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Kazakhstan: Nonstate Media Under Fire

For years, international monitors and local observers have complained of attacks in Kazakhstan against nonstate media, printing houses, and distribution routes in the country. The latest developments in this vast Central Asian republic show, however, that those restrictions have devolved into physical intimidation and violence against journalists and their organizations.

Prague, 29 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Almaty city economic court on Monday ruled that the weekly "Delovoe-Obozrenie-Respublika" -- one of the last Kazakh opposition newspapers -- should stop its operations and close down.

According to the court, the paper's editorial board had failed to obey an earlier verdict, in April, ordering the paper to close down for two months for failing to number its editions properly -- a technicality.

This latest blow to "Respublika" comes a week after the paper's offices in Almaty were firebombed by unidentified assailants who threw Molotov cocktails through the windows. The firebombing followed an earlier warning attached to the body of a headless dog left at the office.

The recent violence has not been confined to "Respublika."

The day before "Respublika's" offices were burned, two journalists from the Almaty-based opposition paper "SolDat" were assaulted by four men who broke into the publication's offices and stole property. According to the journalists, the assailants threatened further attacks if "SolDat" continues publishing.

The police have blamed hooligans for both assaults, denying the attacks are part of any organized campaign against opposition media.

The spokesman for Kazakhstan's National Security Committee, Kenzhebolat Beknazarov, told RFE/RL his organization has "nothing to do" with the attacks.

"The National Security Committee has nothing to do with these attacks. The Interior Ministry is thoroughly investigating the case. The National Security Committee is assisting [the Interior Ministry], so we are also searching for the people involved [in these cases]," Beknazarov said.

The recent violence comes on the heels of other incidents directed against private and opposition media. These include an arson attack earlier this month against the Ak Zhayik publishing house in western Kazakhstan and the repeated vandalizing of Tan television's equipment in Almaty.

Opposition media say the incidents amount to a politically motivated campaign to clamp down on private media. "SolDat" editor in chief Ermurat Bapi told RFE/RL: "Apparently, the people who have carried out this attack are those who fulfill political orders because when they hit my colleague in the head, one of them said, 'This is the last warning to you.'"

"SolDat" is supported by the People's Republican Party of Kazakhstan, which is led by former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin.

Kazhegeldin no longer lives in Kazakhstan and was sentenced last summer in absentia to 10 years in jail for allegedly mishandling finances and illegally possessing a weapon.

As for "Respublika," it is owned by former minister Mukhtar Abliazov, now the leader of the opposition party Democratic Choice Movement of Kazakhstan. He was recently arrested for alleged abuse of power while in office.

Tamara Kaleeva is head of the nongovernmental organization Adil Soz, which is concerned with press freedom. She told RFE/RL that she believes the attacks are part of a campaign to silence independent media.

"The way they destroyed the publishing house in Aktau and the newspaper ['Respublika'] in Almaty is not usual for criminals, as some people say. I would say this is a state attack against mass media. This is a terrible phenomenon in our social life," Kaleeva said.

The vice chairman of the National Congress party, Guljan Ergalieva, agrees. "The attack against the newspaper 'SolDat' is an apparent continuation of the state's attack against independent mass media."

The attacks are raising international concern, especially in the European Union and the United States.

Today, the European Union released a statement calling on Kazakh authorities to undertake a "fast and exhaustive investigation" to identify and prosecute those responsible for violent acts.

Last Friday, the U.S. State Department said in a statement it appears the recent events in Kazakhstan are aimed at intimidating independent media and opposition politicians.

More information on the situation is expected in the coming weeks when the local office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issues a report on the media in Kazakhstan.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)