Kazakh prosecutors last month achieved international notoriety, as they sought to close eight newspapers and 23 web sites, and sued Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LiveJournal.
Journalists in the country fear that this latest crackdown will destroy the limited amount of pluralism that still exists there.
On 4 December, a Kazakh court banned the online news channel Stan, accusing it of violating country’s laws on extremism and national security. Only a week earlier, on 27 November, the court ordered the suspension of publication and distribution of opposition newspaper Vzglyad. Two other papers, Respublika and its affiliated weekly, Golos Respubliki, have also been suspended pending verdicts in their cases.
They are all accused of spreading extremist views and inciting civil strife through their coverage of December 2011 violence in Zhanaozen. Months of protests by striking oil workers in this western town ended with police gunning down unarmed civilians, leaving 16 dead.
In another case, the court ordered publication of the independent news website Guljan to be suspended and the access to it blocked.
Extremism charges levelled against media outlets are worrying. The ruling could have dangerous implications for their staff — if authprites decide to move against individuals — as this is a serious crime that can lead to substantial penalties. Previously, the authorities’ traditional method of muzzling media was dragging them into libel cases.
The latest move against more than 30 media outlets will effectively put an end to independent reporting from inside the country. Kazakhstan is beginning to look more and more like neighbouring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Independent media is non-existent in all three countries, which were listed amongst the bottom nine performers for political rights and civil liberties in 2012 report by the US-based rights watchdog Freedom House.
In the first nine months of last year, the only data available so far, there were 16 criminal prosecutions under criminal law including ten libel cases, according to monitoring by Kazakh media advocacy group Adil Soz. There were also 15 attacks on reporters; 34 cases when journalists were prevented from doing their job and access to more than 100 websites was either temporarily restricted or blocked.
Over the last three years authorities have toughened legislation regulating various parts of media. Last year, the broadcast law was adopted resulting in TV and radio being completely monopolised by the state. In 2009, Kazakhstan’s media law was changed to make internet content subject to the same controls that apply to conventional print and broadcast media. In addition, despite a decade long lobbying by media activists defamation still exists as a criminal offence.
Kazakhstan’s poor rights record was reflected in 2012 Press Freedom Index by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders where the country ranked at 154th place out of 179.
In the face of multiple challenges — including failure to stabilise the economy, a rise in protests linked to industrial disputes, and power struggles within the Kazakh elite — the country’s leadership is in a vulnerable place, and this is likely to contribute to a downward spiral in media freedom, as the country is now focused on survival, rather than keeping up the appearance of a commitment to democracy.