ARTICLE 19 calls on the government of Kazakhstan to drop all charges against Ratel.kz journalists Marat Asipov, Sapa Mekebayev and Anna Kalashnikova, who were detained on Monday before being released, and refrain from further harassment.
On 2 April 2018 Editor-in-Chief Marat Asipov, Deputy Editor Sapa Mekebayev, and columnist Anna Kalashnikova were detained at Ratel.kz’s offices in Almaty, Kazakhstan following a government raid on the premises. They were held for questioning before being released. They are charged under Article 274 of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code (‘dissemination of false information’). During the raid, the media organisation’s computers and documents were confiscated. In a parallel raid on the offices of Forbes Kazakhstan, journalist Alexander Vorotilov was also detained and subsequently released.
Ratel.kz is an independent online news website known for its investigative reporting including into the alleged involvement of former Minister of Finance, businessman Zeynulla Kakimzhanov and his son, Ilkhalid Kakimzhanov, in corrupt activities. The raid this week is the latest in a series of attempts to prevent Ratel.kz’s critical reporting since the investigation into the Kakimzhanovs was published. On 4 April last year an Almaty court ordered Ratel.kz and Forbes Kazakhstan to pay 50,200,000 Kazakh Tenge (almost 160,000 US Dollars) to the Kakimzhanovs in moral damages.
Last week, on 30 March 2018, Almaty’s Medeu District Court ruled that Ratel.kz’s registration certificate was invalid and it no longer had the right to publish information under either the Ratel.kz or linked Balborsyk.kz domain names. Ratel.kz had been blocked since 19 March 2017. The website had originally been registered in the name of Gennady Benditsky, Ratel.kz’s co-founder and journalist who died following a serious illness on 3 December 2017. On 26 March 2017 the site was re-registered in the name of Benditsky’s son, Oleg. On 4 April both Ratel.kz’s Facebook page and alternative website, Wildratel.com, registered on 31 March, were also blocked. A preliminary hearing into the civil case against Ratel.kz is scheduled to take place on 5 April 2018 in Almaty at 15:00.
Despite pressure from the international community and civil society organisations to decriminalise defamation, Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code still retains criminal provisions for defamation. Defamation committed through the mass media is punished more severely, including through heavy fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Article 274 is broadly worded with the effect that any person can be then held liable for the dissemination of their opinions. It is specifically used to threaten and harass those who are critical of the government and therefore has a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
ARTICLE 19 calls for all charges against Asipov, Mekebayev and Kalashnikova to be dropped and the unblocking of Ratel.kz, associated domain names and social media assets.
*This statement has been updated to reflect the fact that the journalists were released on 2 April 2018 after being detained.