ALMATY — A U.S. media watchdog urged Kazakhstan to curb the use of politically motivated lawsuits against critical journalists as it prepares to chair Europe’s main security and human rights body in 2010.
Independent media have come under heightened pressure in the former Soviet republic as the government worries that economic problems and shrinking incomes may trigger broader discontent with President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 20-year rule.
In an open letter to Nazarbayev, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) criticised Kazakhstan for “selective and politically motivated use of civil libel lawsuits” against independent journalists.
“We urge you to use the resources of your high office to stem the practice of seeking excessively high damages to limit press freedom, and we ask you to declare your support for the independent press, including outlets critical of your government,” it said in a letter issued late on Monday.
“The need for these actions is particularly pressing in the run-up to Kazakhstan’s 2010 chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.”
Kazakhstan responded with caution to the report.
“We do accept criticism but only when it is objective. We do want positive sides to be noted as well,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
“It is also wrong to say that all Western countries uphold OSCE standards,” he said. “The United States for example is criticised for using capital punishment.”
The deepening financial crisis, which has brought Central Asia’s biggest economy on the brink of recession, has sharpened Kazakhs’ unease with the government — a concern for Nazarbayev whose popularity has so far relied on people’s growing incomes.
A survey by the U.S. International Republican Institute showed on Tuesday separately that Kazakhs were more pessimistic about their future this year than in mid-2008 when it conducted a similar survey in the vast oil-producing nation.
According to the poll, carried out in February on a randomly selected sample of about 1,500 Kazakhs, 23 percent of people felt the economy would get worse this year, up by six percentage points compared to August 2008, the IRI said in a statement.
The West agreed to allow Kazakhstan to become the first ex-Soviet nation to take over the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE after its government promised to introduce liberal reforms.
But rights groups believe Kazakhstan has brought only cosmetic changes to its laws and still tolerates little dissent.
In one case, the opposition Taszhargan paper is fighting a defamation case which the CPJ said could result in its closure. The blogging service LiveJournal, frequented by liberal-minded Kazakhs, has been shut for domestic users since late last year.
The CPJ said at least six independent outlets faced more than 60 defamation lawsuits, citing data compiled by Kazakh press freedom group Adil Soz, and accused the government of extracting “exorbitant damages” to censor critical reporting.
“At least 18 government officials were among the plaintiffs in these cases,” it said. “Despite protests by local and international press freedom groups, your government has continued to seek and extract exorbitant damages as a means to censor critical reporting and commentary.” (Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana)