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As Kazakh Referendum Moves Forward, Media Freedom Takes a Step Back

Kazakhstan - A sign protesting a proposed referendum on presidential term limits says, "Referendum 2011 NO," Taraz, 12Jan2011.
The chief editor of Kazakhstan's leading Russian-language opposition newspaper, Svoboda Slova (Freedom of Speech), has resigned, RFE's Kazakh Service reports.

Gulzhan Ergalieva told RFE yesterday that her resignation was motivated by the
current campaign for a referendum to prolong Kazakh President Nursultan
Nazarbaev's term in office until 2020.

She said she has found a new chief editor, Almaty-based journalist Yevgeny
Rakhimzhanov, and given up her ownership rights to the paper.

"My resignation is the only way to save the newspaper and to ensure the safety
of journalists working for Svoboda Slova ...

Ergalieva, 59, founded the newspaper in 2005 and has served as its chief editor
since then.

"My resignation is the only way to save the newspaper and to ensure the safety
of journalists working for Svoboda Slova, said Ergalieva, one of
Kazakhstan's most prominent opposition journalists.

In 2001, a group of masked men broke into her Almaty apartment, beat and tied
her up before torturing her husband in front of her for several hours, leaving
him handicapped. The attackers were never found.

Ergalieva and her colleagues say the attack was organized by officials in
retaliation for her critical articles about the country's political, social,
and economic situation.

In another incident yesterday, police in Almaty confiscated the latest issue of the opposition weekly Golos Respubliki (Voice of the Republic).

The newspaper's spokesperson, Sergei Zelepukhin, told journalists that police stopped the paper's delivery vehicle on Thursday night, with thousands of copies of this week's issue inside.

He said the driver and accompanying staff members were taken to a police
station where they were told that they had been detained on suspicion of
spreading false information. The staff members were later released, but the
newspapers were confiscated.

Zelepukhin said the issue contained articles criticizing the proposed national

Golos Respubliki journalist Oksana Makushina told a press conference in
Almaty today that only 3,000 copies of the total print-run of 19,000 made their
way to newsstands in Almaty.

The upper and lower chambers of the Kazakh parliament voted yesterday in favor of holding the referendum. The move would allow Nazarbaev to bypass presidential elections currently scheduled for 2012.

Nazarbaev, whose current term expires in 2012, rejected the referendum idea last week.

Compiled by RFE's Kazakh language service and O wire.