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Kazakhstan2 March 2009

Independent newspaper faces closure after astronomical fine for “defamation”

Reporters Without Borders and the Journalist in Danger foundation today accused the Almaty appeal court of seeking to ruin an independent newspaper by imposing a fine that it and its journalists would find impossible to pay.

A case for defamation was brought by parliament deputy, Ramin Madinov, against the editor of the weekly newspaper Tasjargan, Bakyttoul Makimbai and a journalist, Almas Koucherbayev after it carried an article on 24 April 2008, headlined “the poor landowner”.

The deputy had asked the court for an apology and 300 million tenge (2 million dollars) in damages but on 16 January 2009, a district court set a fine of 3 million tenge (20,000 dollars) against the paper and the journalists.

But at the 26 February appeal, the defence claimed the sum involved was unfair and disproportionate, given that neither the newspaper nor its journalists had sufficient funds to pay. This did not prevent the appeal court from setting compensation at 30 million tenge (200,000 dollars).

Accusing the appeal court of raising the fine for the explicit purpose of destroying the popular paper, which sells 400,000 copies daily and opens its columns to the opposition, the worldwide press freedom organisation said: “We are all the more appalled at the persistence of this kind of practice, since Kazakhstan is due to take over the presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from 2010”.

“While it is normal for defamation cases to be brought against the media, the fines should remain proportionate and not simply lead to the shutting down of a title. Otherwise, it is just a disguised form of censorship”, the organisation concluded.

Tasjargan, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2008, has launched an appeal to its readership to help raise the money. But it is certain that this will not produce sufficient funds and the popular paper will be forced to close because of this judgement which will also condemn the journalist, Almas Koucherbayev to unemployment.

There has only been one precedent of a fine of this size in the history of the press in Kazakhstan. The country’s leading newspaper in the Kazakh language, DAT, was forced into closure in 1999, while its editor, Charip Kourakbayev, was banned from working for the media for many years.

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