The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Kazakh authorities to dismiss criminal defamation suits against two popular independent media outlets and their journalists.
In a statement on April 13, the New York-based media watchdog urged the authorities to “stop this campaign of harassment” against the news site Ratel.kz and the local edition of Forbes magazine.
Almaty police on April 2 raided the editorial offices of both media outlets, confiscating computers and documents from both. The homes of several journalists working for the outlets were also searched.
Police later said the raids were part of a criminal investigation based on a suit filed on March 30 by Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, a businessman and former finance minister, who claimed that the outlets published false information that damaged his reputation and that of his son.
Four journalists with Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel.kz were questioned on April 2 and told that they were they were “witnesses with the right to defense.”
And on April 4, Ratel's chief editor, Marat Asipov, was questioned again and his "witness" status was changed to “suspect.”
Meanwhile, Ratel's website and Facebook page have been blocked.
CPJ said Ratel.kz and Forbes Kazakhstan have reported on the alleged corrupt business practices of the Kakimzhanovs between May and December 2016.
"The space for independent information and critical commentary in Kazakhstan has severely contracted over the past few years,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Astana should start reversing this trend by abolishing criminal defamation as a first step."
Opponents and rights groups say that President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has held power in Kazakhstan since before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, has taken systematic steps to suppress dissent and sideline potential opponents.
Human Rights Watch on April 6 issued a statement on the case, urging Kazakh authorities to stop using libel laws "to harass journalists who are doing their jobs."