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Kazakhstan: Independent Media Feeling Under The Gun

  • Bruce Pannier

The offices of Kazakhstan's opposition newspaper "Respublika" were burned down in May after the paper received anonymous warnings that its reporting about a financial scandal allegedly involving the president should stop. Last month, another apparent warning was received when the daughter of a "Respublika" journalist died suddenly in hospital after being arrested. Her mother was not allowed to see her body. The authorities plead ignorance, while an official from the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders says he plans to travel to Kazakhstan soon to investigate the incidents.

Prague, 10 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Lira Baisetova's nightmare began with a phone call on 23 May. "I've warned you," the caller said. "But since you've ignored what I said, and you continue [to publish stories]...."

That was the day that Baisetova, a journalist at Kazakhstan's independent newspaper "Delovoe-Obozrenie Respublika," learned that her daughter Leila had disappeared.

The next news of Leila Baisetova came on 16 June, when a man claiming to be from Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry called Lira Baisetova to say that her daughter had been arrested for possession of heroin, fallen into a coma, and been taken to hospital. Lira Baisetova was not allowed to see her daughter in hospital. Five days later, she was told her daughter had died.

The death of Leila Baisetova is not the first strange event to have happened to independent journalists in Kazakhstan since the start of May. The "Respublika" offices were fire-bombed and destroyed the day before Baisetova's daughter disappeared.

Baisetova herself was physically assaulted in 2000 and 2001, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe, in its 30 May report, the "Current Media Situation in Kazakhstan," mentioned that in January 2001, Baisetova wrote an open letter to the Kazakh interior minister describing "anonymous phone calls she received, as well as the sight of suspicious individuals in the vicinity of her editorial office."

Alexander Levy works for the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders. He knows Baisetova and will soon travel to Kazakhstan to investigate Leila Baisetova's death for his organization.

Levy said there is little doubt about why this happened to her. "The [prosecutor-general] in Switzerland is currently investigating a few bank accounts belonging to the family of the president, [Nursultan] Nazarbaev, and two former prime ministers, including [Akezhan] Kazhegeldin and their families. All these problems with [Baisetova's] daughter started just the day after the publication of this article [about the investigation] in the [independent] newspaper 'SolDat.' Just the day after the publication, her daughter disappeared," Levy said.

The scandal surrounding Nazarbaev and his alleged Swiss bank accounts has been an issue for two years now. "Respublika" wrote about the issue often, but publication was suspended for two months in April when the Information Ministry accused the newspaper of violating the law by failing to indicate an official registration date on its editions. Baisetova's article about Nazarbaev appeared in "SolDat" instead.

Baisetova is not the only journalist at "Respublika" who believes she is being targeted. The newspaper received a note on 19 May reading, "There will be no next time." It was attached to the decapitated body of a dog. The dog's head was found later at the home of "Respublika" Editor in Chief Irina Petrusheva. Petrusheva also had two funeral wreaths left at her home during that month.

Petrusheva, a Russian citizen, was found guilty last week of "illegal entrepreneurial activity" in Kazakhstan, but had her 18-month jail sentence suspended under an amnesty law.

It is not only "Respublika" that has been affected.

Two days before the disappearance of Leila Baisetova, unknown assailants entered the office of "SolDat" and beat two journalists and destroyed newspaper equipment.

Other media outlets in Kazakhstan have reported crimes against their personnel and property. Levy said: "This is not an isolated case. It is part of a larger picture [characterized] by a general deterioration of human rights and working conditions for independent press."

Levy mentioned that another journalist, Sergei Duvanov, was placed under house arrest yesterday for insulting the president. Duvanov authored an article titled "Silence of the Lambs" on 6 May that accused Nazarbaev of having private bank accounts with state money in them.

Nazarbaev has denied he has any money in foreign bank accounts. On 5 July, he also denied that the independent media in Kazakhstan is being targeted. "Ninety percent of our media is independent. There is no censorship. Open any of our newspapers, look at our television [channels]. There is a lot of criticism about all structures of power," Nazarbaev said.

The authorities in Kazakhstan blame hooligans for the acts against independent media outlets.