One of Kazakhstan’s last remaining independent newspapers has been ordered to pay heavy damages in a libel case that its editor believes was designed to drive it out of business.
The ruling ordering the Tribuna/Ashyk Alan newspaper to pay nearly $15,000 in damages to a former Almaty city official was the latest in a series of lawsuits lost by independent media in Kazakhstan that critics see as a blow to freedom of speech.
“This basically means the destruction of the independent media,” Zhanbolat Mamay, the newspaper’s editor, told EurasiaNet.org after the verdict on July 12. “It is an attack on freedom of speech.”
The lawsuit was filed by Sultanbek Syzdykov, a former Almaty city hall official whom the newspaper had labeled “corrupt” because he was accused of embezzling $70,000 from funds to stage the 2011 Asian Winter Games. A criminal probe was closed after he repaid the sum.
The case was widely covered in Kazakhstan’s media at the time, but Tribuna/Ashyk Alan has now been punished for reporting on it, Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz (Freedom of Speech) watchdog noted.
Denis Krivosheyev, a journalist at the bilingual Russian-Kazakh newspaper (whose name means “Platform”), wrote about it again this spring after Syzdykov was appointed to head a company belonging to city hall.
“[Syzdykov] now considers that he is not corrupt, and that we called him corrupt without grounds,” Mamay told EurasiaNet.org prior to the verdict, which awarded Syzdykov a third of the $45,000 in damages he had sought.
Mamay pointed to the newspaper’s coverage on sensitive issues such as recent land protests as a possible source of its troubles. Tribuna/Ashyk Alan was also one of the few outlets in Kazakhstan to report on the naming in the Panama Papers of citizens of Kazakhstan, including Nurali Aliyev, the grandson of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“All this indicates that there is probably a political decision, possibly in Astana, to close down one of the last independent publications,” Mamay said.
The government denies that cases are pursued against the media for political reasons, and says freedom of speech is guaranteed.
Nevertheless, independent outlets have suffered several blows lately.
In May, Guzyal Baydalinova of the Nakanune.kz website was jailed for one and a half years for “disseminating false information.” A hearing into her appeal began on July 12, a week after Tair Kaldybayev, the businessman jailed alongside her for allegedly paying to place defamatory material on the site, was found hanged in prison.
Baydalinova’s colleagues at Nakanune.kz — which was set up by reporters from Respublika, a prominent independent newspaper closed down in 2012 — shut the website in April, citing the pressures of trying to operate as an independent voice.
Last fall, a court ordered the closure of the Adam magazine over a linguistic technicality, in a case that editor Ayan Sharipbayev described as “connected to politics.”