Under the guise of â€œprotecting citizens from terrorists and porn,â€ the government in Kazakhstan is eliminating freedom of speech and of the press via a particularly toxic cocktail of Old Stalinist School beatings, jailings and intimidation â€“ and cutting-edge CyberWar attacks.
I conducted a series of interviews with journalists, bloggers, opposition political leaders and human rights workers in the cities of Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was there because in mid-October of 2009, the US State Department invited me to travel to Kazakhstan to do a series of training sessions on New Media and how journalists there could learn from the mistakes that First-World TV & newspapers have made, to prepare themselves for the future.
While I was able to show them some of the new technologies and techniques in online video, mobile, social media and web monetization that Iâ€™ve developed an expertise in, I found that their crisis is far more serious than that of US publishers and journalists, whose problems revolve around absurd levels of debt entered into by multi-billion dollar corporations, and the lack of a coherent business strategy.
Kazakh journalists are quite literally fighting for their lives â€“ and losing.
I found this out myself, when I wound up in the hospital with a severe case of food poisoning, the night before I was scheduled to conduct a class for the pro-democracy rights workers, independent journalists and dissenting bloggers. I feel almost ashamed to bring this up, because compared to what the Kazakh journalists go through, barfing for 8 hours seems like a resort vacation. Still, the embassy doctor told me I was on the point of cascading organ failure from radical dehydration. Next stop: a pine box in the cargo hold on the way back to Los Angeles.
A couple days and 4 liters of IV fluid and antibiotics later, my vision cleared and I was finally able to reschedule with the Kazakhstanâ€™s most independent journalists and bloggers. (I had to cancel a trip to Shymkent, where even more dissidents hoped to get my help.) They wanted to interview me, because they were suspicious about my absence. â€œYou donâ€™t honestly think that what happened to you was an accident?â€ they asked. I admitted that in my most paranoid moments, I wonderedâ€¦
â€œThere are no coincidences here,â€ they told me. They went on to state that repeatedly, journalists, human rights workers or others who have come from the U.S. or Europe to meet with them, mysteriously get sick â€“ just the way I did â€“ are hospitalized, and wind up going home a couple of days later without ever actually meeting or doing any work.Â They all wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me for joining the club of journalists who have gone to the hospital because of their political beliefs.
I will never know if it was just a bad piece of chicken, or if I barfed out some heinous admixture of polonium and whatever PCBs/Dioxins they fed to the former president of Ukraine that turned his face into a puffy, pockmarked lunar landscape. But I will admit that seeing a couple of goons waiting in an SUV every morning to tail us around contributed to my motivation to publish this piece.
First â€“ a bit of scene-setting: Kazakhstan is an enormous country, spread out over vast empty sub-Siberian steppes (as you can see in my pictures here), with a relatively tiny population of 16 million. Itâ€™s floating on an ocean of oil and gas, and may soon be the worldâ€™s leading exporter of uranium â€“ check out the Wikipedia entry, if you want more facts & figures.
Put simply, Kazakhstan is a popcorn shell jammed in the teeth of international war & petro-diplomacy. Itâ€™s stuck between China to the east, Russia to the north, and Afghanistan & Pakistan to the south. They export a billion barrels of oil a year to Russian refineries, and their natural gas keeps the lights on throughout Western Europe. The U.S. uses their airspace and bases for the war in Afghanistan, and rocket launches from the old Soyuz complex near Baikonur keep the International Space Station functioning.
Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president of Kazakhstan since it split off from the former Soviet Union in 1989.Â Just this year, the constitution was changed to basically allow him to be president for life, and itâ€™s a tossup as to whether or not there will ever again be open elections.
While I was there, I visited the cities of Almaty and Astana, which represent the past and the future of Kazakhstan. In 1997, Nazarbayev decreed that the capitol would be moved from the ancient city of Almaty, which is in a green valley just north of the Himalayas, on the old Silk Road, to Astana, which lies in the midst of 1,000 miles of Siberian steppes, surrounded by nothing.
A brief aside on Astana: the best way I can describe this city is to ask you to imagine what would happen if you downloaded the brains of Albert Speer and Walt Disney into a 14-year-old ADHD sci-fi fan & meth freak, and then gave him a trillion dollars and asked him to design the capitol city of Mars.Â Dubai in the tundra? Shanghai without the workers or industrial base? Calgary with a creeping sense of menace?
The oil billions have funded the construction of massive towers and buildings; of wide boulevards, lined with struggling fresh-planted saplings; of monuments to the ego of Nazarbayev, where wide-eyed rural citizens line up, and hold up their babies so they can put their tiny hands into the impression of the Glorious Leaderâ€™s hand, memorialized forever in a 20-pound block of solid gold.
â€œItâ€™s all one giant money-laundering scheme,â€ a journalist confided to me. â€œThe government says that itâ€™s putting up these buildlings, making this city out of nothing for the future of the people of Kazakhstan. They keep comparing this place to Washington, D.C.
â€œBut what itâ€™s really about is that they budget $200 million, maybe for a new library or art gallery. â€˜For the people, for the culture of our country,â€™ they say. Then they build it for $50 million, maybe $20 million. Â The rest all disappears.â€
There is no real reason for this city, built for giants, and inhabited only by people who work for the kleptocracy, to exist, other than what you can read in â€œOzymandias.â€
â€œâ€œMy name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!â€
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.â€
Yeah. Itâ€™s like that. Particularly the parts about the â€œsneer of cold command.â€ Â If you squint a little bit, from atop the big observation towers, you can see the tangled rusted girders sticking up out of the blasted, brown tundra.
As youâ€™ll see in the following videos, the main problem they need help with is the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that are unleashed on them when they dare to step over the line and criticize the government, write about the massive corruption in the banking system, or report the latest bombshell from the presidentâ€™s ex-son in law. (He fled the country, and now lives in Austria, from whence he periodically releases embarrassing information â€“ such as audiotapes of government officials conspiring to murder & steal.)
In the interviews that are included here, the Kazakh journalists talk about these kinds of problems â€“ of the beatings, intimidation, jailings, fines, cyber-attacks and other methods by which freedom is being systematically strangled to death.Â I will write more about this issue in other postings, but for now, I think the greatest impact is for you to hear their raw voices.
I apologize in advance for this video.Â I had to blur the face and distort the voice of this journalist, to protect him from the brutal reprisals that are becoming almost commonplace in Kazakhstan. I wish that I could show you the blood clot in this manâ€™s eye, or the fading bruises at the corners of his mouth.
I wish that you could see the way he hunches his shoulders when talking about the beating, stomping and kicking orgy of violence that landed him in the hospital recently, or the anger that replaces that fear when he talks of the beatings that have been inflicted on his colleagues.
I hope that you can still hear in his voice the raw sadness and sense of loss that is evident when he talks about the feeble FlashMob protests that are the only act of defiance left to them, and how even that is being systematically taken away.
But I cannot. I cannot bring this story to you in this open and honest way; maybe it is paranoia, but if it is, then it is well-founded paranoia. The pervasive fear that has been pounded into journalists in Kazakhstan is communicable, and if I have succumbed to it as well, so be it.Â I would rather err on the side of caution with these interviews than expose some of the people in them to further harm. This is also why I have beeped out the names of some of the other recent victims, as well as other information that would make it easy to identify this person.
I do recognize that this journalistâ€™s voice and accent make what he is saying a little hard to understand, and so I am adding subtitles.
These journalists told me that the hardest part for them is the feeling of being utterly alone; that the daily outrages against them have been covered up, denied, made to disappear as they themselves are being made to vanish, one by one.
I decided to share these improvised videos (recorded before and after training sessions I led) because the journalists and bloggers I met pleaded with me to share their stories in the hopes that someone in the outside world would pay attention. Â To them, the internet represents the last, best hope of writers and photographers and editors who dare to speak truth to power. They have been pushed to the brink, and the DDoS attacks now threaten even that.
I was authorized to show the face and voice of journalist Yevgeniya Plakhina of Respublika.kz, and so she appears here undisguised, although there were some subjects that we discussed that she later requested be edited out. I will post some of the other videos in a later post, since this is getting a bit long.