In an unprecedented move, on July 1 Kazakh law enforcement authorities suspended the operation of the independent www.posit.kz website for three months. Confirming the harsh measure, Kazakh Deputy Prosecutor General Askhat Daulbayev said that the legal action had been taken after the website operators published an interview with Amalbek Tshan, a former member of parliament known for his extremist views on interethnic issues. In his interview posted by the website on November 13 last year, Tshan—referring to multiple cases of interethnic clashes between Kazakh residents and Uighur, Chechen, and Kurd minorities—called for the creation of reservations for non-Kazakhs to ward off future conflicts. He also stressed the “racial superiority” of Kazakhs over Russians. Daulbayev said that the General Prosecutor’s Office had already warned the website owners of the legal consequences for violating Article 2 of the Media Law, which forbids the dissemination of racist propaganda through media outlets. Article 13 of the law stipulates the suspension of media outlets found propagating ethnic superiority.
Daulbayev said that before resorting to suspension the General Prosecutor’s Office had sent warning letters to the operators of www.posit.kz indicating that they were violating the law, but website owners did not heed those warnings and continued publishing articles “full of abusive language” provoking interethnic violence. Tamara Kaleeva, the director of the Adil Soz freedom of speech foundation in Kazakhstan, was quoted as saying that the authorities had made the right decision suspending the website, because “we should not allow uncensored words and verbal abuse pour from the pages of printed or electronic media” (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, July 24).
This is not an isolated case of a media outlet being punished by law enforcement bodies. Earlier, independent papers and television stations, such as Diapason, Kanal 31, Azat, and Respublika, had repeatedly been pressured by the authorities for alleged violations of the media law. Authorities tightened the grip on independent printed and electronic papers, TV and radio stations after last April, when the prosecutor general sent letters to the owners of media outlets stating that it was inadmissible for them to publish articles inciting racial hatred.
In a giant melting pot of more than 130 ethic groups, religions, and cultures like Kazakhstan, the strict observance of the law meets a positive response from a wide section of the population. The smoldering hotbeds of ethnic conflicts in South Kazakhstan, however, showed their threatening scale last July when in Malybay village in the Yenbekshikazakh district of Almaty region Uigur and Kazakh youths were involved in a violent clash. Not surprisingly, the members of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, the brainchild of Nursultan Nazarbayev, designed to be an effective tool for the settlement of interethnic conflicts, has showed its utter helplessness during interethnic disputes. It simply remained passive during bloody interethnic incidents in Malovodnoye, Tengiz, and Shelek districts involving Chechens, Turks, Uighurs, and Kazakhs. Many observers question the legal basis for such an inefficient and costly organization. Observers note three basic reasons at the root of these conflicts: social inequality and extreme poverty of the population in the South, a lack of justice and abuse of the law on the part of power structures, and irresponsiveness of law enforcement bodies. Nationalists think that Kazakhs suffer most from injustices in courtrooms (Zhas Qazaq, July 11).
With the rapidly growing number of internet users in Kazakhstan, the authorities are increasingly shifting their attention to the electronic media. Last August the philosopher Nurlan Alimbekov was arrested by National Security Committee officers (KNB) in Shymkent, South Kazakhstan, allegedly for sending electronic mail of an anti-Russian content to the internet. In letters sent to foreign embassies from his prison cell, he asked for political asylum and complained that he was charged with spreading extremism and racial hatred through his electronic mail, an offense punishable under Article 164 of the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan.
Alimbekov said that he had, in fact, only expressed his personal views, warning that “the process of democratic development in Kazakhstan and efforts to build a state governed by law might be hampered by [Kazakhstan’s] close strategic partnership with Russia.” KNB officers in South Kazakhstan region broke into Alimbekov’s mail box and removed some letters to present them as evidence in court. His lawyers accused security officers of violating Article 18 of the Constitution of Kazakhstan granting citizens the right of privacy in personal correspondence. In a protest rally staged in Almaty on May 13 in remembrance of the victims of Stalinist repressions, Alimbekov’s supporters demanded his immediate release from the psychiatric prison (Vremia, June 3).
For journalists in Kazakhstan, the benefits of the internet are increasingly taking the shape of a double-edged sword to be handled with extreme care. Evidently, as the country propels toward OSCE chairmanship in 2010, the authorities will ease up on the media, but genuine freedom of speech is not in sight.