Kazakhstan: Astana Keeps Tight Grip on News as Unrest Spreads
Deadly unrest in Kazakhstan's oil-rich west has spread beyond the troubled town of Zhanaozen, leading to another clash between security forces and protestors in which one demonstrator was shot dead, bringing the death toll since Friday to 14.
The latest trouble began at the railroad station in the town of Shetpe 100 kilometers from Zhanaozen, where protestors blocked the railroad and disrupted train traffic, the prosecutor’s office said. Some dispersed at police orders, but a group of about 50 set fire to a train with Molotov cocktails before rioting in the town, after which police opened fire.
The train blockade began, the prosecutor’s office said, at 1:24 p.m. on December 17, spilling into violence at around 8:00 p.m. What the prosecutor’s office did not explain was why it buried news of the fatal clash by posting a statement on its website in the middle of the night. The news was picked up by Kazakh news agencies at around 3:00 a.m. on December 18.
Likewise, though trouble broke out in Zhanaozen on the morning of December 16, the prosecutor’s office waited until 5:00 p.m. to give a briefing. State TV channels Khabar and Kazakhstan continued broadcasting joyful footage of Independence Day celebrations, while the Twitter social networking site and critical news websites such as Guljan were blocked.
Government officials in Astana were among those relieved when Twitter was restored on the evening of December 17. “Glad to be back on Twi!” tweeted Roman Vassilenko, chairman of the Foreign Ministry’s Committee for International Information.
Following accusations of a cover-up, Yerlan Idrisov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, issued a combative statement by e-mail. “What can be said for sure is that the Kazakh government demonstrated a laudable openness,” he said.
“We are fully open to questions from the public,” Idrisov continued. “As a mature government, we routinely field questions and provide full answers. … However, I reject the one-sided, biased judgments made far too quickly by those who are eager to criticize my country.”
Officials blamed the shutdown of mobile communications and Internet in Zhanaozen on electricity outages, damage to cables inflicted during rioting, and on the system being overloaded.
A state of emergency in Zhanaozen allows authorities to restrict access to the town, but journalists also encountered obstacles reaching Shetpe to report on the latest unrest.
Peter Leonard of The Associated Press tweeted on the afternoon of December 18 that he had been stopped with a group of journalists traveling to Shetpe.
“They have now let us proceed but this is [a] worrying sign of how journalists are not being allowed to travel to places where unrest occurs,” he tweeted, shortly before announcing that authorities were taking a group of western reporters to Zhanaozen.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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