The protests and the press in Kazakhstan

On New Year’s Day, thirty years and one week after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the government of Kazakhstan—a post-Soviet republic in Central Asia that has been ruled by the same political party ever since—lifted a cap on the price of the gas that many Kazakhs pump into their cars. In a deeply unequal country, the move proved a final straw for many people, and protesters soon filled the streets; as demonstrations spread across the country, their demands grew to include calls for broader political change. By last Wednesday, the scene had become violent: official buildings in Almaty, the largest city, were set on fire, as, reportedly, were the offices of TV stations linked to the Kazakh and Russian governments, after a crowd stormed two buildings that they share. That night, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president, said on state TV that he had asked a Russia-led regional security alliance for help restoring order; the bloc soon sent troops. On Friday, Tokayev went on TV again, said the streets were full of “bandits and terrorists,” and ordered police and soldiers to “shoot to kill.” He also blamed “so-called free media outlets” for inciting violence.

State media has since announced that 164 people died and thousands more were arrested during the unrest. Those numbers are shrouded in confusion, though it’s clear that media workers were among the count. Muratkhan Bazarbayev, a driver for Almaty TV, a pro-government channel, was driving to an interview with Almaty’s mayor last Wednesday when he was shot dead; a colleague lost two fingers in the same attack. Almaty TV blamed rioters for the shooting. Numerous journalists reported being targeted by demonstrators, with some deciding to hide their press credentials as a result; many other reporters say they have been fired on by state security forces, with some hit by rubber bullets and stun grenades. By Thursday, at least eight reporters had been detained, including two journalists with the local branch of RFE/RL, a US-backed broadcaster, and Makhambet Abzhan, a blogger whose apartment was surrounded by police and who had his electricity cut; Abzhan’s family said that he subsequently managed to leave the apartment, but, as of Monday, they had not heard from him since. On Friday, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, an independent journalist, was sentenced to ten days in jail for participating in an unlawful protest. Today, Reporters Without Borders said that it had asked the United Nations to investigate escalating “violence and obstruction” toward the press.

ICYMI: Project Veritas battles for journalism, and against it

As protests started to heat up last week, officials imposed a state of emergency and warned that its terms would impose extra-sharp restrictions on the spread of “false information,” with the threat of yearslong jail terms for noncompliance. They also shut off the internet. Last Tuesday afternoon, two news sites, Orda and KazTag, were blocked, the latter after refusing an official request to delete an article. By the evening, messaging apps had stopped functioning; the next day, the internet went down nationwide, with even VPNs proving relatively ineffective at circumventing the blackout. Connectivity was partially restored for the duration of Tokayev’s Wednesday address on state TV, then cut out again; in his address on Friday, Tokayev said that he would restore access, but warned that that did not mean that people “can freely post your musings, slander and insults, your incitements and calls.” Connectivity came back on Monday, then went again. The same day, officials told Fergana, an independent news site based in Russia, to delete an article outlining rumors that relatives of Nursultan Nazarbayev—who served as president from the end of Soviet era through 2019, when he (at least nominally) handed Tokayev the reins—may have been implicated in a plot to seize power.

In addition to the internet, phone lines have been patchy, and the authorities have also blocked foreign journalists, including some with longstanding press credentials, from entering the country to report. All this, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Marson noted recently, has made it “very very difficult to work out what’s going on in Kazakhstan.” This seems true not only for foreign-based reporters, but also for many residents, as rumors have swirled. As Isabelle Khurshudyan, a Moscow correspondent with the Washington Post, put it, “people even on the ground are confused.”

The violent turn in the demonstrations—and who exactly may have been behind it—remains particularly murky. Even in countries with strong press rights (including the US), protests are often contested narrative battlegrounds; in Kazakhstan, the government has given itself an advantage as it has sought to bend the narrative in its favor. Last week, a presidential representative put out a YouTube video in English in which he castigated “foreign media” for creating a “false impression” that the government has targeted peaceful protesters; Tokayev has since characterized the violence as a foreign-backed terrorist coup attempt without offering any hard evidence. On Sunday, state TV broadcast the “confession” of a supposedly unemployed man from neighboring Kyrgyzstan who claimed to have been paid to fly in and cause havoc; the man had visible facial injuries, and was quickly recognized as a prominent Kyrgyz musician. Photos also circulated of Kazakh security forces wearing blue UN helmets, a possible visual ploy to present themselves as peacekeepers with international legitimacy. UN officials rebuked Kazakh officials for their unauthorized use.

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Kazakhstan has long been a hostile environment for press freedom. As Sher Khashimov and Raushan Zhandayeva have reported for Foreign Policy, the early post-Soviet period saw something of a “renaissance” for Kazakh media, with officials distributing cheap broadcasting licenses; in 1997, however, the Nazarbayev regime stripped many of those licenses away and “freedom of the press only degenerated from there,” with authorities instituting a range of regulatory curbs on independent and investigative journalism. In 2019, when Tokayev succeeded Nazarbayev, he signaled that he might oversee a broader political opening, and in the last couple of years, online media, in particular, has had a bit more space to operate. In the same period, however, the government has grown savvier in surveilling, blocking, and otherwise controlling the web; according to Khashimov and Zhandayeva, the regime “also learned to mimic nontraditional media outlets using copycat projects” that pose as oppositional but aren’t. As Zholdas Orisbayev has reported for Eurasianet, politicians, including Nazarbayev’s daughter, have also doubled down on anti-media rhetoric, including the “foreign agent” slur that Russian officials have wielded against media there. (The legal context for the term is different in the two countries.)

In the wake of the protests, Tokayev has once again signaled a potential political opening. Last week, he reinstated the gas-price cap, sacked his cabinet, and removed Nazarbayev from his  current perch atop a national security council; yesterday, in another address, Tokayev implicitly torched Nazarbayev’s legacy without naming him, promising economic reforms and a clampdown on corruption and cronyism. Tokayev also announced the impending withdrawal of the Russian-led forces—an angle that led many Western news reports on the speech in light of growing tensions between the US and Vladimir Putin’s regime. (The New York Times called the Kazakhstan intervention a “geopolitical triumph” for Putin.) Tokayev’s domestic follow-through is also worthy of our close attention, however, as is the situation for the press in Kazakhstan. Political openings of any variety don’t tend to be very durable without media openings, too.

Below, more on press freedom and journalism around the world:

  • Kazakhstan: Last week, as the unrest in Kazakhstan unfolded, Bellingcat, an open-source investigative-journalism platform, launched a database of notable flights into and out of the country as one tool to help researchers and reporters monitor the situation from afar. “The ability to follow, in real time, where high profile individuals, cargo flights, or even transport of soldiers to and from a conflict zone can provide crucial insight into a developing situation,” Aiganysh Aidarbekova wrote. “For example, in Kazakhstan rumours have spread about the whereabouts of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, with local media alleging that he has left the country with his two daughters.”
  • Armenia: In 2018, when Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist, took over as the prime minister of Armenia, a country in the Caucasus region, local journalists hoped that he would usher in a new era of press freedom. Now Nick Lewis, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, reports that those hopes may have been dashed. “Reforms—above all in the areas of access to official information and television market liberalization—have failed to materialize,” Lewis writes. Armenia’s Parliament has placed restrictions on reporters’ access, including to stop them covering brawls among lawmakers, while Pashinyan’s government tightened laws around defamation and “insult.”
  • Zimbabwe: Jeffrey Moyo, a freelance reporter who has worked for the Times in Zimbabwe, was scheduled to go on trial today after he was arrested last year and charged with helping two other Times journalists enter the country illegally. Moyo has entered a not-guilty plea, and “even the government acknowledged at one point” that the charge he faces is “practically baseless,” the Times reports. “Some Zimbabwean journalists have privately expressed fears that the prosecution of Mr. Moyo was unnerving partly because of his reputation as a highly professional freelancer who has no political agenda. If it can happen to him, they argue, it can happen to anyone.”
  • Tanzania: According to the East African, fourteen people, six of them journalists, were killed in a road-traffic accident in Tanzania this week. The journalists have been identified as Johari Saan, Husna Mlanzi, Van Charles, Abel Ngapemba, Anthony Chuwa, and Steven Msengi; their driver, Paul Silanga, also died. Their car had been traveling in a convoy with a regional official. Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania’s president, wrote on her Twitter account that she was “shocked” by the deaths.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, President Biden traveled to Georgia to give a speech on the erosion of democracy and called on Democratic senators to change the filibuster rules, so that they might pass a pair of stalled voting-rights bills over Republican opposition. As the media critic Dan Froomkin noted afterward, “almost the entire focus of the immediate media coverage” was on the politics of the filibuster; the content of the bills themselves, Froomkin argues, has gotten much less attention. Writing ahead of time, meanwhile, Perry Bacon, Jr., a columnist at the Post, praised major outlets for increasingly making “democracy” a core area of coverage, but argued that key errors of framing persist.
  • CJR’s Caleb Pershan explored the First Amendment implications of separate cases involving the right-wing group Project Veritas—FBI raids related to the alleged theft of a diary belonging to Biden’s daughter, and a Veritas defamation suit that led a judge to impose limits on the Times’ coverage of the group—and the apparent contradictions in Veritas’s legal arguments across the two. Taken together, the cases “test the limits of what counts as journalism and the privilege that status confers,” Pershan writes. (Come for his astute analysis; stay for the poem that a Veritas lawyer dedicated to him.)
  • In yesterday’s newsletter, I shared a piece by Aron Pilhofer arguing that the Times’ recent acquisition of The Athletic, a subscription sports site, is a “potential disaster” for local news. Later yesterday, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton disagreed. “I think it’s a misconception that The Athletic is offering ‘local sports,’” Benton writes. NFL games, he argues, are “in no way only interesting” to local residents. “Is The Athletic a competitor to, say, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for Falcons news? Sure. But it’s hardly the first.”
  • Also in yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote about concerns over a recent exodus of journalists of color from NPR. David Folkenflik, NPR’s media reporter, is now out with a deep dive on his own shop. The issue is complex, he concludes, but interviews with eleven people “suggest NPR indeed struggles to retain high-profile journalists of color,” for reasons including racial and gender pay gaps, and “unnecessarily contentious” contract talks.
  • Recently, the New York City Council passed a bill mandating that employers offer salary information in job postings. As long as the provision becomes law, Poynter’s Angela Fu writes, it could be of outsized benefit to media workers—empowering journalists of color in particular to negotiate for better salaries, exposing existing pay gaps, and potentially having a national ripple effect given how many media companies are based in New York.
  • In media-jobs news, the American Press Institute named Michael D. Bolden, of the San Francisco Chronicle, as its new executive director and CEO, replacing Tom Rosenstiel. Elsewhere, Stephanie Mehta, the editor in chief of Fast Company, has been promoted to CEO of its corporate parent, Mansueto Ventures. And Hot Pod’s Ashley Carman reports that Spotify is shuttering its founding podcast studio, leading to a number of layoffs.
  • Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw explored why the podcast world hasn’t produced a new hit in years. The ten most popular shows in the US last year were more than seven years old on average, Shaw writes. “The number of new podcasts has grown more quickly than the podcast audience… It’s not that new podcasts can’t be hits. But the bar for being a hit is higher, which means it’s going to take longer (and a lot more work) to get there.”
  • The Times unveiled a new fellowship program as it bids to improve diversity and representation among crossword creators. “I think that in mentoring these constructors, we’re going to learn stuff, too,” Everdeen Mason, the paper’s editorial director for Games, told Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire. “If we see a really cool puzzle with new kinds of clues and fills and publish it, hopefully that encourages people to give us more like that.”
  • And Gawker’s John Ganz took aim at the recent trend of “phantom cancellations.” The Times’ Ross Douthat dared readers to “try canceling Joan Didion,” even though no one was; a rumor that a Norman Mailer essay collection had been canceled, meanwhile, may have been a publicity stunt to generate attention for Mailer. “For artists (and publishers) there is a fate much worse than being canceled,” Ganz writes: “no one caring at all.”

ICYMI: Ten days of turnover

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Riot police block protesters in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. Demonstrators denouncing the doubling of prices for liquefied gas have clashed with police in Kazakhstan's largest city and held protests in about a dozen other cities in the country. Local news reports said police dispersed a demonstration of about a thousand people Tuesday night in Almaty and that some demonstrators were detained. (AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov)