In less than six months Kazakhstan's best known opposition newspaper has been sued for almost half a million dollars, had its presses raided and an entire print run seized by the tax police.

 

 

 

Forced to churn out copies on an aging photocopier and with many newsagents refusing to stock them, the Respublika weekly finds itself struggling with a familiar problem of thin resources combined with political pressure.

 

That makes all the more strange the calm that permeates the Soviet-era flat that is the Almaty headquarters for the paper's young, and -- unusually for Central Asia -- politically outspoken staff.

 

Despite the historic absence of civilian activism here, Respublika has decided not to back down, instead raising a very public stink as Kazakhstan prepares to become the first ex-Soviet state to chair the OSCE in January.

 

"I want my colleagues not to be afraid and think the authorities will punish them for covering something," reporter Yevgeniya Plakhina said. "I want the authorities to be afraid of us."

 

Kazakhstan, an ex-Soviet state bordering China and Russia, has a dismal media-rights track record, ranking 142 out 175 countries on media watchdog Reporters Without Borders' annual worldwide press freedom index in 2009.

 

Many had hoped that Kazakhstan would improve ahead of the chairmanship of the OSCE, a pan-Atlantic security and democracy body, and which it was awarded after pledging to enact democratic and human rights reforms.

But in August Ramazan Eserguepov, editor of the newspaper Alma Ata Info, was sentenced to three years in prison for divulging state secrets, and another Almaty paper was sued into closure after being accused of defamation.

 

Both cases were widely seen as payback for critical reporting.

 

Finally in September Respublika was ordered to pay over 400,000 dollars (272,461 euros) in "compensation for moral damage" to BTA, Kazakhstan's largest bank, after it ran a story the bank says provoked a run on deposits.

 

The ruling, made after BTA was nationalized as part of an effort to stave off the collapse of the banking sector, effectively forced the paper out of business, which deputy editor Oxana Makushina said was precisely the point.

"I think they did it so as to restrict criticism of the government and the anti-crisis measures they were taking," she said.

 

Since the authorities seized its entire print run in September, the paper has been unable to find a new printing house and has been forced to self publish.

 

A group of reporters from Respublika and their supporters recently turned up outside the BTA bank building for a protest, an unusual scene in Kazakhstan.

 

Laughing and joking, they attempted to hand-deliver a basket filled with horseradish -- the Russian word for horseradish is also a slang word for a penis -- to a BTA executive. The executive declined to accept the package.

 

While Respublika has become a political lightning rod and a cause celebre for international rights groups critical of Kazakhstan, known now as much for its cheeky protests as its reporting, it was not designed to be so.

 

Founded in 2001, Respublika set before itself what might seem like an uncontroversial task: an open and transparent business publication.

 

But this is ex-Soviet Central Asia and the paper, its investigations of corruption a breath of fresh air amid the fawning pro-government media, was an immediate success.

"You know, it was a shock for our audience, because we were criticizing bureaucrats and powerful businessmen.... but if that kind of thing is normal in the West, for us it was a kind of revolution," Makushina said.

 

Then, inevitably, the threats and intimidation began.

 

"In May, 2002 someone cut off a dog's head, stuck a note into it with a knife and put it on the windowsill outside of our chief's house," she said.

"It was a long time ago, so I don't remember what the note said, but that was scary," she added.

 

The chief, founder and owner of the paper, Irina Petrushova, has been living in exile since 2002 after a series of attacks that included the firebombing of Respublika's offices and threats on her family.

 

Makushina was evasive about where Respublika's funding comes from, but they are rumoured to be connected with Mukhtar Ablyazov, BTA's former chairman and a vocal critic of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, now in exile in London.

 

"We have a lot of different sources of funding," she said.

 

It is clear that some employees have been shaken by the tumult and reporters now talk openly about expecting to be the target of violence.

 

"It's dangerous, but we stopped being scared a long time ago. It's just funny at this point," said staff photographer Serikzhan Kovlanbayev, without a hint of laughter.

 

But for Plakhina, who once founded a movement to protect freedom of speech on the Internet, sees little cause for humour.

"We are returning, I guess, to the Soviet model. Broadcast television, radio.... you can see that everything is good in Kazakhstan," she said.

 

"People watch it and believe it and think our president is great and our country is great".

 

 

Source: AFP Global Edition