The authorities continued their broad harassment of media that criticise President Nazarbayev and his associates and jailed journalist and human rights activist Sergei Duvanov, a strong critic of the regime.
The privately-owned media are much more developed in Kazakhstan than elsewhere in central Asia, but such independence remains largely theoretical because most of the media is controlled by associates of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, notably his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. The few opposition papers and websites, which have printed articles about "Kazakhgate," a scandal involving the president and his entourage in embezzlement of oil revenues, were again targeted by the authorities in 2003 and sued for defamation, prosecuted for bureaucratic reasons, closed or prevented from operating.
Journalist and human rights activist Sergei Duvanov was sentenced in January to three and a half years in prison for the alleged rape of a minor after an investigation and trial marred by many irregularities. The European Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as several states and human rights groups protested against the sentence, calling it an attempt to discredit one of the country's most critical opposition journalists.
The European Parliament denounced media censorship in Kazakhstan in October and called for the decriminalisation of defamation, notably the criminal code's article 318, often used to prosecute journalists for supposedly harming the reputation and dignity of the president.
A new press law, strongly criticised by the press freedom organisations, was still being debated at the end of the year, but the media were not really being consulted about it. The proposed law would introduce a system of media licensing, registration and accreditation by bodies almost entirely controlled by the authorities and would ban foreigners from holding a post as editor-in-chief.
A journalist imprisoned
Sergei Duvanov, editor of the opposition newsletter Human Rights in Kazakhstan and the World, published by the International Bureau for Human Rights, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on 28 January 2003 by a court in Almaty for raping a minor. The same day, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticised procedural errors in the case and the lack of evidence to support the charges. Two days later, the US government also expressed concern. The European Parliament called on 13 February for Duvanov to be freed at once and said it was very concerned about the investigation, legal procedures and sentence. The regional court in Taldy-Korgan (350 km from Almaty) upheld the conviction on 11 March. International observers who asked to attend the hearing were not allowed in court when the verdict was announced. A report by OSCE experts in late March said the investigation and trial were full of irregularities, that defence rights had been violated and that Duvanov's guilt had not been proved. Duvanov's conditions of detention at the Zareshnoye prison camp near Almaty deteriorated between July and September. His notebooks and writing materials were taken away, incoming letters and packages were kept from him, mail he wrote was confiscated and he was no longer allowed to make phone calls, officially for technical reasons. Prison authorities refused to allow a family member to visit him on 5 September. His lawyers got a letter from the supreme court on 29 October rejecting their request for reconsideration of the case in view of the OSCE report. A regional court ruled on 29 December that he could return to Almaty because of good conduct in prison and he was to be conditionally freed in mid-January 2004. Duvanov was arrested on 28 October 2002 and accused of raping a 14-year-old girl. He had been due to fly the next day to the United States to present a report on democracy and human rights in Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev told a press conference at the European Commission in Brussels on 29 November that his guilt had "already been proved." His trial began on 24 December that year but his lawyers were not allowed to examine the whole case file. Duvanov is one of the regime's fiercest domestic critics, has frequently denounced its harassment of independent media and the opposition and has been prosecuted for harming the reputation and dignity of President Nazarbayev. He was seriously injured when three thugs beat him up on 28 August 2002.
Two journalists physically attacked
Maxim Yeroshin, founder and editor of the opposition weekly Rabat, was attacked and beaten by thugs near his home in the southern town of Shimkent on 16 April and hospitalised with multiple head injuries. Colleagues said he was probably attacked because of a report in the paper on 10 April about luxury villas the president and other top officials were building illegally inside the country's nature reserves. Yeroshin himself said: "Look in the paper and see who stands out among those mentioned." A police investigation was begun but by the end of the year, the attackers has not been found.
Andrei Doronin, a reporter for the daily Ekspress-K, was beaten outside his home on 3 October by four thugs who forced him into their car, took his press card, questioned him about articles he had written on vodka smuggling and threatened further physical reprisals if he did not stop writing about the subject.
Harassment and obstruction
Kazakh Internet users complained in early 2003 they could not access websites that regularly featured criticism of President Nazarbayev and his associates for being involved in corruption. Yuri Mizinov, editor of the news website Navigator (www.navi.kz), quoted experts as saying all customers of the country's main Internet service provider (ISP), the state-owned Kazakhtelecom, had been cut off from the website. Other news sites, such as www.eurasia.org.ru and www.vestipavl.com), Assandi-Times (www.respublika.kz) and the Politon news agency (www.club.kz) – were also blocked. They could only be reached through foreign-based proxy servers, taking up to half an hour to get through. By the end of the year, the situation had not changed.
Two jobless youths in the southern town of Taraz were jailed for three years on 26 March for setting fire to the offices of the opposition paper Delovoye Obosreniye Respublika with petrol bombs on 22 May 2002. The paper's founder, Muratbek Ketebayev, was initially accused of organising the attack. The youths said he had asked them to do it but they later retracted, saying the organiser simply looked like him when it was proved that Ketebayev was in Moscow at the time. Ketebayev and his lawyer said the guilt of the youths had not been proved and said they would appeal against the verdict and ask for the enquiry to be reopened. By the end of the year, the investigation had not been resumed.
Police seized the latest issue of the opposition newspaper SolDat from sales-points in Almaty, Astana, Aktobe, Ust-Kamenogorsk and Kustanai on 4 April without giving any legal justification.
An Almaty court suspended the newspaper Kazakhstan for three months on 18 April at the request of the information ministry, which said it had printed more than the number of copies stated in the paper. The suspension was confirmed on appeal on 4 June.
A court in Astana ordered the opposition paper SolDat to pay two million tenges (11,400 euros) in damages on 28 April to member of parliament Yerasyl Abylkassymov and his wife for harming the reputation of Mrs Abylkassymov in a 14 December 2001 report about poor management at the college she runs.
A tax court in Almaty fined the opposition paper SolDat 57 million tenges (325,000 euros) on 22 May for not paying sales tax for two years, though the law exempts the media from paying it. Editor Ermurat Bapi appealed against the decision the same day and was banned from leaving the capital until the appeal was heard. The paper's accounts were frozen and it was forced to close. The appeals court fined the paper 43,000 euros on 17 November and banned Bapi from working as a journalist for five years. He filed a further appeal.
An Almaty court fined Igor Vinyavsky, editor of the opposition paper Vesti Pavlodara, three million tenges (16,800 euros) on 4 June for publishing inaccurate news about member of parliament Vasily Maximoniko during the last elections.
The regional government in Taraz (400 km south of Almaty) ordered the region's media on 10 June to provide within seven days information about leading journalists' professional contacts and the likes, dislikes, editorial lines and political positions of the media outlet and all its journalists, in view of upcoming local elections.
Vesti Pavlodara was ordered to pay 500,000 tenges (2,800 euros) and editor Vinyavsky 20,000 tenges (112 euros) on 17 June for libelling several policemen by printing a report in 2002 by Irbis TV reporter Kanat Tusupbekov, who was jailed for two years for "hooliganism" in June 2002 after being been beaten up by thugs, taken to a police station, beaten by police and then convicted of starting a fight.
Zhumabai Dospanov, owner of the independent paper Altyn Gasyr, was fined the equivalent of 580 euros on 27 June after the information ministry complained its masthead was inaccurate. Editor Kuttygerei Smadiyar said the authorities wanted to shut down the paper because it had printed reports about "Kazakhgate," a scandal linking President Nazarbayev and other powerful people in embezzling state oil revenues.
An Almaty court fined the independent paper Assandi-Times (ex-Respublika) the equivalent of 1,765 euros on 1 July for libelling Kazakhstan's ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Rahat Aliyev, the president's son-in-law, for saying in a 25 April article that he was using his political ties to get rid of business rivals. The paper was ordered to print a retraction.
An Almaty court fined the opposition paper Soz the equivalent of 17,650 euros on 1 July for libelling Daniyar Ashimbayev, author of "Who's Who in Kazakhstan" by saying in a 7 May article that the authorities had forced him to cooperate by accusing him of possessing drugs.
Alem Makhambetov and Kairat Konuspayev, reporter and photographer of the Assandi-Times, were expelled on 10 July by the presidential guard from a room in Almaty where visiting NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson was to give a press conference, though they had permission to attend .
The Assandi-Times, run by Irina Petrusheva, was shut down for three months on 6 August after the information ministry complained it was not properly registered. The staff founded a new weekly, Ekonomika.Financy.Rynky, on 15 August.
The Almaty administrative court fined the editor of Soz, Sharip Kurakbayev, the equivalent of 520 euros on 14 August for printing articles that did not match topics previously announced to the authorities and especially for printing political pieces. It ordered the seizure of the 7 and 14 May issues. A court-commissioned enquiry said the paper was under the orders of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan opposition party and was printing "aggressive and biased" articles. The paper regularly describes President Nazarbayev as authoritarian.
Managers of the firm Astra LLC, which distributes Wimpex vodka, held a dozen staff members of Irbis-TV hostage in their own offices, including managing Alexander Yurcenko, for several hours on 2 October. Cameraman Oleg Chegodayev was attacked as he tried to film the scene. The incident was because the TV station reportedly had evidence the firm was involved in vodka racketeering. The kidnappers were not punished.