Reporting on Kazakhstan’s chaos amid internet shutdowns and violence

When the internet connection came back on 10 January, people’s phones began ringing incessantly. “I was so happy to finally hear from my colleagues, they were bravely reporting from the squares [across the country], they even witnessed the death of one of the protesters. They fulfilled their duties as journalists until the end,” Maitanov recalled.

In Almaty, other journalists also reported the gruesome feeling of having witnessed such violence. “It was seriously scary. We saw people being beaten, people being shot. I had never seen something like this. And we were right there,” a journalist for an independent media outlet told openDemocracy.

Attacks on the press were registered from all sides. Both law enforcement and the more violent fringes of the 5 January riots threatened and beat journalists, who were wearing blue press vests in order to be recognised. Instead of being an instrument of safety, however, the press vest became a target.

“In the matter of a few hours, by 5 January, the situation – where protesters defended and protected the press – changed, and journalists covering events on the ground were targeted with threats and direct attacks,” Nurmukhanbetov said.

The backlash against reporters

Across the country, meanwhile, reporters and editors were being detained.

On 5 January, Lukpan Akmedyarov, the editor-in-chief of Uralskaya Nedelya, an independent outlet covering Kazakhstan’s northwestern region, was detained for violating the state of emergency, although he later reported that he was mostly questioned regarding his potential affiliation with banned organisations. On 7 January, Daryn Nursapar, editor of the eastern Kazakhstan newspaper Altai News, was also detained in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk and charged with participating in an illegal rally, he will serve a 15-day jail term.

Earlier, on 4 January, unidentified individuals shot at and injured the son of Amangeldy Batyrbekov, an independent journalist who broke a tragic story of child rape in the south of the country in 2019 and has since been under pressure from the authorities.

In a report, Adil Soz chronicled the incidents involving journalists across the country, including insults, beatings, arrests and, at least one fatal shooting in Almaty, as unidentified people gunned down a convoy of local Alma TV operators, killing the driver Muratkhan Bazarbayev and injuring Diasken Baitbayev.

International press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists echoed the Adil Soz reports and urged Kazakhstan’s authorities to “fully investigate assaults on the country’s press.”

But while journalists and campaigners are concerned about press freedom, on social media Almaty’s middle-class has stood firmly against the looting of their city, calling for arrests and a stronger law enforcement presence.

“Many – including the ‘liberals’ – will now actively support the strengthening of authoritarianism and censorship,” said Moldabekov in a Facebook post describing a bleak scenario for press freedom in the country. Similar calls to reform the police and increase its power were made in 2018 after an Olympic figure skater, Denis Ten, was murdered in Almaty.

Given the authorities’ track record with the press, local journalists expect that more policing means more pressure at best, violence against them at worst.

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