Court seizes issue of leading Kazakh newspaper in another blow for media freedoms

By Peter Leonard (CP) – 2 days ago

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Court officials in Kazakhstan seized the latest issue of a leading independent weekly Friday in a move the newspaper said was part of government efforts to have it shut down.

The seizure by bailiffs comes weeks after a court ordered Respublika to pay state-controlled BTA Bank almost $400,000 in damages for slander and causing a run on the lender’s deposits.

Closure of one of Kazakhstan’s few remaining independent media outlets would tarnish the ex-Soviet nation’s democratic credentials as it prepares to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – a leading trans-Atlantic security and rights body.

“BTA and the courts don’t give a damn about the country’s reputation – let the entire civilized world consider us a country of goons,” said Respublika’s lawyer, Sergei Utkin.

Editor Oksana Makushina says court bailiffs accompanied by BTA officials confiscated 23,000 copies of the newspaper as partial payment toward the damages owed.

Utkin said bailiffs had no right to confiscate the newspapers as Respublika still has a week to appeal the court’s decision.

Court officials confirmed the seizure, but could not provide any additional details.

The state holding company Samruk-Kazyna in February bought a 75-per cent stake in BTA, effectively nationalizing the lender as it struggled to service its debts. The value of shares in the bank collapsed subsequently amid widespread concern over the lender’s fate. BTA’s external debts are currently valued at more than $10 billion.

The bank says Respublika’s coverage of its financial difficulties was instrumental in causing accountholders to withdraw around $9 million over a one-week period in March.

The newspaper claims the BTA libel suit was orchestrated by the government and is part of a campaign of political persecution.

Media freedom in Kazakhstan is coming under increased scrutiny as the country prepares to take the chairmanship of the OSCE.

In bidding for the 2010 chairmanship of the OSCE, Kazakhstan pledged to institute a range of democratic reforms, including improving media liberties.

But rights activists say authorities in the Central Asian nation routinely abuse libel laws to financially cripple critical newspapers and hamper independent reporters.

In April, a Kazakh court jailed the publisher of opposition newspaper Taszhargan for failing to pay damages to a deputy in the national parliament for slandering him in an article about rising food prices.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says six independent news outlets and their reporters were targeted by more than 60 defamation lawsuits last year in Kazakhstan.