Rights group decries Kazakhstan's lack of media freedom

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Kazakhstan's failure to improve media freedom has damaged its international standing and the situation is getting worse, not better, a media advocacy group said in a report Tuesday.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that restrictions on the press have tightened even though Kazakhstan assumed the chairmanship of a prominent trans-Atlantic security and rights organization earlier this year.

Kazakhstan won the right to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe amid pledges that it would grant more freedom to the media.

"Not only did the government renege on promises to decriminalize libel, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed into law a restrictive new measure governing the Internet," CPJ said.

Criticism of the government and the president in oil-rich Kazakhstan remains largely off-limits, while most major media outlets are controlled by the state or the pro-government Nur Otan party.

Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Askar Abdrakhmanov said the report was unjustified and that Kazakhstan was open to discussion on freedom of the press. "We don't believe that repeated criticism is constructive," he said.

CPJ said at least one journalist, Ramazan Yesergepov, as well as a human rights activist, Yevgeny Zhovtis, have been jailed in retaliation for their work over the past two years.

Muckraking weekly newspaper Respublika has been subjected to a barrage of legal assaults, most notably when it was ordered to pay a crippling $400,000 in damages to state-controlled BTA Bank for allegedly provoking a run on its deposits. Authorities also raided the newspaper's printing house and a confiscated an entire weekly run.

CPJ also criticized Kazakh authorities for their attempt to muzzle Internet content, blocking access to several critical Web sites and popular blogging platform Livejournal.

Although Internet penetration still remains fairly low in Kazakhstan at an estimated 15 percent of the population, authorities clearly intend to restrict access to material critical of the government, CPJ said.

"In addition to censoring domestic content, the new and vaguely worded Internet law also allows for the blocking of international Web sites if those are found in violation of Kazakh law," the report said.

CPJ said politicized libel suits have also become a favored method of silencing independent media outlets. A court in January last year ordered Kazakh-language weekly Taszhargan and one of its reporters to pay $20,000 to a member of parliament for slandering him in an article about rising food prices. The court later increased the damages tenfold.

Taszhargan publisher Yermurat Bapi was subsequently jailed for five days for failing to pay the damages.

Despite widespread concerns over Kazakhstan's reluctance to implement democratic reforms, OSCE members have agreed for the former Soviet nation to host a summit later this year bringing together the organization's heads of state.

"Independent journalists, human rights defenders, and political dissidents see the summit as a public relations tool for the Nazarbayev administration, one that would lend legitimacy to his government and obscure its many human rights failures," CPJ said.

Abdrakhmanov said although the agenda for the summit has not yet been finalized, the Kazakh government believes all issues covered by the OSCE, which include media freedom, would be discussed at the event.