Imprisonment, Psychiatric Detention and Bloodshed
Life as a journalist of the free press in Kazakhstan, and the perilous pursuit of truth and equality.
BY ALEXIS STERGAKIS
November 5, 2018
The recent high profile murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is emblematic of the broader landscape of violence in which free press operate globally.
As a statistic, Khashoggi’s death is just 1 of the 43 media personnel killed this year to date. The Committee to Protect Journalists report an average of 1 journalist every 4 days is killed somewhere in the world, and as violence continues to grow in the final months of 2018 the total of media personnel killed in action defending free press are set to surpass the 2017 figures - in which 47 perished.
What the coverage of the Khashoggi murder has maintained is a consistent spotlight on press freedom and the risks to journalists serving the defense of social justice across the globe. It is an opportune moment for international powers to categorically condemn and take action to defend reporters which adopt a necessary critical lens on domestic human rights abuses in their countries of reporting.
In Kazakhstan, as is characteristic of many Central Asia countries, the struggles of free press journalists remain largely invisible to the global community which seem to only favor international intervention on the basis of foreign policy interests.
Press freedom has been increasingly restricted, its grip tightening more than ever over the last 10 years as the government attempts to silence free press reporters as online media growth and engagement expands. Much of the recent efforts by the government to ‘regulate’ the media have focused on closing down social media and online blogging and news sites as thriving spaces of independent journalism.
Under the cover of criminal defamation and ‘distribution of false information’ laws, the government silences free press through arrests, threats of lengthy prison sentences, fines, broadcast shutdowns, seizure of property, internet site blocks and state sanctioned violence.
In response to reporters coverage of the Zhanaozen Oil Workers strikes in December 2011 - which saw a violent clash between protesters and government forces killing more than 15 - widespread attacks on the press began what would be a sharp upward trend which continues today. For their reporting on the Zhanaozen Oil Workers strikes Stan.tv, K-Plus, Golos Respubliki, Vzglyad and Respublika closed operations by order of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office under government allegations of these outlets disseminating “extremist propaganda”.
A second wave of restrictions followed in 2016 when nation-wide public protests broke out over the institution of land rights reforms - resulting in the arrest of 44 journalists and a spate of raids, shutdowns and suspensions.
For recent examples of free press intimidation, one need only look to April of this year, in which blogger Ardak Ashim was forcibly taken into psychiatric detention, after a court determined her writings which opposed the government “incited hatred”. Ashim’s blog popular among young progressives was critical of Kazakh authorities and government institutions, and covered issues such as human rights and the rule of law. Undoubtedly issued as a deterrent, Ashim’s detention delivered a strong message of promised retribution from the Kazakh government to free press journalists covering human rights issues in the country.
Just one month following Ashim’s institutionalization, the offices of Forbes Magazine Almaty and online news site Ratel.kz were raided in connection to their reporters investigation of alleged corruption involving former finance minister Zeinulla Kakimzhanov and his son. Under government claims of a breach of distribution of false information laws, reporters, equipment and the personal bank cards of journalists were detained.
The consistent raids come as no surprise to free press reporters in a country which is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in Reporters without Borders World press Freedom Index 2018. Journalists which do not wish to be identified for fear of their safety, speculate that the dramatic escalation in attacks on the press in 2018 follow debate circulating around the successor of Nursultan Nazarbayev - the current leader of ruling party Nur Otan who has consistently secured his head of state role with 98% of the vote elections, since taking power in 1990.
Free Press, a defense for LGBT+ rights under attack
A free press is critical for human right progression, particularly for the LGBT+ community in Kazakhstan. It is no secret that the agenda of the government is opposed to LGBT+ rights, with prominent members of the ruling party calling for the criminalization of homosexuals and the proposition of a Russian-modeled anti-gay propaganda law. Given the position of the government, and widespread poor attitudes towards the queer community in Kazakhstan in general, there are few examples of unbiased media coverage of LGBT+ issues in Kazakhstan.
Driven by a need to attract readers and high click ratings the majority of reporting is steered by broad public interest in sensationalist type ‘exposés’ coverage of the LGBT+ community. Reproducing homophobic political speech and conflating homosexuality with pedophilia are commonplace in media reporting. A standout example of queer representation in the media surfaced during media coverage on Kazakhstan’s 2020 winter olympics bid with Nur.kz, a popular online portal, referring to LGBT+ athletes using the homophobic term ‘pediki’ as a tagline for the story.
LGBT+ representation in media therefore have largely reflected the position of the government, as characterized by derogatory terminology and the propagation of myths regarding the queer community. In a 2015 report article19.org a global media monitor on LGBT+ representation surveyed Kazakh lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and uncovered that the majority of those surveyed attributed public hostility, family violence, homo and transphobic attitudes as promoted by the media.
Adding to the complexity of the issue of fair and balanced reporting on LGBT+ issues is community mistrust of journalists who have voiced a mistrust of journalist over frequent distortion of facts or omission of key points made by LGBT+ people. As a result, LGBT+ people are less willing to speak to the media, for fear of misrepresentation and further negative impacts on the community.
A brave few free press agencies, bloggers and reporters have taken on the task of balancing a diversity of queer narratives, tackling the misrepresentation and vacuum of queer rights issues in the media - including bloggers such as Hasan Kadishauly, Aygerim Tleubayeva, Daniyar Sabitov, Anatoly Chernoussov and Amir Shaikezhanov. In an effort to resource the queer community with information and content centering queer issues, Chernoussov, Shaikezhanov and Sabitov co-founded NGO and LGBT+ focused online resource portal Kok.team - the only exclusively queer content dedicated website in Kazakhstan, which features reporting, research and opinion pieces authored by LGBT+ bloggers and journalists. Almaty based journalist Dana Kruglova, is one of such contributor who has collaborated with the Kok.team publication, in addition to a variety of independent press agencies to push for unbiased, fair representation making visible LGBT+ communities and their needs in Kazakhstan.
After graduating from university, in what Dana describes as a post-soviet ‘liberal wave of freedom’, Dana pursued her childhood ambition to become a writer and began working as a journalist. The past 5 of her 15 years as a journalist have been largely dedicated to reporting on LGBT+ centered news stories, though it has not been a reporting direction which she has taken on lightly.
Reporting while female and reporting while queer multiplies the risk of online harassment for journalists reporting on human rights issues in Kazakhstan. As a result of Dana’s coverage of LGBT+ issues and her work on a recent LGBT+ themed video project, she has been subject to direct threats and harassment through social media platformns. Dana insists, that for journalists working on issues which are both socially and politically marginalised, it is simply part and parcel of the work and something journalists tackling queer issues and more broadly human rights issues, must become accustomed to.
As state controlled media reporters submit to the pressures of falling in line with the dominant political rhetoric, particularly around LGBT+ issues, Dana highlights that both the quality and prevalence of LGBT+ reporting in mainstream media is poor. Though there are a small number of her colleagues which are willing to run the risk of reporting on politically sensitive issues, their voices are few among the many others which seek to further marginalize the queer community, “There are few numbers of LGBT+ friendly mass media resources which cover LGBT+ issues. Those media agencies that do cover LGBT+ stories often use homophobic or incorrect terminology when referring to LGBT+ people. Sometimes it is because of an absence of knowledge that they are use derogatory terminology, toward the transgender community for example, sometimes it is because of their views.”
The prospect of community and government backlash for journalists like Dana and her colleagues of the independent press, highlights the pressure on journalists who report on human rights concerns in hostile domestic contexts. Where freedom of information is locked in the grip of suppressive regimes, free press is the last bastion of the truth telling and free thinking. How far the international community are willing to go to protect the free press in defense human rights, will be enshrined in the precedent set by the response of the UN and international partners in the Khashoggi murder, but for those in long forgotten in countries like Kazakhstan, journalists and activists alike won’t be holding their breath.
Words and video interview by Alexis Stergakis (she/her/they/them), digital media producer and founder of Queer Here. Twitter @lexistergakis
Fact check and editorial revision by Dana Kruglova (she/her), independent free press journalist documenting LGBT+ news and issues based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.