Kazakhstan: Court Jails Reporter for 'Spreading False Information'
Kazakhstan is showing signs it is stepping up its campaign against critical journalists with the one-and-a-half year jail sentence handed down to the editor of a defunct news website.
An Almaty court on May 23 found Guzyal Baydalinova guilty of deliberately distributing false information in relation to her outlet’s reports on trouble at the country’s largest bank, Kazkommertsbank.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has slammed the verdict and demanded Baydalinova's release.
"CPJ condemns [the] sentencing of Guzyal Baydalinova, who has already spent five months behind bars merely for doing her job," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement.
Baydalinova and her now-closed website, Nakanune.kz, have already been on the receiving end of Kazakhstan’s punitive libel laws, which media advocacy groups argue are specifically designed to quash independent reporting.
Last April, Kazkommertsbank filed suit after Nakanune.kz ran a letter claiming the lender was implicated in corruption. A court in Almaty in June ordered Baydalinova, who owns the domain name, to remove the offending post and pay 20 million tenge ($107,000) to compensate for damage to Kazkommertsbank’s commercial reputation. Baydalinova’s legal team had argued that the lender failed to prove that the Nakanune.kz post had in fact caused any financial damage, which should have invalidated the monetary penalty.
What appears evident from this latest verdict is that the libel laws were not considered to be a sufficiently severe tool in coping with Nakanune.kz and its staff.
In December, police raided the offices of Nakanune.kz, confiscating documents and equipment in the process, and the homes of several of its journalists. Baydalinova was arrested a few days later and has been in custody ever since — a draconian measure for a patently low-risk suspect.
The Baydalinova case shines a light on Astana’s struggle to understand how to deal with the unfettered circulation of information and written material in the era of the Internet. Supporters of Kazkommertsbank’s initial complaint might want to argue that commercial entities, particularly ones whose fate is important to the whole country, should be able to defend themselves from what they deem to be unsupported assaults on their reputation. It is conversely fair to suggest that rumors have greater chances to proliferate (and be believed) when the only outlets allowed to operate are ones either owned by the state or beholden to it.
Then again, in this case, abstract considerations about media freedoms are only part of a much bigger picture.
Nakanune.kz was formed by refugees from Respublika, a similarly aggressive newspaper that survived many years of multi-layered harassment at the hands of the authorities until it was finally banned in 2012 for “extremism.” It is widely believed that Respublika was funded by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive oligarch and a bitter foe of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. (Both Respublika's reporters and Ablyazov have staunchly denied the link, however). But when it comes to squashing anything with even the slighest suspected whiff of Ablyazov, Kazakhstan’s government will in a very literal sense go to all ends of the earth.
Consider two cases fought in very distant jurisdictions in which Kazakhstan does not have the luxury of being able to jail its antagonists.
Legal teams working for Astana in the United States have been trying, with limited success, to force Facebook to reveal information associated with accounts for Respublika and individuals linked to the newspaper. That campaign is related to a quixotic and doomed effort to hoover up a colossal leak of confidential emails by high-ranking officials in Kazakhstan’s government. Some of those communications were between government officials and US legal advisors.
Unfortunately for Kazakhstan, when judges in the land of the First Amendment hear stories about how Respublika once had the body of dead dog nailed to its office wall and eventually got firebombed it doesn’t seem to go down well.
But Astana has had more luck in New Zealand, which is the home of the servers to which the hackers of the government emails uploaded their documents. The High Court in Auckland on May 12 ordered Mega, a New Zealand-based company that provides highly anonymized cloud-based data services, to hand over IP and email addresses and contact, account and payment information for whoever uploaded the leaked correspondence.
This only gets Kazakhstan part of the way there, since it is uncertain that whoever uploaded the documents are necessarily the same parties as those that obtained the confidential emails in the first place.
Note: This article was updated on May 25, 2016, to reflect that Mukhtar Ablyazov and Respublika have both stated on record that Ablyazov did not fund Respublika.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.