ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by today’s raids on Nakanune.kz, one of Kazakhstan’s few remaining independent news sources, and calls upon the Kazakh authorities to respect their obligation to uphold freedom of expression.
On 18 December, police in Almaty conducted searches of the offices of Nakanune.kz, which is well-known for its investigative journalism around allegations of corruption between the Kazakh authorities and the business elite and its outspoken criticism of the Government. Earlier that morning, police also searched the properties of Guzyal Baidalinova, the owner of the site, and Yuliya Kozlova, a journalist working for the site.
“The Kazakh authorities are afraid of the power of independent media to expose government wrongdoing and corruption. We fear that today’s raids on Nakanune.kz might be a politically-motivated attempt to silence critical reporting and prevent genuine investigative journalism in the country,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes at ARTICLE 19.
A warrant provided by police stated that the searches were part of a pre-trial criminal investigation concerning a group of people, involved in “the dissemination of knowingly false information that posed a danger to public order and inflicted heavy damage to Kazkommertsbank JSC, to the amount of KZT 144,235,090 (approx. £300,000 GBP).” Those involved are alleged to have conspired to use media outlets and online portals, specifically www.respublika-kaz.info and nakanune.kz, to disseminate deliberately false material. While it is not yet clear whether further action will be taken, the warrant suggests that Baidalinova and Kozlova could face charges of ‘dissemination of knowingly false information’ under Article 274 (4) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.
This is not the first time that Nakanune.kz and its journalists have come under pressure from the Kazakh authorities: in September this year, Nakanune.kz lost a libel case brought by Kazkommertzbank, regarding an article about corruption in the construction industry. In the case, the plaintiff claimed that the article had damaged the bank’s reputation, resulting in a loss of profits. An Almaty court ordered Baidalinova, the owner of the site, to pay approximately £70,000 in compensation, a decision Baidalinova is currently appealing. She maintains that the information published in the article was in the public interest, and should have initiated a police inquiry. Meanwhile, her lawyer argues that the court did not establish evidence of any material loss resulting from the article, which might have served as a basis for compensation.
A number of Nakanune.kz’s journalists worked previously with Respublika, an independent newspaper which was highly critical of the Kazakh authorities, until its closure was forced in 2012, on charges of extremism.
Following this, in April 2014, an Almaty court ruled that the Assandi Times, where a number of former Respublika journalists were working, was an affiliate of Respublika, and ordered its closure. Respublika is now operating through a Russia-based site, Respublika-kaz.info. This site was implicated in the Nakanune.kg libel case, for having distributed the article in question.
ARTICLE 19 has condemned the Kazakh authorities’ harassment of Respublika on numerous occasions, including in December 2012, when the publication was first suspended on charges of ‘extremism’, following its coverage of the Zhanaozen strikes, which resulted in security forces’ indiscriminate shooting of unarmed civilians; and in April 2014, following the closure of the Assandi Times. In both incidences, the actions of the prosecution demonstrated a clear attempt to ensure political control over the media within Kazakhstan, resulting in the restriction of the flow of information.
Given the history of harassment of the independent media in Kazakhstan, in particular persecution of Respublika and Nakanune.kz, and their journalists, ARTICLE 19 fears that the recent raids on Nakanune.kg are politically-motivated, and part of a wider pattern of intimidation, aiming to prevent investigative journalism from exploring and exposing corruption, and silencing critical reporting within Kazakhstan.
We remind Kazakhstan of their obligation to protect and promote freedom of expression and call upon the Kazakh authorities to cease threats and intimidation of those who exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression.