Free speech in Kazakhstan: An update

The campaign for freedom of speech in Kazakhstan continues.

Yevgenia Plakhina

Yevgenia Plakhina

In April 2009 I met a remarkable young journalist, Yevgeniya Plakhina, during the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Using techniques generally associated with the West, such as flash-mobbing, she and her fellow free-speech activists protested restrictions on the Internet then being considered by the Kazakh parliament. Several were arrested, though they were quickly released. (I wrote about the activists for the Guardian and for Media Nation.)

Despite hopes that President Nursultan Nazarbayev would not want to sully Kazakhstan’s image on the eve of assuming the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), he signed the restrictions into law last July.

In early April, Plakhina, now 25, came to Washington to participate in a forum organized by the Open Society Institute in order to talk about freedom of the press in Kazakhstan. She traveled with two colleagues: Vyacheslav Abramov, executive director of the MediaNet International Center for Journalism, and Anastassiya Knauss, who’s with the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights.

Plakhina works for the newspaper Golos Respubliki, which is Russian for “Voice of the Republic.” The paper is the successor to Respublika, where she was working when we met in Almaty. Respublika, she says, was closed following a court order to pay a $400,000 libel judgment to BTA Bank. According to Plakhina, the court found that the offending article caused a deposit outflow of more than $40 billion. “The trial was held with many violations of Kazakh law,” Plakhina says.

She adds that no one in Kazakhstan is willing to print Golos Respubliki because of its opposition to the government. The paper is printed using risograph technology, and is also published on the Web. It has a Facebook and Twitter presence as well. The paper also offers a free e-mail service.

What follows is a transcript of a recent interview I conducted with Plakhina by e-mail. She answered my questions in English; I have have edited her answers slightly for syntax.

Q: You recently visited Washington as part of your campaign against Kazakhstan’s increasingly restrictive laws on Internet use. Could you please explain the current situation in Kazakhstan and what you hoped to accomplish by coming to the United States?

The restrictive Internet law which our campaign, For Free Internet, fought against was signed in July of last year. This law equates all Internet resources, including chats and blogs, with mass media, and allows Kazakh authorities to block certain Web sources upon a court ruling. However, even having legal mechanisms to block the websites, Kazakh authorities do not bother to use them. They just block certain resources containing criticism of the government and President Nazarbayev without filing any lawsuits.

For about a year and a half, the popular blog platform LiveJournal has been blocked within the territory of Kazakhstan. For about half a year, Google’s Blogger.com was also unavailable (today, surprisingly, I opened it). These blogging platforms contain personal pages of opponents of President Nazarbayev. For example, on LiveJournal there is a page maintained by President Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, who publishes mudslinging information about Kazakh officials and exposes corruption cases. Since the end of April the Respublika Web portal (a joint project of the Kazakh newspaper Golos Respubliki and Russian journalists) and the Golos Respubliki newspaper website are also unavailable. Kazakh authorities are blocking websites to filter important political information.

The law was promised to eliminate pornography and interethnic hatred in the virtual space. But none of this was done. Kazakh authorities created the Center for Computer Incidents, which is supposed to undertake the responsibility of implementing the restrictive law on the Internet. But still there are no visible results of the work of the center. I suppose the law on the Internet can be used in case of presidential or parliamentary elections or during mass demonstrations in Kazakhstan if they take place.

As for my visit to the United States, of course, we are trying to attract the attention of the international community to the violation of human-rights issues in Kazakhstan, especially in the light of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE. Of course, we would like the United States to raise human-rights issues, including problems with freedom of speech, during meetings at all levels with Kazakh authorities. But at the same time we understand that the international community will not solve our problems. Only civil activity, the civil initiative of Kazakhstani citizens, can make a difference. That’s why our campaign, For Free Internet, continues our work. To fight with website blocking, our activists have filed more than 120 lawsuits against the Ministry of Information and Communication for its criminal failure to act while the right of Kazakhstani citizens to obtain and disseminate information is being violated.

Q: How has the Nazarbayev government reacted to your campaign? Have you or your colleagues been arrested? Are you afraid of being arrested?

A: Basically, there is no reaction from the president himself. The biggest attention we get is from the police and the prosecutor’s office, who regularly come to our flash mobs. Our activists were arrested, as you remember, for intending to organize a flash mob. At the end of April 2010, we organized a flash mob in front of the national Internet provider Kazakhtelecom. None of the seven activists was arrested, but two of our activists, Zhanna Baytelova and Irina Mednikova (co-founder of the campaign), were brought to court and accused of participation in an unsanctioned demonstration. Zhanna Baytelova has to pay a $200 fine. Irina Mednikova received only a warning. This is a method which authorities use to prevent people from participating in any civil activity.

We are not afraid of being arrested. We are not doing anything illegal.

Q: Has the political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan led to greater repression in Kazakhstan?

A: Of course. Law-enforcement bodies are trying to prevent any massive gathering of the regime opponents (for example, as happened on May 1). The lower and upper houses of the Kazakh parliament passed a bill that grants Nazarbayev the status of “Leader of the Nation” and exempts him from any liability in accordance with Kazakh law, including criminal liability. After the Kyrgyz events, Kazakh authorities first blocked the forum of Respublika, where Kazakh citizens shared their support with their neighbors. Then they blocked Respublika itself.

Q: Is the military relationship between Kazakhstan and the United States, recently solidified by Presidents Obama and Nazarbayev, popular or unpopular among the Kazakh people? Should the United States change its approach toward Kazakhstan? If so, how?

A: There are rumors that President Obama agreed to carry out the OSCE summit in Astana [the capital of Kazakhstan] in exchange for constructing the U.S. military base in Kazakhstan. But these are only rumors. Kazakh civil society wrote President Obama a letter asking him not to support the idea of holding the summit in Astana because human rights are violated in Kazakhstan.

Of course, the U.S. often criticizes the Kazakh government for violating human rights. After the Kyrgyz events there was lots of criticism of the United States for keeping its military base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and of the White House for ignoring human-rights violations in Kyrgyzstan. In future, this may be the case with Kazakhstan.

Q: What are your hopes for Kazakhstan? How would you like to see your country change over the next five to 10 years?

A: Fair elections, a fair judicial system, respect for freedom of speech. These are the principles we want our country to follow not only in five to 10 years but NOW. Unfortunately, we have little hope for that – especially taking into consideration the bill “On Leader of the Nation,” which president is about to sign. Kazakhstan is slowly turning into a monarchy. Our authorities should look at neighboring Kyrgyzstan and avoid their mistakes.

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

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