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Kazakhstan: One Of Few Remaining Independent Newspapers Faces Closure

Most Kazakh newspapers are controlled by the government and its allies (RFE/RL) An Astana court has ordered the independent newspaper "Law and Justice" to be closed, alleging that errors were made when the newspaper was registered.

But the newspaper's owners allege that the decision has nothing to do with their registration -- and everything to do with shutting down an independent media outlet that reports on corruption within Kazakhstan's judiciary.

The newspaper has appealed the court's ruling, announced on February 14.

Tokbergen Abiev, the owner and editor in chief of the newspaper, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the court decision aims to intimidate the independent media in Kazakhstan. "This is pressure against the media through the judicial system," he says.

Abiev also says the Astana interregional economic court made its decision based on a mix-up between two different companies under the same name. "The foundation of the newspaper 'Law and Justice' is completely different from this other company that is also called Law and Justice," Abiev said. "We will contest this verdict and take it to the Supreme Court, and we are going to stick to our position."

Abiev says that while his newspaper is not the organization that had factual errors in its registration, he is sure the court knows that and that the decision was intentionally aimed at his newspaper. The newspaper was targeted for closure, he says, because "we always report about the activities of judges, about illegal rulings, and violations of the rights of citizens."

One of those named in the "Law and Justice" stories was Saylaubek Dzhakishev, the chairman of the Astana City Court.

Zhumabike Zhunusova, a journalist at another independent newspaper, "Svoboda slova," says if the judges implicated in the "Law and Justice" reports feel they have been unfairly targeted by the stories, then they should themselves resort to the court system for redress. "This is not slander, this is criticism," Zhunosva said. "If this was slander, why didn't [the authorities] bring a case to court? This is an example that shows that freedom of speech is under fire in this country."

"Law and Justice" is the first independent newspaper to face closure in more than a year in Kazakhstan. That does not mean that the Kazakh government has given the press free rein, but rather that the authorities have already closed most of the critical media outlets in the country. The majority of the media that remains is state-owned or controlled by friends or supporters of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The newspaper has already suffered through one crisis. In March 2007, one of its journalists, Oralgaisha Omarshanova, traveled south to the Almaty area to cover ethnic unrest in a small town. The 39-year-old Omarshanova disappeared before reaching the town. She has not been heard from since.

There is no date set for when a court will hear "Law and Justice's" appeal to remain open.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)

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