On Thursday evenings the Respublika editorial office in Almaty is a hive of activity as the Kazakhstani weekly newspaper goes to press. But it is not your average printing operation: it has echoes of the underground publishing methods used by the Soviet-era intelligentsia to evade the censors’ red pencil.
Censorship does not officially exist in Kazakhstan today. However, because it is denied access to regular printing houses, Respublika (which is well-known for hard-hitting content often stridently critical of Kazakhstan’s ruling elite) has been forced to resort to a latter-day version of samizdat, a term loosely translated as “self-publishing.”
“This is unusual for the 21st century,” said deputy editor Oksana Makushina, raising her voice against the racket of two printers churning out pages of the newspaper and gesturing at five women deftly compiling it by hand. “Today the printing basically takes us three days – what would take 40 minutes in a printing house.”
The newspaper’s current troubles date back to September 2009, when its printing house, Kometa S, was raided in a tax probe. A week later, Respublika’s print run was seized and bank accounts linked to it were frozen after it lost a libel case. The newspaper was ordered to pay around $400,000 in damages to BTA Bank over its reporting on the state takeover of the bank. Officials claimed they had to bail out BTA because its former chairman, Mukhtar Ablyazov, along with other top bank officers, had embezzled over half a billion dollars. Ablyazov, who maintains the fraud charges against him are politically motivated, left Kazakhstan for London before the opening of an official investigation.
The libel case against Respublika caused an international outcry. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders expressed concern about “an attempt to bring one of the country's leading independent newspapers to its knees,” and the OSCE representative on freedom of the media warned that “the level of intolerance toward the free flow of information and opinion is troubling.”
For the last 18 months Respublika has been unable to find a printer to take on the job of publishing it. Yet it is allowed to operate, albeit under pressure.
“We call this technical censorship – all printing houses refuse to accept our paper for printing, on trumped-up pretexts,” Makushina told EurasiaNet.org. “We’ve even tested it. If you want to print a literary newspaper in the same volume at approximately the same time, printing houses have the technical capacity, but if you want to print Respublika newspaper, the technical capacity isn’t there.”
Respublika’s print run of 19,000 is produced on office equipment, starting on Tuesdays when some sections of the Friday weekly are ready. The process peaks on Thursday evenings as copy is finalized.
Work continues throughout the night, with compilers manually collating and stapling the newspaper, and a driver collecting batches and delivering them to sales points during the early hours of Friday.
Respublika runs several makeshift printing operations, “so there’s also a chance that if, say, here it is blocked [by the authorities], part of the print run reaches the reader,” Makushina said.
Some senior members of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration – which insists that Kazakhstan is committed to defending press freedom – make no secret of their antipathy toward Respublika, or their suspicions that it acts as a mouthpiece for Ablyazov, now a vociferous critic of Astana.
In a March 4 interview with the Ekspress K tabloid, presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev alleged that Ablyazov was “the owner and sponsor of Respublika,” which he accused of fomenting discontent ahead of Kazakhstan’s early presidential election on April 3 and conducting “information terrorism against the first president [Nazarbayev] and against the whole of our country.”
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org in October 2009, Ablyazov described Respublika as an “independent newspaper” and denied owning any media outlets in Kazakhstan.
Makushina rejects criticism from some opponents that Respublika has an anti-government bias, and insists it is “an independent media outlet.” She also dismisses suggestions that it is reliant on Ablyazov. “Our country is basically not ready for the fact that a newspaper can exist without some sort of big, rich sponsor,” Makushina said.
She put suggestions that Respublika had recently become close to another vocal opponent of Nazarbayev’s, his former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, down to “a campaign to discredit” the weekly.
From his self-imposed European exile, Aliyev publishes reams of anti-Nazarbayev invective, some of which finds its way into the pages of Respublika and the handful of other newspapers in Kazakhstan that position themselves as independent.
Makushina denies suggestions that the newspaper is a mouthpiece for the anti-Nazarbayev opposition: “This cliche about an opposition newspaper has automatically emerged. We consider ourselves opposition only in the sense that we allow ourselves to criticize the current authorities.”
Respublika has spent much of the last decade doing just that, since its founding in 2000. It has been dogged by operational problems and legal troubles which have frequently coincided with turbulent political times. For example, pressure mounted on the newspaper following the establishment in 2001 of a reform movement called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), which included Ablyazov. And in 2002 Ablyazov was imprisoned on corruption charges that he says were politically motivated.
The same year Respublika received several threats: A wreath was sent to then editor Irina Petrushova, later the decapitated corpse of a dog was nailed to the office wall, and finally Respublika’s premises were firebombed. In 2002 Petrushova, who is now chairwoman of the newspaper’s editorial board, moved to Russia after a tax evasion investigation was launched against her.
In 2005 the government ordered Respublika to close for allegedly inciting ethnic enmity, but the outlet has countered attempts to shut it down by registering different names under which to publish.
Over the years it has come out under a variety of titles, including Nasha Respublika (Our Republic), Vsya Respublika (The Whole Republic), Moya Respublika (My Republic) and Respublika Delovoye Obozreniye (Republic Business Review). It currently publishes as Golos Respubliki (Voice of the Republic).
With the newspaper’s print runs vulnerable to seizure, (most recently, authorities seized a batch of copies in January.) the battle to distribute information has also moved online: With its website http://www.respublika.kz/ blocked in Kazakhstan, the newspaper reaches Internet audiences by posting content on social networks including Facebook, LiveJournal and Twitter.
Respublika’s current samizdat printing operation is just the latest battle in its long-running war of attrition to reach the newsstands, and the outlet does not appear ready to be silenced anytime soon.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.