Kazakhstan - Kazakhstan censors coverage of Eurasian Economic Union summit

The Kazakh authorities did everything possible to prevent journalists spoiling the party when President Nursultan Nazarbayev received his Russian and Belarusian counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Aleksander Lukashenko, in Astana on 29 May for the signing of the treaty creating the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Three journalists were arrested and a leading news website was partially blocked in order to silence critics.

The journalists – Sanat Urnalyev and Viktor Gudz, who work for the 16/12 website, and Orken Bisenov (also known as Orken Joyamergen), who works for Radio Azattyk (Radio Free Europe’s Kazakh service) ¬ were arrested near Astana on 27 May while covering a meeting of activists who were preparing an anti-EEU meeting in Astana scheduled for 29 May.

Around 20 of the meeting’s participants were also arrested. An Astana administrative court sentenced the journalists to four days of solitary confinement on a “minor acts of vandalism” charge at around 6 a.m. on 28 May, after a trial lasting several hours.

Radio Azattyk’s website was partially blocked inside Kazakhstan for several hours on 29 May, as the three presidents were meeting to sign the treaty. All of Radio Azattyk’s articles on the EEU were inaccessible during this period.

We condemn these acts of censorship, which are unacceptable,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The journalists were given four-day sentences to prevent them from covering the 29 May demonstration. Their sentences also sent an intimidatory message to all other journalists.”

Bihr added: “The authorities want to gag the media to prevent them from relaying the discontent of those who are opposed to the Eurasian Economic Union. Ever since the December 2011 riots in Zhanaozen, which were crushed bloodily, the authorities have feared that their grip on power could be shaken by further unrest.

Freedom of information has been declining for years in Kazakhstan as the authorities arrest and convict more and more news providers and adopt legislative reforms that give them ever-tighter control of the media.

Kazakhstan is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.