov had been reporting on the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest, along with corruption and abuse of power by government officials, fostering widespread suspicions that authorities were trying to muzzle him.
“Sergei Naumov’s detention bears all the hallmarks of an illegal, enforced disappearance and appears aimed at silencing his independent reporting,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on September 24.
Bakhrom Khamroyev, president of the Moscow-based Society for Political Immigrants of Uzbekistan, organized a rally in Moscow on October 2 demanding Naumov’s release, Fergana News said.
An independent journalist missing for three days in Uzbekistan has been jailed on what human rights activists are calling politically motivated charges.
Sergei Naumov disappeared in the western city of Urgench on September 21 after telling friends he had been having trouble with local police. Given Uzbekistan’s record of forcibly silencing critics, and Naumov’s reporting on the use of forced labor in the annual cotton harvest, his friends feared the worst.
Nadejda Atayeva, France-based leader of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, wrote on her blog on September 24 that Naumov had been located in a detention center in Urgench after the city court found him guilty of "petty hooliganism" and sentenced him to 12 days after a remarkably speedy trial on September 21.
Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Uzbek human rights activists expressed alarm about Naumov’s disappearance. “The brutal practice of ‘disappearing’ government critics is a terrible blight on Uzbekistan’s already abysmal human rights record,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a September 24 statement.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Tashkent to “scrap the fabricated charges."