Kazakhstan’s independent media and civil society shiver after protests

Life is returning to normal in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and commercial capital, after the unprecedented violence that followed peaceful protests earlier in January but questions remain over the actions authorities will take about civil society activists and journalists who publicised the protests.

Peaceful protests against rising prices started in the western oil town of Zhanaozen on 2 January and spread nationwide after the government’s refusal to cut the prices of liquefied petroleum gas back to the previous level. Back in December 2011, Zhanaozen had been the scene of violent clashes between striking oil workers and security forces that left at least 16 people dead.

The protesters began putting forward demands that the government should resign when the protests spread to Almaty on the evening of 4 January with protests on the city’s main square.

Access to the independent news site Orda.kz and the KazTAG news agency were almost immediately blocked in a heavy-handed response from Kazakh authorities.

Before they were blocked, Orda.kz and other independent outlets and blogs were the only sources of reliable information during the crisis. Despite the blockage of their website, its editor-in-chief Gulnar Bazhkenova said they had worked hard to keep their Telegram channel running.

“When the internet blackout was imposed, we looked for spots where the internet still worked and we would rush there to post our content wherever possible both on the website and Telegram channel,” she said. “We also shared logins and passwords with our colleagues abroad so they could post material which we passed on to them by all means available.”

Unlike in other towns and cities in Kazakhstan, the security services began to use force and the peaceful protests turned violent. Authorities later dubbed groups who hijacked these protests as “destructive forces” and “terrorists” without showing any evidence and imposed a two-week state of emergency and curfew in the city on 5 January. The same day a total blackout of communications, including the internet, was imposed on the whole country.

On 6 January Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation to send troops, mostly Russian, to restore order in Almaty.

The following day Tokayev blamed “certain human rights activists”, “free media outlets” and “foreign figures” for the tragic events which sent shockwaves sent through the country’s civil society and media circles.

As the number of those detained started rising throughout the country, exceeding 10,000 as of 13 January, many Almaty-based journalists and activists have become reluctant to share their views publicly on the ongoing events in their city.

However, Index spoke to some who would talk despite the current situation.

Ardak Bukeyeva, an independent journalist from Almaty, says that following the violence on Almaty’s main square her attempts to find out about the casualties at the city’s main morgue, ambulance hospitals and other medical facilities were fruitless because staff refused to provide the information, citing ‘no disclosure’ orders from above.

As communications were cut off, Bukeyeva headed to the city hall in the hope she would find information on missing relatives or victims. As she approached the building she heard shots fired to warn her away.

“Shutting down communications, especially the internet, violated my rights not only to access information as a citizen but also to disseminate it as journalist,” she says.

Bukeyeva hopes the human cost of suppressing genuine public protests about socioeconomic and political issues will lead to meaningful changes in the country. Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, only relieved the last vestiges of his omnipotent powers after holding a tight grip on them for over 30 years in protests in 2019.

Some of those who went out to Almaty’s city square on the first night of protests when they still were peaceful say that they would not even contemplate a protest in the current atmosphere of uncertainty.

Darkhan Sharipov, an activist from the Oyan, Qazaqstan! (“Wake Up, Kazakhstan!”) civil movement for political reform, was detained on the first night of the protests and kept until 3am when the protests turned violent. The following day, he and his fellow activists went back to the square but saw the violent crowd and decided to leave.

“It was hard to maintain communications because some had internet connections, but others did not,” he said. “After that night of violence we decided not to protest because we are afraid and fear that there might be repercussions.”

Political activist Askhat Belsarimov, who was also detained on the first night of the protests, echoes Sharipov: “We can’t think of protesting at the moment. Maybe, when the foreign troops leave.”

The Collective Security Treaty Organisation troops, which had the mandate of guarding government buildings and strategic facilities, started pulling out of Almaty on 13 January. The pull-out is expected to be completed by 19 January when the state of emergency ends. Should the Russian troops overstay their welcome, it will be a completely uncertain future not only for independent journalists and human rights activists but the whole county.

As for the country’s independent media, that remains to be seen.

While access to KazTAG was unblocked relatively quickly, it took until 13 January for the unblocking of Orda.kz to be announced by pro-government media outlets.

However, Orda’s Gulnar Bazhkenova told Index this was only partially correct.

“I personally could access to our website on my phone but I cannot do it on my computer which means the block hasn’t been lifted fully,” she said. “That’s why I have appealed to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requesting him to order the complete lifting of the block on our website.”

Kazakhstan’s activists are still concerned despite the seeming return to normality.

Darkhan says, “[The protests] might have ended for the general public but for civil society [the crackdown] is only starting,” he says. “It’s dangerous now. We all are keeping our heads down and waiting to see what happens.”

Kazakhstan must halt assault on press freedom

The injunction banning distribution and publication of ADAMbol, a popular opposition magazine in Kazakhstan, is a clear violation of freedom of press and free expression.

The magazine has been accused of engaging in “extremist war propaganda” by Almaty City’s Department for Internal Policies. Some activists believe the magazine has been targeted over its coverage of Ukraine’s Maidan protests. In addition to ordering the closure of the magazine, the injunction from Almaty district court on 20 November also demands the confiscation of all printed copies of the magazine.

Cracking down on media is a well known tactic for authorities to silence dissent and stifle debate — and one Kazakhstan has made good use of in recent times. Since late 2013, over 30 media outlets have been closed in the country, over various administrative code violations or allegations of extremism.

Index calls on Kazakhstan’s authorities to end the assault on the media and respect their citizens’ right to free expression.

The price of dissent in Kazakhstan

In recent weeks, Kazakh authorities closed down almost all independent media, and gave prosecutors new, wider legal powers against free speech. Protests against these latest attacks must go hand-in-hand with the defence of prisoners of conscience such as the poet and writer Aron Atabek, say his family and friends.

They warn that Atabek’s latest sentence — two years of solitary confinement for “insubordination” to prison authorities, on top of the 18 years he is serving for “orchestrating mass disorder” — puts his life in danger.

In mid-December, as Atabek was transferred back to the Arkalyk prison in Kostanai region to serve the two years, his son Askar Aidarkhan wrote to international campaign groups urging them to protest against his ill treatment.

Since being jailed in 2007, Atabek has frequently been deprived of proper food and water, access to fresh air and sunlight, as well as access to sports facilities and writing materials. He has also had manuscripts confiscated.

Atabek became a dissident writer and political activist in Soviet times, and has been a vocal critic of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev since then. In December 1986 he participated in the Zheltoksan demonstration, the first open protest against Soviet dictatorship to be held in Kazakhstan, and afterwards campaigned for the truth about those killed when the security services broke it up.

In 1992, shortly after Kazakhstan became independent, Atabek was given political asylum in Azerbaijan after publishing opposition newspapers. He returned to Kazakhstan in 1996 and since then published novels, plays and poems as well as political articles critical of the government.

Atabek’s 18-year jail sentence was imposed in 2007 after he took up the case of shanty-town dwellers at Shanyrak outside Almaty whose homes were destroyed in a violent, illegal police operation. Twenty-three other activists and shanty-town dwellers were jailed for between one and 14 years on a variety of charges.

Atabek’s family sees a pattern of protest and reaction. In 2007, the shanty-town dwellers resisted the Almaty authorities’ attempts to destroy their community — and Atabek was punished for supporting them. In 2011, oil workers in western Kazakhstan staged nine months of strikes and protests, culminating in the massacre of 16 of them by police at Zhanaozen — and retribution has been visited on politicians and media who highlighted the strikers’ plight.

Askar Aidarkhan, Atabek’s son, has said that “what is happening in Kazakhstan now [in the aftermath of the Zhanaozen massacre] follows on from what happened at Shanyrak”.

Shanyrak became a sanctuary for homeless families during the rapid expansion of Almaty in the early 2000s. It is estimated that when it was destroyed it comprised more than 2000 dwellings with up to 10,000 residents.

The notorious clearance of Shanyrak took shortly after the promulgation on 5 July 2006 of the law “On Amnesty and Legalisation of Property”. The city authorities, citing shanty-town dwellers’ failure to register their properties correctly, ordered them to leave. Atabek and other oppositionists argued that the real reason was that the authorities wanted to make the land available to property developers.

Atabek lobbied parliamentarians, wrote articles, organised petitions and reminded the shanty-town dwellers of constitutional rights that protected them. But pleas by Atabek and other activists went unheeded. The police tried to clear the shanty-town forcibly, and a violent clash ensued in which an officer died. A round-up of activists followed.

Atabek was tried and convicted in October 2007 of “orchestrating mass disorder” — despite there being no evidence that he was nearby when the clashes occurredHe was offered a pardon in exchange for admitting guilt, but he vehemently refused.

The poet has continued to write in prison, detailing illegal and inhumane prison conditions on his website, which was set up by friends and family to whom he sent his writings.  He has faced constant restrictions on visitors and had manuscripts confiscated. Before his current two-year sentence solitary, Atabek served a previous two-year period in a punishment cell (February 2010 to February 2012), for refusing to wear a prison uniform and other offences against prison rules.

Atabek’s son said in an email message to friends and supporters that his father’s health is suffering, and that he feared for his father’s life after the recent on-line publication of a book by him criticising Kazakh Nursultan Nazarbayev and other powerful figures in Kazakhstan.