Anti-corruption officials on February 10 detained the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few surviving independent news publications on charges of corruption, once more arousing anxieties about the fast-vanishing space for free media in the country.
Authorities are accusing Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
The Anti-Corruption Service said in a statement that they suspect Mamay of using his publication to launder money allegedly embezzled from BTA Bank by Ablyazov and his associate Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov.
Ablyazov is accused of defrauding BTA Bank, which he used to run, of billions of dollars between 2005 and 2009. Kazakhstan has sought but failed on repeated counts to secure Ablyazov’s deportation from either the United Kingdom or France.
Anti-corruption officials have said they are running searches for documentation possibly confirming allegations of money-laundering.
A journalist for Tribuna, Inga Imanbai, published video footage on her Facebook account of the moment when the anti-corruption officers arrived to search the newspaper’s offices. Imanbai said that the same officers had previously also visited Mamay’s apartment.
Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
Mamay has had run-ins with the authorities in the past. In 2012, he was accused of inciting social unrest in the western oil town of Zhanaozen, which was the scene of the bloody quelling of a violent labor protest in December 2011. He spent several months in a pretrial detention facility but was eventually freed following intermediation between the authorities and a member of the Azat opposition party.
In September 2013, a court in the business capital, Almaty, ruled that distribution of Tribuna be suspended for three months for violating a law requiring media to inform the authorities if they intend to stop publishing for any period of time. Tribuna had that year stopped publishing issues from July 10 to August 21. Rights activists described the ruling as politically motivated.
As well as targeting traditional media in a systematic campaign to restrict outlets for dissenting voices, Kazakhstan has increasingly take aim at social media sites and apps, as documented in an Amnesty International report published this week.
“In the absence of access to most other mass communications channels, particularly broadcast and print media, these sites have become spaces where human rights defenders have been able to post information and raise awareness about human rights abuses and violations,” Amnesty said. “However, the relative freedom of expression that people in Kazakhstan have enjoyed on the internet is now under threat.”
In support of its argument, the rights group argued that the government is using “legislative powers to shut down or block access to individual online resources, temporarily or permanently.”
“In addition … in 2015 and 2016, authorities in Kazakhstan used administrative and criminal sanctions against people for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression online on a larger scale than in previous years,” the group said.