Kazakhstan : Zhanaozen – a city cut off from the rest of the world a year ago


A strike by oil workers snowballed a year ago in Zhanaozen, in western Kazakhstan, and ended up being crushed brutally by the security forces on 16 December 2011. The authorities skilfully imposed a news blackout on the event at the local, regional and national levels. Opposition media that tried to cover this highly sensitive story were subjected to growing harassment that culminated a year later with their being banned outright.

How a censored event was used as grounds for censorship

The video presented here was one of the first amateur videos of the events in Zhanaozen that circulated on social networks before being picked up by independent and opposition media. It clearly shows something that the authorities initially tried to cover up at all costs – the fact that the police fired live rounds at protesters and then beat the wounded as they lay on the ground. The National Security Committee (KNB) put a great deal of pressure on the media in an attempt to identify the authors of this and similar videos.

Evidence of this kind forced the authorities to recognize the use of disproportionate force and to punish the police officers responsible. But this has not stopped President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s autocratic government from blaming the violence on opposition parties and media and accusing them of deliberately trying to destabilize the country. The events in Zhanaozen ended up being used as grounds for an increased crackdown. National opposition media were closed in December 2012.

Means of communication selectively disconnected

Kazakhstan’s 20th independence anniversary celebrations were disrupted in Zhanaozen by oil workers who had been hounded and fired for going on strike. They occupied the city’s central square but were expelled in order to make way for the festivities. When police used live rounds to fire on a crowd of protesters, riots broke out and spread throughout the city. Most government buildings were set on fire.

The official toll was 15 dead and around 100 wounded. A demonstrator was killed the next day at the railway station in the nearby town of Shetpe as a detachment of special forces were passing through on their way to Zhanaozen. The Kazakh judicial system’s incomplete and biased investigations failed to explain exactly how the events unfolded.

Zhanaozen and the surrounding region were cut off from the world. For several days, the Internet and telecommunications were disconnected in a radius of about 65 km around the city – on the official grounds that cables had been damaged. Throughout the region, including its capital, Aktau, where tense demonstrations were held, it was impossible to send or receive SMS messages or access the Internet using a smartphone.

Twitter was blocked throughout the country on 16 December and was not restored until the following day. Several leading news websites such Guljan.org, the Russian citizen news agency Ridus.ru and the opposition newspaper Respublika’s news portal were also inaccessible.

From blocking to control of journalist

A 20-day state of emergency and curfew were declared in Zhanaozen. Checkpoints were established all around both Zhanaozen and Aktau. Journalists needed to obtain accreditation from the regional government in order to visit the region. The first journalists to go there were given a military escort. They described a deserted city patrolled by heavily-armed men. It was very hard in these circumstances to talk to residents, who were reluctant to talk for a long time.

The authorities loosened the restrictions on journalists a bit after several days but continued to monitor their movements closely. Russian journalists were held at a police station in Zhanaozen for several hours on 18 December while the contents of their computers, USB flash drives and audio recorders were carefully examined.  Considerable constraints were placed on the movements of Stan TV, Radio Azattyk, Associated Press and Al-Jazeera reporters by special forces the same day in Shetpe.

One year on – pluralism close to death

The government portrayed the events in Zhanaozen as a destabilization attempt orchestrated by the opposition, and quickly used this interpretation as grounds for gagging its critics. The leaders of several opposition parties were arrested and the head of the Alga party, Vladimir Kozlov, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison and confiscation of all of his assets. Throughout 2012, reporters of independent and opposition media found themselves being arrested, summoned for questioning by the security services, physically attacked or the targets of intimidation attempts.

The escalation reached a tipping point on the first anniversary of the Zhanaozen unrest. Prosecutors in the capital Almaty brought “extremism” charges against the main opposition national news media. Within a few weeks, the Respublika and Vzglyad newspapers, the satellite TV station K+ and the Stan TV news agency had all been forced to suspend activities. The news website Guljan.org was suspended. What with rushed trials, convictions in absentia and violation of defence rights, the judicial system no longer even tries to maintain a semblance of respectability.

  1. Stan TV : mirror website http://stan.rsf.org/, download the full website
  2. K+ : mirror website http://kplus-tv.rsf.org/, download the full website
  3. Respublika : mirror website http://respublika-kz.rsf.org/, download the full website
  4. Vzglyad : mirror website http://vzglyad.rsf.org/,  download the full website

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