In Kazakhstan, the hopes of 2009 have given way to greater repression

Yevgeniya Plakhina at the 2009 Eurasian Media Forum

My international travel portfolio is odd, to say the least. It consists of two countries: Canada — and Kazakhstan. I visited the former Soviet republic in the spring of 2009 after being invited to take part in the Eurasian Media Forum, which brought together several hundred journalists, academics and political figures.

At the time, Kazakhstan was a semi-authoritarian country that, we all hoped, was starting to open itself up to the West. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, tightened his control over the years. And now Nazarbaev’s successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has cracked down on protests and appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.

The country has slid from 125th on Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2009 to 155th today. The organization’s report for 2021 says that

the state is modernizing its methods of repression and, in particular, exercising more control over the Internet, where surveillance is now widespread, news sites, social media and messaging services are now subjected to more “effective” periodic cuts, and bloggers have been jailed or confined to psychiatric clinics.

The Eurasian Media Forum was organized by Nazarbaev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who fancied herself as something of an intellectual. The event was aimed at providing the regime with some respectability. The most memorable part of the conference, though, was a protest by a group of young activists over Nazarbaev’s censorship of the internet, a protest that led to several arrests.

Adil Nurmakov in 2009

One of the activists, a young woman named Yevgeniya Plakhina, disrupted the proceedings and demanded that her friends be released. My friend the late Danny Schechter and I interviewed Plakhina, and I wrote about it for The Guardian. It was not exactly the sort of publicity the regime was hoping for. I also interviewed Adil Nurmakov, a political activist who at that time was an editor for Global Voices Online, a project then based at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center that tracks citizen media around the world.

The conference ended with a party sponsored by the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times Co.) and CNN International — a conflict of interest they would have been better off avoiding. We were treated to a troupe of scantily clad go-go dancers (“This is a nominally Muslim country!” Schechter yelled at me over the noise, laughing) and a chorus of singers anchored by none other than Dariga Nazarbayeva. Below is a video I recorded of their performance.

Needless to say, Kazakhstan is hardly alone in backsliding on the way to democracy. We’re not doing that well in the United States, either. Neverthess, it’s sad to see that the hopes people had a dozen years ago have ended in violence and the arrival of Russian troops.

A shocking breach of the First Amendment

Photo (cc) 2016 by Paul O'Brien.
Photo (cc) 2016 by Paul O’Brien.

The detention of a Canadian photojournalist at the US border is a shocking breach of the First Amendment. Ed Ou says he was stopped on October 1 as he was trying to fly to Bismarck, North Dakota, to cover the Standing Rock protests. According to the New York Times, his phones were confiscated so that authorities could look at his photos, possibly endangering the subjects of those photos.

The Obama years have not been good ones for freedom of the press, as I’ve written in the past. They’re going to get a whole lot worse under Donald Trump, with his call for upending the libel laws and with his thuggish manservant Corey Lewandowski demanding that Times executive editor Dean Baquet be locked up for publishing Trump’s partial tax returns.

The United States currently ranks 41st in press freedom, according to Reporters WIthout Borders. We could be considerably lower than that the next time the ratings are readjusted.

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NU graduate among journalists detained in Egypt

Leila Fadel

Leila Fadel, the Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief and a 2004 graduate of Northeastern University, is reportedly among a number of journalists who have been detained by Egyptian authorities. According to the Post, Fadel, staff photographer Linda Davidson and a translator who was working with them have been taken into custody. (See update below.)

“We understand that they are safe but in custody, and we have made urgent protests to Egyptian authorities in Cairo and Washington,” Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl is quoted as saying. “We’ve advised the State Department, as well.”

Mubarak’s Egypt is surely not Iran or North Korea, but the situation for reporters has been deteriorating in the past few days. In one high-profile incident, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was assaulted. Journalists at Al Jazeera, whose coverage has been invaluable, have come under attack and harassment as well. The New York Times reports:

The attacks on journalists started almost as soon as violent clashes began on Wednesday near Tahrir Square, as orchestrated waves of pro-government forces swept in, using rocks, bats, and knives and Molotov cocktails against the anti-government protesters.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has a round-up of incidents involving journalists. Says CPJ official Mohamed Abdel Dayem: “The Egyptian government is employing a strategy of eliminating witnesses to their actions.”

More from Reporters Without Borders.

Update (2 p.m.): Fadel tells the Washington Post that she and Davidson have been released. Several local Post employees remain accounted for and are believed to be in custody.