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Ratel.kz editor in chief Marat Asipov (left) appears in an Almaty court with his lawyers on May 10.

A coalition of 26 international press freedom organizations has called on Kazakh authorities to review recent civil and criminal actions taken against two popular independent media outlets and revise legislation used to silence the media.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), PEN International, and other media watchdogs made the calls in a joint letter posted on May 18 on the website of IFEX, a network of organizations working to promote and defend freedom of expression and information worldwide.

"We are concerned that the growing pattern of disproportionate, and in some cases, illegal actions taken by the prosecutor's office and the judiciary against Ratel.kz and a number of other media suggests misuse of Kazakhstan's legal system to silence normal criticism crucial to the functioning of a well-ordered democracy," they said.

Almaty police on April 2 raided the editorial offices of the news site Ratel.kz and the local edition of Forbes magazine, confiscating computers and documents from both media outlets. The homes of several journalists working for the outlets were also searched.

Meanwhile, Ratel's website and Facebook page have been blocked.

The actions were part of a criminal investigation based on a claim filed by businessman and former Finance Minister Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, claiming that the outlets published false information that damaged his reputation and that of his son.

CPJ says Ratel.kz and Forbes Kazakhstan have reported on the alleged corrupt business practices of the Kakimzhanovs between May and December 2016.

The joint IFEX letter to Kazakhstan's prosecutor-general, Supreme Court, parliament, and minister of information and communications called for a review of the law on dissemination of "false information," saying it levies "disproportionate penalties" on journalists and media outlets and poses a "threat" to critical reporting.

Opponents and rights groups say that President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has held power in Kazakhstan since before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, has taken systematic steps to suppress dissent and sideline potential opponents.

Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a statement on the case against Ratel.kz and Forbes.kz, urging Kazakhstan's authorities to stop using libel laws "to harass journalists who are doing their jobs."

​​Participants in the march were guarded by police escorts after a similar rally last year was halted to avoid a confrontation with religious counterprotesters.

Religious hard-liners in Moldova's capital tried to crash a rally in support of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community but were fended off by police who deployed tear gas.

The Orthodox Christian protesters unsuccessfully attempted to break through a police line set up to guard dozens off demonstrators who marched through Chisinau in the May 19 rally against homophobia.

Video footage from the scene showed Orthodox activists rinsing their eyes with water after apparently being repelled by police.

Participants in the march were guarded by police escorts after a similar rally last year was halted by police to avert a confrontation with religious counterprotesters.

At last year's march, scores of participants were evacuated in buses by police after eggs and water were thrown at them by those attending the rival protest.

More than 20 Western embassies in Moldova -- including those of the United States and numerous EU members -- issued a statement of support for this year's march two days prior to the event.

"As the values of tolerance and respect for diversity are fundamental to open democratic societies, we recognize the right of LGBTI-persons and their supporters to conduct the Solidarity March...peacefully," the embassies said in a letter released by the rally's organizers.

Moldovan President Igor Dodon (right) greets an Orthodox bishop during an anti-LGBT march in Chisinau on May 12.
Moldovan President Igor Dodon (right) greets an Orthodox bishop during an anti-LGBT march in Chisinau on May 12.

The Moldovan branch of Amnesty International last year accused President Igor Dodon of violating the country's constitution by saying that he was not the president of Moldovan gays.

"I have never promised to be the president of the gays, they should have elected their own president," Dodon told reporters the same day as last year's rally that police cut short.

Dodon had criticized last year's march before it was held, saying it promoted "actions [that] contradict our traditional values."

Dodon said ahead of this year's march that "only normal families" have a place in Moldova.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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