Kazakhstan’s Libel Laws

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by Joshua Foust on 3/11/2010 · 7 comments

I’m genuinely confused by this:

A U.S. media group has criticized Kazakhstan for effectively banning an opposition newspaper, saying the move violated the core values of Europe’s main democracy watchdog, chaired by Kazakhstan this year.

Distribution of the main opposition Respublika newspaper was halted in February after a court ruled a story published by the paper last year had triggered a bank run on deposits of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank.

Now, it makes sense that a U.S. group—the Committee to Protect Journalists—would issue this warning. After all, if the report was true, then there’s no reason to shut it down (and we all recognize, I think, that the bank run was just an excuse to harass the paper, which has been hounded for many years).

But the West has a tricky relationship to free speech. In the UK, for example, a bizarre and to American sensibilities oppressive set of libel laws allow frivolous court filings to suppress speech wealthy men find disagreeable—think billionaire Uzbek Alisher Burkhanovich Usmanov silencing Craig Murray. It goes against the very concept of free speech being free. (The Brits have a bizarre concept of press speech, as well, since their newspapers are seemingly not bounded by the laws of reality.)

The point here isn’t to excuse Kazakhstan’s behavior—as a free speech fundamentalist (just like Andrew Exum!), I find the decision abhorrent—but to contextualize it. Despite the objective evil of shutting down a newspaper you find inconvenient, how does this behavior compare to, say, Uzbekistan jailing everyone and silencing HIV/AIDS programs because they actually talk about sex? What of Russia’s two decades of viciously murdering every single journalist that dares speak ill of the country and its glorious policies?

This is actually being a little unfair to Kazakhstan. After all, it assumed the chairmanship of the OSCE thinking it would be all sunshine and unicorns, and got the opposite. Indeed, they are under a microscope for a variety of fair and unfair reasons. And it’s making their grand plans for the chairmanship, like a possible OSCE summit, difficult to enact.

So, we can all agree that Kazakhstan deserves to be condemned and nudged and pushed to open itself back up. But is there a point where we take it too far, and, rather than being agents for positive change we actually manage to push them even further toward authoritarianism and censorship? That’s the bit that really puzzles me—I don’t have the right mixture worked out in my head. And I’m honestly not sure there is one. So, what do you think?

Photo: Astana, courtesy UNECE.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Narcogen March 11, 2010 at 11:11 pm

1) Expectations for Kazakhstan should be higher than for Uzbekistan.
2) It is no surprise that the OSCE chairmanship comes with extra scrutiny. Warnings to this effect have been made, repeatedly, for years now, since KZ first made this ambition known (as well as their own agenda in trying to tell the OSCE to keep its nose out of other people’s business w/r/t human rights and get down to the important business of having a summit in Astana).
3) KZ draws special attention because unlike Uzbekistan they claim to be a democracy and they claim to respect human rights and freedom of speech and of the press, and they desire to be treated as such. It’s just that, as usual, the local brand of these things looks completely unrecognizable– much like the libel laws in the UK 🙂

Ekspeditsya March 12, 2010 at 12:06 am

Everything that Narcogen says is exactly on the mark. I would elaborate a little further on the matter of the OSCE, in a point that I think that can be applied to other countries in Central Asia and Russia.
The familiar defence against charges of disrespect for democratic standards has become to cling legal sovereignty and the argument that these states are still in their maturation process.
The second argument is a frankly idiotic excuse for all manner of tyranny, so I will not even deign to mount an attack on it.
But what truly irks me is this petty local defiance of insisting, when shutting down newspapers and rigging elections, that a country has its own historically ordained standards that interfering foreigners should not question (this happened most recently, during the Tajik parliamentary election).
But no, you joined the OSCE exactly because you want to be seen to endorse a set of broadly (excuse the crude label) Western values and benefit from the legitimacy and commercial benefit that those can bring.
But the governments of Central Asia want the gain without the pain; to have de facto dictatorships and be feted by the Western community; to tell people that their country is modern and free, but shut down newspapers and jail reporters (Kazakhstan also does this, by the way); rig elections, and yet insist on being recognised as democracies.
No, it is your sovereign right (within limits) to be petty, nasty, venal, corrupt, inefficient and despotic, if that is what you want. But don’t bleat when the international community you want belong to calls you out on it.

oldschool boy March 12, 2010 at 5:58 am


Democratic standards should be met by any country, no question, but I do not think joining OSCE is about endorsement of Western values and legitimacy and commercial benefit. I thought OSCE was about security and co-operation.

KZBlog March 12, 2010 at 6:42 am

I think there’s another nuance being missed here. As far as I understand BTA Bank is not claiming that the newspaper published lies. They are claiming that the article caused damage to them. This would be akin to WorldCom suing the Wall Street Journal because WorldCom lost business from damaging articles in the paper. It’s a dangerous precedent to set, that newspapers not only have to report the truth, but that they can’t report anything harmful to businesses. It is in fact parallel to Uzbekistan shutting down AIDS programs or arresting photographers who take “shameful” pictures.

Ekspeditsya March 12, 2010 at 7:10 am

Democracy promotion and support of free media is a core component of the OSCE’s brief.
These kinds of international organizations should not be treated like a pick n’ mix buffet.
I think that it is implicit in the group’s security agenda, anyhow, that the purpose of collaborating on defence is specifically to defend those values that the West nominally holds dear.

Alex Visotzky March 14, 2010 at 11:22 pm

“What of Russia’s two decades of viciously murdering every single journalist that dares speak ill of the country and its glorious policies?”

A little hyperbole, perhaps?

oldschool boy March 16, 2010 at 1:31 am

I thought OSCE is Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. How does exactly defending values that “West nominally hold dear” help security of Eastern countries?

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