Radiotochka, one of the most popular online news portals and radio shows in Kazakhstan, will shut down and reportedly remain online only as a repository of older articles, after financial difficulties and political pressures made its survival impossible.
Bigeldy Gabdullin, the chief editor, said the staff will receive their last paycheck in April. Gabdullin had tried to sell off the brand before the closure, but now he assures the company will not be put up for auction.
“If someone had come forward to buy the portal, we would have considered it. But at this time we will not try to sell it through an auction. In this difficult economic situation finding a buyer is difficult,” he told the informburo.kz website.
What Gabdullin refrained to mention in his public statements about the closure was the recent crackdown on his business, which includes the news portal Central Asia Monitor.
In January, a court in Astana sentenced Gabdullin to five years of restricted freedom, during which he will have to seek official permission to change his residence or his job and to leave the country. He was accused of having extorted money from local high-ranking officials from several regions in Kazakhstan. Gabdullin admitted that he pressed the officials for money, around 21 million tenge ($60,000) in total, for the development of his news organization. After his arrest in November 2016, Gabdullin sent an open letter to Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev denying all accusations and asking for a review of his case.
After Gabdullin’s arrest, his deputy and managing editor at Radiotochka, Bekzhan Idrissov, fled Kazakhstan, saying that he will probably never return back, citing an unbearable environment for journalists.
Indeed, if one looks at the most recent record, several journalists and activists have been under the authorities’ scrutiny. From ‘organic’ figures such as Seitkazy Matayev and his son, to more critical characters such as Guzyal Baidalinova of Nakanune.kz and Zhanbolat Mamay, of the Tribuna newspaper, more than a handful public figures have had to face prosecution on a vast array of charges. Media freedom watchdogs have said they are worried of the deteriorating situation for the press in the country.
Radiotochka will now phase out, much to the disappointment of its readers and listeners. Radiotochka was a primary destination for information on business deals in the country and emerging social issues. Its investigative spirit had some of the most powerful elite members on check, through its project “Who Owns Kazakhstan?” uncovering shareholding structures that some high-level officials and powerful businessmen had crafted in an effort to conceal their real influence over the country’s most important enterprises.
While the murky deals that Radiotochka uncovered are widespread across the world and not peculiar to Kazakhstan, Radiotochka was among the handful of outlets that pushed journalism so far inside the country. Now, the Gabdullin sentence risks tainting Radiotochka’s record: after his admission that some of the portal’s negative press was aimed at extorting money, it will be harder to take its material seriously.
One of the questions that remain on the table is why has the crackdown on press freedom intensified recently?
In the case of Radiotochka, its coverage of environmental issues, business-politics relations, and the land protest of 2016 could have pushed it increasingly under a bad light with the leadership.
In an effort to show its modernization efforts, Kazakhstan has adopted a strict anti-corruption policy, which has targeted several public figures caught red-handed mismanaging public funds and accepting bribes. Some of them could even be regarded as close to the highest echelons of the elite, but it is beyond doubt that dissenting voices were the target in the majority of the cases.
The closure of Radiotochka is yet another example of the latter. Ironically, the same week, two prominent political figures sentenced in 2015 for having received large bribes were released from prison.
If Kazakhstan’s goal is to build up the rule of law in the country, selective justice will not help the cause.