Two opposition movements and dozens of media outlets critical of the government are under threat of being shut down in Kazakhstan.
Kazakh prosecutors have requested that some 30 newspapers, Internet sites, and television channels, as well as the unregistered Algha! (Forward!) and People's Front opposition movements, be banned for allegedly propagating extremism and seeking to overthrow the government.
Judges will hear the case of Algha on December 5. The trial of "Golos respubliki" (Voice of the Republic), the first newspaper to face closure, is due to begin on December 6.
The opposition is denouncing a campaign to root out Kazakhstan's opposition forces following riots by oil workers in the cities of Zhanaozen and Shetpe last December during which at least 17 people were shot dead by police. The violence, which capped months of protests by the striking oilmen, was the deadliest unrest in Kazakhstan's post-Soviet history and severely dented the country's reputation for stability cultivated by President Nursultan Nazarbaev for more than two decades.
"This is happening chiefly because of the Zhanaozen events," says Tamara Kaleeva, head of Adil Soz, Kazakhstan's international foundation for the protection of freedom of speech. "Our authorities were so frightened by this massive, protracted protest staged by oil workers in defense of their labor rights that they are taking steps at all levels and in all spheres in order to prevent similar unrest. They are panicking."
Prosecutors accuse Stan-TV, "Golos respubliki," and other leading independent media of fomenting violence in Zhanaozen.
They have asked for the closure of a total of eight newspapers and 23 Internet sites operating under the umbrella of the Respublika media group. These include the prominent opposition newspaper "Vzglyad" (Viewpoint) and satellite TV channel K+.
Prosecutors link their request to the sentencing of Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the Algha and People's Front opposition movements. A vocal critic of Nazarbaev, Kozlov was handed a 7 1/2-year prison term in October on charges of seeking to rally Zhanaozen's oil workers in a failed bid to topple the government.
Authorities have also hinted at ties between Kazakhstan's independent media and one of Nazarbaev's biggest foes, former media and banking tycoon Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Ablyazov fled to Britain in 2009 after falling out with Nazarbaev. He has been on the run since February of this year, when British judges sentenced him
to 22 months in jail for failing to disclose full details about his wealth as part of a lawsuit launched against him by his former bank in Kazakhstan, which accuses him of embezzling $5 billion during his tenure as chairman. His whereabouts is unknown.
Sergei Utkin, a lawyer for "Golos respubliki," denies Ablyazov owns the newspaper. "It publishes material that is too independent, that displeases authorities, including [material] on Zhanaozen," he says.
"There's also the fact that -- even though it does not legally belong to either Ablyazov or Kozlov -- the authorities believe that the newspaper is linked to these individuals. And the authorities consider Ablyazov and Kozlov enemies."
Little Support For Opposition
Utkin says "Golos respubliki" has already been shut down for the duration of the trial, and its accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and LiveJournal have been blocked.
The operations and activities of "Vzglyad" and Algha have also been suspended pending a court decision.
But Kazakhstan's marginalized opposition enjoys little support at home and few Kazakhs -- most of whom credit Nazarbaev for making their country Central Asia's most stable and economically prosperous nation -- have risen in defense of opposition journalists.
Free-speech advocates in Kazakhstan say they have little hope for the survival of "Golos respubliki," "Vzglyad," and other independent media.
"These publications will probably be shut down," Kaleeva says. "Our authorities want to exterminate the opposition hydra. The fact that opposition media, and opposition in general, are necessary in a democratic society has been completely forgotten in Kazakhstan."
The cases, nonetheless, are being closely followed by international rights groups and Western governments.
Human Rights Watch has already denounced Kozlov's prison sentence as "a blow to freedom of expression and political pluralism," while the United States has accused Kazakhstan of using its justice system "to silence opposition voices."
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has also lambasted the media crackdown as "a dramatic step in the wrong direction" and warned that a court ban on independent media would represent "a serious blow to Kazakhstan's reputation internationally."