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ALMATY, Feb 10 2012 (IPS) - President Nursultan Nazarbayev is orchestrating a media crackdown that editors and independent analysts say is the harshest since he began ruling this Central Asian republic in 1989.
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom watchdog, rates Kazakhstan 154th out of 179 countries.
The crackdown followed criticism in the country’s small opposition press of police firing on unarmed demonstrators Dec. 16 in the Western town Zhanaozen, where a bitter strike by oil workers at a state company has been under way since May. The government said 16 people were killed, but a reporter for the independent Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted a witness as saying she counted 64 bodies at one hospital morgue on that day.
Until then, Nazarbayev had been widely perceived as authoritarian but relatively benign, a champion of economic growth and of modernisation of the sprawling, minerals-rich former Soviet republic in Central Asia.
A month later, an election for the lowest house of parliament resulted in only three pro-Nazarbayev parties getting seats. The opposition Social Democratic Party, which analysts and diplomats believe polled at least 10 percent, officially was given 1.59 percent, far short of a 7 percent minimum to gain any seats.
Following his criticism of the shootings and the elections, Igor Vinyavsky, editor of the opposition daily Vzglyad, was jailed Jan. 26 and charged with “fomenting social unrest”, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
Police said then that when they had searched his office back in April 2010, they had found a leaflet that suggested that Nazarbayev be tossed into a trash dumpster. His lawyer has said the leaflet, which is available on the Internet, was planted, and that Vinyavsky has never called for the overthrow of the president – only for honest elections and the freeing of political prisoners.
In early February, Oksana Makushina, the deputy editor of Respublika, an opposition weekly whose chief editor now works from London for safety reasons, participated in a press conference to denounce Vinyavsky’s arrest. Copies of the leaflet were distributed.
A few days later, officials from the KNB, local successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, questioned her for two days and seized much of Respublika’s equipment. They said an unnamed attendee filed a complaint alleging that extremist materials were distributed at the venue.
Reporters Without Borders said it was “extremely concerned by the growing crackdown on independent journalists in Kazakhstan. The authorities, ever more paranoid as a result of riots in Zhanaozen in December, are using the security argument as a pretext to step up their crackdown on the media.”
Elena Malygina, a coordinator of Adil Soz, an Almaty-based non-governmental organisation that has been monitoring press freedom for 13 years, noted that until the riots at Zhanaozen, opposition journalists were able to work with relative freedom.
“Now most of them have been brought in for questioning by the KNB to intimidate and silence them,” she told IPS. “It’s never been so bad.”
Both Vzglyad and Respublika are widely believed to be financed by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive banker living in London and a longtime Nazarbayev critic.
In 2001, Ablyazov was among the founders of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, the first modern opposition party. It was created, the founders said at the time, when Nazarbayev refused to rein in a son- in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, who was accused of using his influence to forcibly take over companies at fire-sale prices.
Afterwards, Ablyazov was jailed on fraud charges that Amnesty International and others found politically motivated.
After his release, he stayed out of politics until the bank he controlled, BTA Bank, then the largest in Kazakhstan, was taken over by the government in 2009 in as it faced bankruptcy.
In a cable released by Wikileaks and written shortly after Ablyazov fled to London, the U.S. embassy there quoted him as saying that he planned “to support all opposition movements” in Kazakhstan.
“First on his agenda,” the cable said, “is to increase the amount of opposition reporting on his satellite television station K Plus,” which broadcasts a news-oriented programme that includes interviews with Ablyazov and other critics of the regime.
“The government claims the riot in Zhanaozen was fomented by supporters of Ablyazov to destabilise Kazakhstan and overthrow the president,” said Dosym Satpayev, an influential political scientist. “So now they’re putting pressure on all the structures he supports to a degree they’ve never done before, to destroy them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stan.kz is next.”
Stan.kz is an independent, web-based television production company that reports on politically sensitive subjects, such as the strike in Zhanaozen, that the mainstream media avoid. Its footage of the riot, the first to come out, was provided to Reuters, which distributed it around the world. Two of its staff who filmed in Zhanaozen were severely beaten up there with baseball bats and shot with rubber bullets.
After the authorities confiscated all of Stan.kz’s footage of Zhanaozen, its director, Elina Zhdanova, gathered her staff of 15 and told them what to do if the authorities raid the offices and arrest her and her deputy.
“Be polite but firm, and remember that we are not violating any laws,” she said. “Insist on seeing the search warrant and make sure you watch them at all times so they don’t plant anything.”
Access to the Stan.kz website has been closed by the authorities since Feb. 6.
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