Reporting on Kazakhstan’s chaos amid internet shutdowns and violence
Journalists have been subject to detentions or attacks, while internet blackouts left them unable to communicate for days
“I’m no longer editor-in-chief at Ak Zhaik,” Azamat Maitanov said meekly, his heavy heart evident, during a phone interview on 10 January. Maitanov had already been under pressure from the Kazakhstani authorities for the past year over his stewardship of the newspaper, based in the west of the country, and he was looking to a break visiting family abroad for the holidays. In December, he left his hometown of Atyrau, in the Caspian region. He doesn’t know when it will be safe for him to go back.
Protests that started over a fuel price increase in the western regions of Kazakhstan were picked up in towns and cities across the country, but later turned into urban violence in the city of Almaty, home to two million residents. The clashes between rioters, looters and law enforcement on 5 and 6 January represented the most violent and deadly events in the history of Kazakhstan.
Ak Zhaik had been at the frontline of the protest. The newspaper’s correspondents monitored the situation in Atyrau, as well as in the nearby giant oil field of Tengiz, and the Soviet-era monotowns that were built to house oil workers at the mouth of the Ural river (in Kazakh, “Ak Zhaiyk”).
“It’s time for me to leave, with pride in my work and the work of my colleagues. But I worry for them now,” Maitanov said.
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Indeed, previous episodes of protest in Kazakhstan give Maitanov reason for concern. In 2016, during large-scale protests in Atyrau over a proposed land reform, Ak Zhaik journalists reported from the town’s central square. In the days after the rally, the same journalists were individually brought in for questioning by the security services, Maitanov recalled.
For years, press freedom watchdogs have highlighted government pressure against Kazakhstan’s media. From Almaty, Miras Nurmukhanbetov, vice president of Adil Soz, the international fund for the defense of freedom of speech, told openDemocracy that “journalism and, in general, freedom of speech in Kazakhstan have gone through hard times before, but now the situation has become even more aggravated.”
But now, after the clashes in Almaty and the backlash against journalists across the country, Maitanov expects the worst.
“I would not be surprised if [the pressure] were worse this time. [Journalists] might be intimidated, arrested. The situation of media will not be good going forward,” he said.
“As I write these words, we have no internet in the city. I don’t know who is running the country. But I do know there has been a lot of violence. And it looks like there will be more,” wrote Daniyar Moldabekov, a journalist working for independent news site Vlast.kz in Almaty, in one of the first English-language dispatches out of the country on 6 January.
Moldabekov’s powerful reporting from Almaty, which had been rocked by violence overnight, set the tone for much of what was to come.
Days earlier, on 4 January, as the wave of protests arrived in the city, the country’s commercial capital, news crews sent correspondents to the streets and squares where the peaceful protesters were gathering, surrounded by a large number of special security forces and police. That day, Kazakhstani authorities blocked online access to popular news website Orda.kz and the private news agency KazTAG, which had been live-streaming content from the ground.
While the protest had been mostly peaceful, its tone changed in the early morning on 5 January, according to several reports. In an account posted on 11 January, Timur Nusimbekov, founder of online magazine Adamdar/CA, wrote: “I have never seen so many happy people at once on the streets of my city as on the evening of 4 January. I have never seen so many people on the streets of my city, screaming in horror, pain, explosions and rage, as on the night of 4-5 January.”
Within the timeframe of a few hours in the night of 4 January and the morning of 5 January, Kazakhstani law enforcement tried to disperse protest crowds with stun grenades and tear gas, which forced most of the peaceful protesters to return to their homes. This crowd was soon replaced by another, more violent collection of small groups, which targeted government buildings and clashed with the police. It soon became apparent that an urban war had started in the centre of Almaty.
Upon the announcement, on 5 January, of a state of emergency across the country, Kazakhstan’s internet connection, which had been interrupted at times also in the previous days, was switched off.
At this point, most websites, including news outlets, went offline. Reporting from the ground became almost impossible, because emails and messages could not get through – and telephone service became sporadic.
Maitanov said he could not reach his Ak Zhaik correspondents for three days: “It was tough, really tough to stomach.” He tried various alternative means of communications, he explained, from proxy servers to special mobile apps, and even through word-of-mouth via people located near to Atyrau, where, though unstable, telephones could connect to mobile networks.
The information blackout inside the country gave the government ample space to push “carefully redacted messages,” said Nurmukhanbetov at Adil Soz.
Another Kazakhstani reporter, who wished to remain anonymous, told openDemocracy that it felt as if the country had gone “back to the 2000s, when TV and controlled web were king”.
“Social media was being targeted as the medium to spread fake news. Yet, in the end it was the government that spread fake news, as we saw with the Kyrgyz jazz musician, who confessed to being paid for looting,” they said.
On 9 January, state TV channel Khabar24, at that time the only available source of information within the country, broadcast an interview with an alleged rioter from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, who confessed that he had been paid $200 to fly in and participate in a riot. The following day, the news was debunked by the media in Kyrgyzstan, as he was recognised as a local jazz musician.
Though the internet was shut down and only state propaganda was broadcasting, journalists on the ground kept writing. And they tried every channel to send their material to their colleagues abroad, so that at least international observers could know more about the situation.
“We were not ready,” a video journalist who was in the square and asked to remain anonymous told openDemocracy. “On 5 January, in Almaty’s Republic Square, at some point, there was no more internet. We found it near the akimat, which was dangerous, because it was the hotspot of the clashes. But we needed it to send our video and audio reports. Our colleagues also found a weak network connection near the [presidential] residence, which was also being pillaged and destroyed.
“We were really unprepared, and we took risks that we shouldn’t have. We did not realise how dangerous the situation had become.”
When the internet connection came back on 10 January, people’s phones began ringing incessantly. “I was so happy to finally hear from my colleagues, they were bravely reporting from the squares [across the country], they even witnessed the death of one of the protesters. They fulfilled their duties as journalists until the end,” Maitanov recalled.
In Almaty, other journalists also reported the gruesome feeling of having witnessed such violence. “It was seriously scary. We saw people being beaten, people being shot. I had never seen something like this. And we were right there,” a journalist for an independent media outlet told openDemocracy.
Attacks on the press were registered from all sides. Both law enforcement and the more violent fringes of the 5 January riots threatened and beat journalists, who were wearing blue press vests in order to be recognised. Instead of being an instrument of safety, however, the press vest became a target.
“In the matter of a few hours, by 5 January, the situation – where protesters defended and protected the press – changed, and journalists covering events on the ground were targeted with threats and direct attacks,” Nurmukhanbetov said.
The backlash against reporters
Across the country, meanwhile, reporters and editors were being detained.
On 5 January, Lukpan Akmedyarov, the editor-in-chief of Uralskaya Nedelya, an independent outlet covering Kazakhstan’s northwestern region, was detained for violating the state of emergency, although he later reported that he was mostly questioned regarding his potential affiliation with banned organisations. On 7 January, Daryn Nursapar, editor of the eastern Kazakhstan newspaper Altai News, was also detained in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk and charged with participating in an illegal rally, he will serve a 15-day jail term.
Earlier, on 4 January, unidentified individuals shot at and injured the son of Amangeldy Batyrbekov, an independent journalist who broke a tragic story of child rape in the south of the country in 2019 and has since been under pressure from the authorities.
In a report, Adil Soz chronicled the incidents involving journalists across the country, including insults, beatings, arrests and, at least one fatal shooting in Almaty, as unidentified people gunned down a convoy of local Alma TV operators, killing the driver Muratkhan Bazarbayev and injuring Diasken Baitbayev.
International press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists echoed the Adil Soz reports and urged Kazakhstan’s authorities to “fully investigate assaults on the country’s press.”
But while journalists and campaigners are concerned about press freedom, on social media Almaty’s middle-class has stood firmly against the looting of their city, calling for arrests and a stronger law enforcement presence.
“Many – including the ‘liberals’ – will now actively support the strengthening of authoritarianism and censorship,” said Moldabekov in a Facebook post describing a bleak scenario for press freedom in the country. Similar calls to reform the police and increase its power were made in 2018 after an Olympic figure skater, Denis Ten, was murdered in Almaty.
Given the authorities’ track record with the press, local journalists expect that more policing means more pressure at best, violence against them at worst.
Vyacheslav Abramov, the editor-in-chief of Vlast.kz, thinks there are three possible scenarios for freedom of the media in Kazakhstan: it will either be worse than before, as bad as before, or slightly better than before. In his interview with Russian news site Holod, he said the most likely scenarios are the first two.
“[In the first scenario] the state would decide to tighten the screws and follow a ‘Belarusian scenario,’ with repressions against everyone who criticises [the regime]. The second option would be a return to the previous rules of the game: a state that controls its many institutions, including the media, and there is a small group of people who criticise the state, but no one really touches them.”
Adil Soz’s Nurmukhanbetov believes that expectations of a crackdown on press freedom in Kazakhstan are founded.
“We can predict a new wave of persecution of journalists and media outlets, which during these days have been trying to convey objective information to Kazakhstanis,” he said.
Indeed, on 13 January, news emerged of journalists being taken in for questioning by the secret service in the city of Aktobe. In addition, Nurzhan Baimuldin, the editor-in-chief of Kokshetau News, a small provincial outlet in the north of Kazakhstan, was detained for 10 days for having posted on social media a question to Tokayev regarding the new government.
Abramov also highlighted the psychological pressure that everyone in Almaty, residents and journalists, had to withstand during the internet blackout and the violence that rocked the city.
“I have never spoken so much on the phone in my life as I did these days. It was kind of an attempt at mass group psychotherapy, where people talked to each other and thus tried to bring each other to their senses. It was wildly stressful.”
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