Central Asia: Legalised harassment of journalists must stop

Central Asia: Legalised harassment of journalists must stop - Media

On International Day of Journalists’ Solidarity, ARTICLE 19, along with Adil Soz International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech (Kazakhstan), Media Policy Institute (Kyrgyzstan) and the National Association of Independent Mass Media of Tajikistan, call on the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to uphold their international commitments, and ensure the independence and safety of journalists.[1]

Despite numerous public statements by authorities reiterating their commitment to promote and protect the right to free expression, journalists and media outlets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continue to face legal harassment, undermining their ability to fulfill their professional duties.

Criminal proceedings against journalists and media outlets

Across the region, governments use criminal proceedings to silence journalists reporting on corruption and abuse of power, relying on unclear and ambiguous interpretation of laws and the absence of an independent, impartial judiciary system to bring a range of charges – including fraud, blackmail, treason and terrorism – against dissenting journalists.

In April 2015, criminal proceedings were initiated against Yaroslav Golyushkin, the editor-in-chief of Versiya, an independent weekly newspaper in Kazakhstan. He faces charges of blackmail and engagement in an organized criminal group. The charges were made after the newspaper published an article implicating the Governor of Pavlodar’s son in the rape of a woman.

The charges appear to be part of a wider campaign of harassment against the paper initiated since the publication of the article, including a civil defamation suit recently brought against the paper, concerning an article written a year ago about a legal conflict between teachers. The claimant, a head teacher involved in the case, argued that the article had bought ‘moral harm’ and has preliminarily been awarded a relatively large sum in compensation.

In Tajikistan, journalists have been imprisoned on similar charges. For example, in October 2014, Mahmadyusuf Ismoilov, a journalist from Asht known for his reporting on corruption among local authorities, was sentenced to eleven years in prison, after being convicted on charges of blackmail and fraud. Previously, he had been banned from journalism further to charges of defamation, incitement to hatred, and blackmail, brought against him in 2011.

Civil lawsuits against mass media and journalists

Excessive and groundless civil defamation lawsuits are also frequently filed by government officials and businesses against journalists and mass media outlets, exerting a chilling effect on free expression. The situation is exacerbated by weak provisions regulating the amount of compensation for moral harm, allowing for absurdly high claims that could bankrupt independent media.

Indeed, in Kazakhstan, NAKANUNE.kz, an online news site run by former Respublika journalists (a website closed in 2012 on alleged terrorism charges), declared bankruptcy after a court ordered they pay KZT 20,000,000 (over USD 84,000) to KazkommertsBank, for  harm caused to the bank’s reputation. The case concerned the online publication of a letter from a reader about alleged corruption by the bank. Six months after the letter was published, Kazkommertsbank declared that it had affected its business reputation and demanded a compensation of KZT 25,000,000 (over USD 100,000). The letter was read by 800 users and during the trial, the bank’s representatives did not present any evidence of harm made to reputation. It was also established during court proceedings that the bank had  spent KZT 109,000,000 (over USD 450,000) for advertising purposes in 2014.

The situation is particularly acute in Kyrgyzstan, where, in 2015 alone, the Media Policy Institute has provided legal representation to mass media and journalists in 14 lawsuits concerning the protection of honour, dignity and business reputation, of which nine claimants are public officials. In one case, in July 2015, the Prosecutor General filed a claim against journalist Dayirbek Orunbekov to protect the honour of the President, further to an article in which he implied that the President was criminally implicated in the Osh riots in 2010, in which hundreds of people were killed. The court of first instance fined the journalist 2,000,000 Som (over USD 30,000) for moral harm. The lawsuit will be considered by the court of the second instance on September 15 2015.

Meanwhile in Tajikistan, there have been five civil suits concerning mass media and journalists within the last eight months. In one case, in July 2015, Dushanbevodokanal State Unitary Enterprise filed a claim concerning the protection of honour, dignity and business reputation against Hasan Shokirzoda, a journalist from Tochikiston newspaper, requesting 30,000 Somoni (over USD 4,500) in  compensation for moral harm. The claim was based on an article, entitled “Why it is a shame to transport water to Dushanbe using donkeys” published in on December 18, 2014. The claimant insists that the article “does not correspond to the reality”, regarding access to clean water in Dushanbe, while the journalist argues that information was provided by Dushanbe residents.

Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have failed to create conditions for journalists to safely report on matters of public interest. Moreover, the governments are implicated in the legal harassment of journalists, aimed at preventing journalists from reporting on matters of public interest.

We appeal to the governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan once again to immediately release any journalists held on unfair charges and ensure that any journalists facing charges are accorded an efficient and fair trial. We further call upon them to decriminalize defamation, where it remains a criminal offence, and cap the amount that may be sought in civil defamation lawsuits, as well as refraining from passing any further legislation allowing for the censorship of the media.    

[1] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by Resolution 2200 А (XXI) of the General Assembly on December 16, 1966. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are the parties to the Covenant.