As Kazakhstan prepares to host an OSCE summit in December, it is facing criticism of its record on press freedom. One watchdog group is contending that Astana’s restrictive policies risk undermining the organization’s credibility.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a report September 14 that was scathing in its assessment of Astana’s tolerance for free speech and other basic rights. “Kazakhstan is falling well short of its commitments to the OSCE … and the fallout is toxic,” the CPJ report stated. “By disregarding human rights and press freedom at home, Kazakhstan has compromised the organization’s international reputation as a guardian of these rights, undermined the OSCE’s relevance and effectiveness, and thus devalued human rights in all OSCE states.”
Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov countered that the government had not received any complaints from OSCE member states concerning media freedom. “Not a single OSCE country has criticized us over this,” he told EurasiaNet.org by telephone.
Omarov added that the prevalence of private outlets in Kazakhstan was an indicator of a healthy media environment: “The vast majority of media [outlets] in our country are private. This reflects the attitude of the government of Kazakhstan to the media,” Omarov said.
The CPJ report accused the government of reneging on pledges to liberalize the country’s media environment that Kazakhstani officials made before the country was awarded this year’s OSCE chairmanship. “President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev’s government promised reforms in exchange for gaining chairmanship of the OSCE. But the reforms never materialized and now, as a summit approaches in Astana, the OSCE is risking damage to its own reputation,” it said. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Astana vigorously disputes the depiction that it has not kept its promises. Kazakhstani officials point to legislative amendments enacted in 2009. Those changes have been criticized by detractors as cosmetic. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The CPJ appealed to Western leaders to engage Astana on human rights issues and press freedom, and it urged OSCE leaders to put Kazakhstan’s media freedom record on the OSCE summit agenda.
The agenda has not been finalized. Officials in Astana say they are open to discussion about press freedom. Omarov said that Kazakhstan has convened several gatherings on the Human Dimension – the OSCE’s vehicle for promoting democracy, human rights and media freedom – and that Astana will host a conference on media freedom, tolerance and human trafficking in November to which representatives of over 500 non-governmental organizations have been invited.
The CPJ called on Astana to loosen a legislative framework that allows editorial material to be seized, broadcasts and websites to be blocked and media outlets to be closed down. This forces independent outlets such as the beleaguered Respublika newspaper to play a “cat-and-mouse game” with the authorities, it said. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. The watchdog group also urged the government to repeal what critics see as restrictive legislation on privacy and the Internet, as well as put an end to online censorship. The Kazakhstani media watchdog group Adil Soz said earlier in September that it had recorded 12 cases of websites being blocked so far this year.
Since June, Nazarbayev has enjoyed enhanced protection from criticism under the Leader of the Nation law, which provides for up to three years in prison for a journalist convicted of insulting the president. No one has been prosecuted under this law to date. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
In addition, the CPJ called on Astana to keep a longstanding pledge to decriminalize libel. Adil Soz reported a total of 149 defamation claims lodged last year (69 by government officials), seeking some US$17 million in damages. Activists believe libel law is often used as a tool to suppress investigative reporting.
Adil Soz representatives maintain that journalists operate under dangerous conditions: the group reported that it had recorded eight attacks on media workers and editorial offices this year to date. The CPJ report highlighted one high-profile case – the brutal murder of Kyrgyz journalist Gennadiy Pavlyuk in Almaty last December. The CPJ questioned a lack of progress in the investigation. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].l
The case of journalist Ramazan Yesergepov, who is serving a three-year prison term on charges of revealing state secrets, illustrates that the threat of imprisonment is real for Kazakh journalists. Yesergepov, whose trial was closed, went on hunger strike in July to raise awareness about human rights violations in Kazakhstan. In an open letter quoted by the CPJ, he described OSCE leaders as “involuntary accomplices in what goes on in my country now.” [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Yesergepov, as well as human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, who is serving a four year sentence for an involuntary manslaughter conviction, stand out as examples of politically motivated criminal cases in Kazakhstan, the CPJ suggested. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“In a year that has done damage to the OSCE’s reputation as a defender of human rights, it is not too late for the organization and its chair to change course by publicly confronting Kazakhstan’s record of repression at the December summit and undertaking measurable, meaningful reforms,” the report concluded.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.