Kazakhstan: Government Calls in “Sick” in Press Freedom Battle
An appeal against the closure of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine was adjourned on February 5 amid circumstances that its hunger-striking editor described as “absurd.”
The hearing was adjourned after the plaintiff, Almaty City Hall, failed to show up, citing illness. That left Adam Bol magazine’s supporters questioning why the mayor’s office could not find another official to appear at the hearing.
One of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan, Adam Bol was closed in November after a judge upheld the mayor’s office’s claim that it had called for war in its Ukraine coverage.
Wearing a white armband with “hunger strike” emblazoned across it in red letters and looking visibly emaciated, Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva – a 63-year-old veteran journalist – said she believed the delay might be down to the “huge fallout” from the controversy.
The adjournment might be a “good sign” that the authorities may reconsider the closure, Yergaliyeva said. But some supporters suggested the government is simply hoping the publicity will die down.
The closure was described at the time by OSCE freedom of the media representative Dunja Mijatović as a “drastic and disproportionate” step that would “endanger pluralism in Kazakhstan and contribute to an atmosphere of fear for members of the media,” and by Reporters Without Borders as the “orchestrated throttling” of the magazine.
The case has also attracted the attention of the US Embassy, which sent a diplomat to court to observe the appeal, and of a UN rapporteur on freedom of assembly, after Yergaliyeva was briefly thrown in jail during his visit to Kazakhstan last month.
Speaking to EurasiaNet.org in her office the day before the appeal hearing, Yergaliyeva described the closure of Adam Bol – for running an interview in which Kazakhstani activist Aydos Sadykov urged people to go to Ukraine to fight against pro-Russian separatists – as a “pretext.”
The magazine was really silenced because its outspoken criticism of Russia rattled the powers-that-be not only in Astana but also in Moscow, Yergaliyeva said.
Adam Bol has been virulently critical of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and of Kazakhstan’s membership of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Hers is the kind of reporting that “doesn’t please the Kremlin” and likely made Moscow lean on Astana to muzzle the magazine, she said.
Yergaliyeva acknowledges that she has also “earned a lot of enemies” in Kazakhstan for her reporting on corruption and violations of political freedoms and human rights under the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. She has run into trouble in the past for managing other outspoken media outlets.
After the adjournment, Yergaliyeva announced that she was halting her hunger strike, during which she has lost 9 kilos in 18 days (she now weighs 51 kilograms), to restore her health as she prepares legal arguments for an appeal now slated for February 26.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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