The Fight to Publish

Inside a dissenting Kazakh newspaper, where free speech comes at a price and getting published means risking everything.

The daily life of a dissenting Kazakh newspaper, where free speech comes at a price and those committed to it risk everything to get published.

Filmmaker: Simon Ostrovsky

Zhanara, Oksana and Irina are colleagues at the Kazakh opposition newspaper Respublika – but they live 3,000 miles apart because editor Irina is forced to live in exile in London.

“At Respublika,” says deputy editor Oksana, “we fight a daily battle just to get the paper published.”

The paper is one of the few dissenting voices in a country that has remained in the iron grip of President Nazarbayev since independence in 1991.

Its offices have been firebombed, its staff beaten, kidnapped, imprisoned and exiled.

This film follows journalist Zhanara as she covers stories from her base in Almaty – and when breaking news of the riots in Zhanaozen takes her to the aftermath of the bloodiest day in Kazakhstan’s modern history.

Filmmaker’s note

By Simon Ostrovsky

Two months ago I stood on the fourth floor of police headquarters in the Kazakhstan city of Zhanaozen. I was staring at a group of bloodied men who I never expected to see while filming The Fight to Publish, which was supposed to be a film about a plucky opposition newspaper defying the authorities. But I did not have a camera.

The men stood in two rows facing the walls of a long corridor with their backs facing each other. Soldiers and police rushed between this corridor of stooped shoulders, entering and exiting and slamming doors. I heard someone scream in agony when one of the doors opened.

It was only hours since the worst violence in Kazakhstan’s modern history had been visited upon oil workers here. But then, as now, few people around the world have heard of Zhanaozen. On December 16, Independence Day, a protest for better wages at their jobs in the oil industry had erupted into a riot and was put down with police guns. At least 17 people died.

The government now claims that the protests, which it had ignored for seven months, were a premeditated attempt to subvert social order and destabilise the country. Dozens of union activists, scores of oil workers and a number of opposition politicians have been arrested in a sweeping crackdown since December.

These men at the police station were some of the survivors. Now they were suspects. Out of more than 1,000 men they were the unfortunates who would have to carry the blame for “organising” the riot that broke out after their demands had fallen on deaf ears, month after month.

It was inconceivable that the officials who allowed me into Zhanaozen, which was still under martial law and tightly controlled, would have wanted me to see them like this. The oil workers stood with broken fingers and bloody scalps. Trickles of dry blood could be seen from under their sleeves and on their foreheads. Someone had roughed them up.

One of the detainees made the mistake of looking over his shoulder at me; his fear momentarily overcome by curiosity. A man in a white sweater with a cigarette hanging from his lip grabbed him by the hair and slammed his face into the wall. He paced feverishly up and down, searching for another victim. His gaze fell on me. “Who the hell are you?” he said breathing smoke from an inch away from my face. “I’m a journalist,” I managed to mumble. “Well then you’ve really got it coming.” It took three soldiers to pry his fist off of my collar and to drag the interrogator into another room.

This was my glimpse of how Kazakhstan deals with those it accuses of opposing the government. I only got it because the fourth floor of Zhanaozen’s police station is also home to its only toilet. And I had, of course, been forced to leave my camera downstairs.

A frightening new era

By Zhanara Kasymbekova
Staff reporter at the Golos Respubliki newspaper, Kazakhstan

In democracies, the media’s role is simple. Its job is to protect the public interest and to act as a guard dog in the eyes of society. In Kazakhstan, things are very different. Here there are hardly any independent outlets trying to operate with the interests of the public at heart that want to cover events impartially. And the ones that do are facing more and more pressure with every year that goes by.

In Kazakhstan, journalists are put in prison by the special services and their publications are crushed with crippling fines. Interrogations at the hands of the secret police and raids of editorial offices are a fact of life.

This is news to no-one in Kazakhstan. As soon as the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a new crop of outlets began feeling the pressure. But the authorities realised that they needed to use the language of democracy in order to attract foreign investors. So a system of double standards was put in place. When communicating with the outside world, declarations about rights and freedoms were put into play, but messages intended for internal consumption were delivered by tightening the screws.

I can not remember a single instance in which a journalist has ever won a court case brought by an official or even an ordinary citizen for that matter. And not a single murdered journalist’s case has been solved in two decades of independence.

The early 2000s were a particularly difficult time for independent journalists. After a brief thaw leading up to January 2002, suddenly everything changed. The founders of a fledgling pro-democracy movement were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences and a number of media outlets were forcibly shut down. The Tan and Irbis television stations were shuttered while newspapers covering these events were themselves closed.

The Respublika newspaper did not come out of this frightening period unscathed. The editorial staff were threatened when the beheaded corpse of a dog was hung outside the newspaper’s window. It turned out that this was only a prelude to the arson of our editorial office, which was burned to the ground. At the same time, our editor-in-chief, Irina Petrushova, was charged with tax evasion and forced to flee the country. By 2009, the newspaper had been forced to shut down by one of its creditors, the government-controlled BTA bank. But despite all the pressure, the newspaper reopened under the new name it uses today: Golos Respubliki.

With all of this behind us, we have now entered a new frightening era that began with the deadly events of December 16, 2011 in western Kazakhstan. Oil workers had been protesting for months in the city of Zhanaozen, demanding back pay and jobs from their employer, KazMunayGas. But when their demands were ignored for over half a year, the protest turned into a riot and was put down with live ammunition by police. At least 17 people died, but they were not the only casualties.

Media groups which had been covering the events, as well as politicians and labour rights activists who were trying to find a solution to the stand-off have subsequently been charged with organising “mass disturbances” and “inciting social unrest”. The editor of Vzglyad, an independent newspaper, has been arrested and charged with an even more serious offence under Kazakh law: He allegedly called for a coup.

An example of the authorities’ position with regard to a number of inconvenient media outlets such as my newspaper and Vzglyad, or Stan TV and the K+ satellite channel, is illustrated by a top aide to Kazakhstan’s president.

The aide, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, told the pro-government Liter newspaper that “Golos Respubliki and Vzglyad’s editorial policies are built on lies and disinformation, the constant bending of facts as well as direct and indirect calls for disobedience, opposition and in the end, open acts against the organs of power. As for the K+ television channel, it represents a platform for informational terror against Kazakhstan”.

Golos Respubliki is currently facing immense pressure from the authorities. Our staff are being called in for questioning by the security services, some of our equipment has been confiscated and an attempt is being made to connect us to the civil disturbances that took place in Zhanaozen.

From the beginning of the labour dispute in Zhanaozen, we had tried to cover the events objectively. And despite pressure from the authorities we are continuing to cover the aftermath of those tragic events to the best of our abilities. We can see that the official version of events stands in sharp contrast to what we are reporting. And so can the authorities, which is why our journalists are being threatened.

We are confident that all of their crimes will become evident in the near future, but the freedom of the independent press, independent politicians and activists may be the cost at which it all comes out.


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