A cold Friday night in January turned into yet another nightmare for Almaty-based journalist Dinara Yegeubayeva when unknown people set fire to her car. Two days later, Kazakhstan’s police said they detained five minors for arson.
This is not the first time that Yegeubayeva has suffered material threats. In November, her car was the target of an act of vandalism: Someone slashed her tires and glued her windshield wipers and the lock.
In September 2022, two policemen visited her home to inquire about her whereabouts, as they had been allegedly alerted of a bomb threat. Yegeubayeva considered this a pressure strategy on the part of the authorities.
The minors who broke into Yegeubayeva’s car with a brick and set fire to it said an unknown person had commissioned the act, promising payment in return. Yegeubayeva recorded a video as one neighbor put out the fire, saying “it could have been a huge explosion.”
Since January 2022, Yegeubayeva, a former anchor for a state-owned TV channel and staff member at the local branch of RFE/RL, increased her online presence, carrying out interviews with victims of Bloody January (Qandy Qantar in Kazakh), the violent repression of peaceful protests across the country.
In late December 2022, she announced the creation of the Altynshy Qantar (January 6) political movement, which plans to run candidates in the parliamentary elections that should take place in the spring.
She is one of several journalists and media under pressure in Kazakhstan for their activities. A window by the offices of El Media was broken with a brick in October. One week earlier, the Orda.kz newsroom received a package containing a pig’s severed head.
Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, ranked Kazakhstan 122nd out of 180 surveyed countries for press freedom. Its score in 2022 worsened compared to the year before. “While the quality of online news is improving, repression is modernizing,” the country report’s summary said.
That Central Asia is a tough neighborhood for journalists is a known fact. Kazakhstan’s internet freedom is particularly under pressure, with distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks — often targeting independent media — and the blocking of websites. In November, Vlast.kz found out that the website of the World Health Organization (WHO) had been blocked in Kazakhstan by a provincial court decision based on alleged “recommendations to commit suicide” that the judge found on the site. In fact, the WHO website hosts several pages of advice on suicide prevention. After more than two months, the WHO website remains blocked in Kazakhstan.
Two “maverick” journalists running popular Telegram channels were arrested for financial crimes in the second half of 2022. In July, police detained Makhambet Abzhan for blackmail with extortion. He had allegedly threatened to publish compromising documents about a businessman were he not to pay a ransom of 50 million tenge (around $108,000). Concerned over his arrest, Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press freedom watchdog, said Abzhan was “a critical reporter who has previously been subjected to police harassment and criminal investigation in connection with his work.”
Police detained Mikhail Kozachkov in December, accusing him of being part of a criminal group that illegally carried out a hostile takeover of a local business. Kozachkov reported several procedural violations since his arrest and wrote an open letter to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Under Tokayev’s presidency, several new measures were taken that seemed to be a step in the right direction toward a freer press. At the end of June 2020, a new law decriminalized defamation. According to Adil Soz, a local media watchdog, several journalists had been accused of defamation under the infamous article 130 of the penal code in the few months before the new law took effect.
Alongside progress on paper, however, the government continues to use pressure tactics against journalists, such as installing secret spyware onto journalist phones. In addition, new legislation, seemingly unrelated to press freedom and instead targeting cyberbullying, passed in May 2022. In its first reading, it would have severely threatened access to social media. In its final version, the law is less stringent, but could still lead to the blocking of internet resources that fail to curate their content.
On January 7, 2022, in the midst of Qandy Qantar’s harshest days of violence, including against journalists, Tokayev sent a clear message of warning against journalists.
“The so called ‘independent’ mass media [have played] an accessory role and, in some cases, an inciting role in violations of law and order,” Tokayev said.
Tokayev’s consideration of independent media as an enemy threatens both the legitimacy and the existence of journalism projects in the country. Without a free press, the people of Kazakhstan risk remaining in the dark, and independent journalists will feel a target on their back.