When he walked into a Kazakh appellate court last month, independent "Taszharghan" newspaper journalist Almas Kusherbaev fully expected the court to reduce a substantial fine over an article he had written about rising food prices.
A district court had ruled just weeks earlier that the April 2008 article insulted the honor and dignity of a member of parliament. Kusherbaev's newspaper was ordered to pay the equivalent of roughly $20,000, pending an appeal.
Much to the journalist's surprise, however, the appellate court not only failed to reduce the penalty but instead increased the sum tenfold to around $200,000 -- effectively closing down "Taszharghan."
"Usually the procedure is that when you go to a higher level [court], they should be reviewing the decision in terms of the law, in terms of rights and reason -- that is, looking at the expertise that led to the decision," Kusherbaev told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "But here it appears the ruling was reviewed as an appeal from the plaintiff, who had originally demanded more money."
International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused the appellate court of boosting the fine "for the explicit purpose of destroying the popular paper, which sells 400,000 copies daily and opens its columns to the opposition."
The "Taszharghan" ruling also prompted Kazakh media-rights group Adil Soz and the Kazakh Union of Journalists to write in protest to the Kazakh government this week.
The timing of that case and other examples of alleged official interference has given rise to perceptions that the government is taking a hard line to avoid expressions of public frustration during tough economic times. Despite Kazakh authorities' tight grip on public discourse, the administration is clearly concerned that falling oil prices and other economic blows could usher in social unrest.
In his address to the nation on March 6, longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev called on Kazakhstan's citizenry to be patient.
Nazarbaev also ordered the government to enact billions of dollars in additional measures to stimulate the economy beyond an already-announced $21 billion in spending. The new spending should include public-works and infrastructure projects, aid to regional governments, and funds to prop up the banking and construction industries.
A senior member of the unregistered opposition party Alga, Vladimir Kozlov, claims that official responses to economic woes are high in the minds of Kazakh citizens.
The administration's moves include a recent devaluation of the national currency, the tenge. "Right after the devaluation of the tenge, the majority of the population of the country became 20-something percent poorer," Kozlov says, "and the situation so far has only grown worse."
When they get their voices heard, opposition groups and independent media outlets appear unwilling to avoid any hard-hitting discussion of the kind of "hot-button" issues that Nazarbaev's administration has so successfully stifled in the past.
But the "Taszharghan" case is regarded by some as an example of a wider effort to silence government critics. It has also cast a spotlight on some seemingly unresolved questions about Kazakhstan's commitment to the values it will soon be expected to espouse unambiguously.
"We are all the more appalled at the persistence of this kind of practice, since Kazakhstan is due to take over the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from 2010," Reporters Without Borders wrote on March 2.
Critics claim there is ample evidence of increased scrutiny of media outlets -- whether traditional or Internet-based.
The owner and editor in chief of the independent weekly "Almaty-Info" is currently on trial for divulging state secrets in a November 2008 article, and is also being sued for defaming a businessman.
Also this week, the head of the zonakz.net website complained that Kazakh law enforcement agencies were blocking access to the website, which is known for having carried material critical of, and at times potentially damaging to, the government.
After a shutdown of zonakz.net's domestic servers that followed its posting of purported recordings and transcripts of senior Kazakh officials' phone conversations, the site was registered abroad only to find access blocked by a new distributor-denial-of-service program known as DDOS-attak.
Operator Yury Mizinov claims the obstacles are related to the recent posting of information about an unsanctioned rally planned by the opposition Azat party at which the Kazakh government was going to be called upon to resign.
RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Edige Magauin and correspondent Ukulyay Bestayeva contributed to this report