Interview with Kazis Toguzbayev, Journalist/Blogger from Kazakhstan

Kazis Toguzbayev is a Kazakhstani journalist/blogger, who was sued for insulting the honor and the dignity of the president in January 2007 when he uploaded two articles on a group blog Kazis is 59, married and has grandchildren. He is a colonel of the Ministry of Defense of Kazakhstan in reserve and a pensioner for 10 years now. We spoke about the lessons that he learned after the trial and about the citizen journalism in Kazakhstan.

Q: What is blog and citizen journalism for you?
A: It’s a possibility of free self-realization.

Q: Why did you decide to write the articles, which, as you might have known, will get you in trouble?
A: In this case not my mind, but my feelings lead me. I would not have been able to exist if I did not write and upload these articles. Not writing them would be worse than being punished for it. In other words, I could not have been silent.

Q: What topics are you most interested in, how do you choose what to write about?
A: I quite like philosophical topics, like the religions and issues of ethnicity. Unfortunately, the Kazakhstani publications do not yet accept the conceptual and reasonable discussion on these topics. In my case I could say that my topics have chosen me. Because I have soul as well, and it cannot accept and not answer to what is going on. I personally felt that when Altynbek Sarsenbayev (Kazakhstani opposition politician) was murdered and when the authorities tried to hide the truth about his murder, I was being murdered too. I felt like I was being killed too – though I am alive, I felt like I was being buried alive.

Q: Do you think your case has helped to attract the attention to the freedom of speech in Kazakhstan?
A: I didn’t have this purpose, but it happened. I found more than 160 thousand (!) documents with my name in the Internet. I wouldn’t have been able to organize such an promotion if I wanted to! Most publications were about the persecution for what I have written. The tone was sympathizing, so I concluded that I managed to attract the attention to the state of freedom of speech in Kazakhstan. Besides, the OSCE has addressed the minister of foreign affairs in Kazakhstan Marat Tazhin. It said that the norm of the law, which envisages the criminal punishment for an assault on honor and dignity of the president was an anachronism. The US State Department also included my case into its annual report on human rights.

Q: Did local and international NGOs and civic initiatives help you during your trial?
A: Yes! The international fund for freedom of speech “Adil Soz” found the means to pay for a professional lawyer who defended me. I wouldn’t simply have such means! Besides, the president of this fund Tamara Kaleeva was one of my public defenders during the trial. Other public defenders were the president of the foundation “Journalists at risk” Rozlana Taukina, Asylbek Kozhakhmetov, leader of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, a party that is not registered. Our justice system depends on the executive, so my professional lawyer could do almost nothing. Thus, despite all the legal arguments from my defense, I could not have escaped the conviction. I think that the public defenders have done the most.

Q: What lessons have you learned from this case, have you changed your opinion about the state bodies, the courts, the possibilities of the Internet, the Kazakhstani community of journalists?
A: Lesson number one – you have to be careful about what you write if you want to escape the punishment by the repressive state bodies. Lesson number twoif you cannot help writing, you have to write, despite the threat of the punishment, even a criminal one. As for the state bodies, they are the same as they used to be in our totalitarian past: the Committee of National Security, prosecutor’s office, and, as I understand, the administration of the president do the monitoring of the press (do an ideological surveillance), the prosecutor and the courts finish what the other start. I am confident that my case was not only political, but also ideological. During the trial the prosecutor and the judge were asking questions, but could not listen to my answers. They asked: “What (criminal) intentions did you have when you wrote your articles?”. I answered that my main motive was that I don’t accept the immoral behavior of the president Nazarbayev, and I was trying to prove that he was immoral. The prosecutor and the judge seemed like they did not want to hear, but they could not stop me from talking.

As for the journalists, I myself was the main provider of the information about my trial. For instance, the “Svoboda Slova” (Freedom of Speech) newspaper didn’t say anything about my trial. On the other hand, the foundation for the protection of freedom of speech “Adil Soz”, the “Journalists at Risk” fund, “Respublika” newspaper and TV “31 channel” have done a lot to highlight my trial.

Q: What is the state of the citizen journalism in Kazakhstan? Are there many people, non-professional journalists ready to write in the Internet about political and social issues?
A: Yes, surprisingly, there are many people like that. However, they are not yet ready to do it for a simple reason – the lack of the skills to work in the Internet, especially, to work with blogs. The existing Internet media are a barrier for them as much as print media.

Q: What do you think is the future of the Internet, blogs and citizen media in Kazakhstan? Will there be more trials of the journalists, will there be legislative restrictions, censorship as in China or the atmosphere will be freer and there will be more people active online as in Russia?
A: For instance, (political blog, where Kazis published) is administered from Paris. It saves it from the persecution by the Kazakhstani authorities. But I think that the number of blogs will grow in Kazakhstan anyway. The number of persecuted journalists will grow as well. The current policies on nationalities can lead to another huge outflow of Russian-speaking population from Kazakhstan. Forced transfer of bookkeeping to Kazakh can negatively affect the number of active and free journalists. So it is difficult to say exactly what scenario will Kazakhstan follow the Chinese or the Russian.

Q: How did your family react to the process?
A: I always did what I wanted to do. I feel the most free in political journalism. My family was worried for me at the start. But they got used to my activities with years. And they even learned to look at the social processes as I do. That is why none of my relatives panicked when the KNB (Committee for National Security) started two criminal cases against me. Moreover, my wife told me when I was going to the court: “Victory or defeat! I am not going to the trial. This is not my problem. Not even yours! The government has created this problem. They should sort it out now”. At the same time, she packed my bag with warm clothes and biscuits.

Q: How do you imagine the future of the Internet in Kazakhstan?
A: Free! Kazakhs in the 21 century have a chance to get themselves out of this slump through the Internet. The flat, evolutionary way of growth in the economy and population will not solve the problem of Kazakhstani – not only Kazakh – society. We need a qualitative move forward. And the Internet provides this historical chance for Kazakhstanis, which we should use for sure.

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