For more information see my story in Foreign Policy magazine.
'The Fire Could Be Ignited At Any Point': Kazakhstan's 'Bloody January' Through The Eyes Of Those Who Covered It
Azattyk Radio—Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe's Service in Kazakhstan—interviews Journalist Cheryl Reed about her Investigation into the Kazakhstan Protest Coverage
Original Article in English
January 10, 2023, 08:13
By Elnur Alimova
Protesters in Almaty on January 5, 2022 — the day Kazakhstan declared a nationwide state of emergency after peaceful anti-price rallies escalated into clashes and protesters stormed government buildings
“Once you start shooting at people, they will retaliate,” said US journalist Cheryl L. Reed, who reports on the January events in Kazakhstan. Azattyk asked the journalist's opinion about why peaceful rallies turned into riots, why the Kazakh authorities abandoned the international investigation of Bloody January, and whether society's views have changed.
Cheryl L. Reed is an American journalist and recipient of the Goldsmiths Award for investigative journalism. Cheryl spent four months traveling around the regions of Kazakhstan where the riots took place, and spoke with journalists covering these events, including correspondents from RFE/RL. Her articles about Kazakhstan were published by Diplomat.
Azattyk: There are different versions of what happened a year ago. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev then stated that the country had been subjected to a terrorist attack, and there were traitors among high-ranking officials who wanted to remove him from power. The version about the struggle of the elites is quite popular among Kazakhstanis. So what was it: an attempted coup or a chaotic popular protest? What do you think really happened?
Cheryl L. Reed: Almost everyone I've talked to, including people in high positions, people with very good reputations, people who run activist movements, NGOs, they all have these large-scale conspiracy theories. I'm from the US and I'm not interested in conspiracy theories. My country has already come across many such theories, and they never come true. When I hear these conspiracy theories, I just don't believe them.
For me, this was an interesting phenomenon, because of the foreign journalists with whom I spoke, not one believed in conspiracy theories. It was the local journalists with whom I spoke who believed in them. But for me, all the manipulations they talked about, how it was supposed to work, just do not make sense. Maybe because I don't live in this country. I think I understand the politics of Kazakhstan quite well, but it was very difficult for me to believe in all that they suggested.
The police tried to stop not only protesters, but also journalists, sometimes using physical force.
My focus on this project has been to listen to what journalists have to say about their own freedom of speech. How did they manage to communicate, especially at a very critical moment when the whole country was in dire need of information about what was happening. Many of them themselves were in an information vacuum. The police tried to stop not only protesters, but also journalists, sometimes using physical force. Therefore, I was interested in how these journalists covered [what was happening] and coped with repression by the security forces and what they saw, what they felt, what they thought, what they were deprived of and what risks they took. And what that risk meant to them.
RFE/RL: What was the most challenging part of your time in Kazakhstan when you were interviewing people and collecting data?
Cheryl L. Reed: Perhaps the most difficult thing was that the KNB was following me, filming me, stalking my translators, constantly following me, following the people with whom I spoke, and trying in every possible way to prevent me from getting information.
I can tell you one case. I am sitting in Aktobe, interviewing a journalist at the hotel where I am staying. We sit in a booth, and one guy walks back and forth and shoots us in the open. I don't really care, because I'm used to it. But at that moment, I was openly filmed by so many people and it annoyed me so much that I went up to that guy and started yelling at him. He didn't seem to expect this and just left.
But they tried to do it in such obvious ways. For example, a certain person who looked like a gardener was walking around our table with a camera in his pocket. We went into a booth where no one really could go, but there was a window and it suddenly opened. That is, they constantly tried to eavesdrop, by any means. On the one hand, it looks comical, but on the other hand, it is very distracting.
A burned-out car near the burning building of the Almaty akimat. Protesters against rising fuel prices broke into the building of the akimat and set it on fire.
RFE/RL: Returning to the topic of your research: in your opinion, how did peaceful protests that began in different regions of Kazakhstan over fuel prices and social problems escalate into violence? Was it specially organized?
Cheryl L. Reed: I think that in Zhanaozen and Aktau, the common people, the "lower classes" have definitely begun to protest. I believe that some individuals took advantage of this and tried to do what they wanted. In general, what I hear from journalists is that most of the protests were very peaceful. But when the police began to respond to these protests, it escalated into violence.
Suddenly someone starts shooting at you, and no matter what they shoot, even if it's rubber bullets, you will defend yourself.
It turns out that in a country where it is impossible to protest or gather in large crowds, masses of people gathered - two, three, four thousand people, and then the police simply went crazy. That's when they started throwing grenades and firing rubber bullets, and that's when the protesters started responding in kind.
It was as if the police were overwhelmed by these masses of people and then tried to disperse them. Suddenly someone starts shooting at you, and no matter what they shoot, even if it's rubber bullets, you will defend yourself. And this only made it worse - intending to simply disperse the crowd, the authorities only aggravated the situation.
Azattyk: How did people perceive the actions of local authorities? How did they assess the level of communication with them by local authorities?
Cheryl L. Reed: I think in some regions it's definitely good. Zhanaozen and Aktau were much more positive. And, as you can see, no one died as a result. There was a direct link between the lack of communication from the authorities and the deaths.
In Kyzylorda, it seems, the akim came out and really tried to talk to people, but it did not help. So in some cases it didn't help because the crowd was too excited. And in some other cities where there was no response from the authorities, such as Almaty, journalists continued to say that the protesters were so upset that no one came out to them that this was one of the reasons they used force.
Troops in Almaty's main square, where hundreds of people protested against the government. January 6, 2022.
RFE/RL: How did the people you interviewed react to President Tokayev's order to shoot without warning?
Cheryl L. Reed: Several people have mentioned it. I mean, they were afraid. And so I think there was a lot of self-censorship. As a result, many journalists backed down. Other activists criticized this order because, imagine, people were shooting without knowing who was there. People who are just walking down the street are legally driving down that road. Yes, most people were very critical about it. And then many journalists said that they were afraid of this order, they were afraid that the soldiers and the police, who knew who they were, would use this order to kill them.
RFE/RL: Human rights organizations and the European Parliament are among those pushing for an international investigation into the violence. But the authorities of Kazakhstan refused. Why?
Cheryl L. Reed: In general, people who have something to hide don't want outsiders to come in. In addition, the president announced an amnesty. Many people in power, and probably many police officers, are responsible for the shooting. But how and where does this responsibility end? The President ordered to shoot to kill. Therefore, I believe, everything will end on him, because the security forces were following his order.
Azattyk: Public discussion of the January events, as a rule, concerns the order of Tokayev, those who are responsible for this, and the people involved. But do you think that it is necessary to change the perspective of the discussion on other issues, and how, in your opinion, should it be changed?
Cheryl L. Reed: He [Tokayev] talked a lot about 20,000 terrorists. There were also many discussions and theories about why he said that. I think there should be discussions in every city about how to respond to civil unrest. I mean there should be an established procedure. Have you cordoned off the area? Do you let people have their say?
The people who are protesting have something to say. Generally, if you let them protest, they will eventually go home.
In general, I speak now as someone who has covered many of the protests in America. The people who are protesting have something to say. Generally, if you let them protest, they will eventually go home. Nobody dies, nobody gets hurt. But if you try to stop them, it won't help. As soon as you start shooting at people, they will respond.
I think that as part of a protest that allows people to have freedom of speech, they should be allowed to say what they want to say, as long as they don't destroy property or hurt people. Trying to control everything does not end well. People have frustration inside that they need to vent somehow.
What I hear about the January protests over and over again is that the protest was started by ordinary people. They were ordinary people who were fed up [with what was going on in the country]. It turns out that when a level is reached that people are really ready to risk their freedom, to take the risk of being arrested, it means that they are really already fed up. And then you have a real problem, you see it in many places. Look at Iran now. In some of these countries, where there is no freedom of speech, there is no opportunity to protest, civil unrest eventually breaks out and the people react, and not always peacefully.
RFE/RL: The January events were the second time in the history of independent Kazakhstan that the authorities used force against people. How did the January events change the attitude of society towards the authorities? Did the people you interviewed mention this?
Cheryl L. Reed: I didn't interview ordinary people. But I asked everyone I talked to how it changed the country. Some said that nothing had changed at all, while others felt that it made people more open to discuss controversial things, that these events made them feel more free to discuss such things.
But what can I tell you now, having traveled 20 thousand miles (32 thousand km. - Ed. ) across the country, interviewing all these people: I would not be surprised if another protest happens.
After all, what did this protest achieve? Many people would say he didn't change anything. Perhaps these events allowed Tokayev to gain more power and get rid of the control of Nazarbayev and his family. Maybe some people would say that they are still in the same situation as they were a year ago.
I definitely feel that the situation and circumstances that started the January protests have not gone away and that the fire could break out at any moment.
Today is Thanksgiving, but not in Kyrgyzstan. There are no big tables of food and overstuffed bellies—this is one of the poorest countries in Asia. No one is counting their blessings because actually most people had more freedom before the latest regime, which has adopted Russia's media laws and even managed to make them stricter.
Bolot Temirov, above, is one of the most famous journalists in this country. Earlier this year, police tried to set him up with a planted bag of cannabis (still highly illegal here.) They charged him with using false documents to apply for a Kyrgyz passport. (Bolot is Kyrgyz). He also has a Russian passport because that's where the went to university.
He seemed to get out of all that mess but then one court appealed the decision of another court, and it spelled a dangerous situation for Bolot. "The prosecutor wants to send me to prison for seven years or I leave the country," he told me. The night before he was due to appear in court, he texted me to say "I don't think they are taking me to jail." And they didn't. But they continued the hearing to yesterday and that's when everything changed.
Bolot, 43, was dragged from court by police, and flown to Moscow. He has a wife and an 11-year-old son here. He has a team of reporters here. According to Bolot's lawyer quoted in one of the local media sites, Bolot's expulsion is forever.
A native of Kyrgyzstan is deported to Russia.
Radio Europe's Kyrgyz site, known at Radio Azattyq, for two months. That means unless you have a VPN, you're not going to be able to see or read stories on that website. The Kyrgyz government did this citing that Azattyq had published false information after it reported stories about a conflict with neighboring Tajikistan that was not favorable to Kyrgyzstan. Then the government froze all the bank accounts of Azattyq. Reporters have not been paid for weeks.
In addition, several journalists have been arrested, including a woman who is pregnant and had to be rushed to the hospital. Meanwhile, the government is trying to push through a draconian media law that would require news websites to register with the government and make news organization list which foreign governments—read Western grants—are giving them money.
There was a rally in support of independent media the day after the rally to shut them down. But for the most part it seems journalists are in retreat, afraid to say anything publicly for fear that the government will retaliate. Anyone who has battled with the government knows silence is not the way to combat a bully. The best leverage journalists have in the face of a crackdown is to speak up and explain to the public how limiting press freedoms affects their access to information.
It's been awhile. Since I arrived in Kazakhstan—the world's ninth largest country—in late June, I've clocked more than 20,000 kilometers traveling this country. That's 12,427 miles, the equivalent of traveling from the farthest point east in the U.S. to the farther point west in the U.S.— four times.
During much of that time, I've had officers from the Kazakhstan's Security Committee, KNB, following me. Then, after I published a couple of breaking news stories, the Kazakh government complained to the U.S. Embassy that I was working as a journalist without the government's approval. In Kazakhstan, only journalists accredited by the government can publish, a major workaround the "free speech" that the government claims its citizens have. I was in Kazakhstan as a Fulbright Scholar researching media suppression. I found plenty. But the Kazakhstan didn't want me publishing that repression, at least not while I was in country.
So that's why you haven't heard much.
Generally I prefer to travel low on the radar when I'm doing research. But within days of arriving in Kazakhstan, the first journalist I was scheduled to interview ended up arrested and in jail hours hours after we'd texted. Of course I wrote and followed the story. You can read all about that here.
While it's true that Kazakhstan citizens and journalists have more freedom, it's an incremental amount compared to citizens of Uzbekistan. Kazakh journalists must still received accreditation, the same as in Uzbekistan. I met some journalists who had been denied this bureaucratic approval, and it precluded them working openly as journalists. They are denied access to government press conferences. They can't interview anyone with government ministries. There's a palpable fear present even for those who are accredited by the government. There's always the chance that each year when a journalist has to apply for approval they won't receive it. And if the government doesn't like what a journalist writes, that reporter will receive retribution. Sometimes that means getting hauled into a police station and questioned for hours. Most of the time, it means being arrested for something the reporter didn't do, like narcotics or child pornography or tax evasion.
I found journalists in Kazakhstan slightly braver than their brethren in Uzbekistan. Most journalists in Kazakhstan work for state-sponsored media. Those reporters are told what to write and are never allowed to question anything publicly. That's why it's so important to have independent media, like Azattyq—the U.S. sponsored outlet of Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe. That became incredibly apparent during the Blood January protests when state media largely ignored what was going on. After the tear gas and shock grenades cleared, it was up to independent journalists to explain what had happened in their country that left 238 dead and 10,000 in police custody.
People have asked my husband and I what we found different in tourist attractions between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. While Uzbekistan awed us with its fifth century antiquities, especially the amazing turquoise-colored madrassas of Samarkand and Bukhara, Kazakhstan offered a different kind of awe-inspiring views in its unique nature. There are mountains and canyons—several that beat the Grand Canyon in the U.S. for their panoramic views (like Bozzhira pictured above)—and there are the vast Kansas-like Steppe lands, lakes, and seas—the Aral Sea, which is drying up, and the Caspian Sea.
Now that I'm out of Kazakhstan, I'm working on a six-part series to be published soon. Stay tuned. I look forward to more adventures in Kyrgyzstan.
ZHANAOZEN, KAZAKHSTAN: Nurlyek Nurgaliyev may be one of Kazakhstan’s most famous activists—he survived a police shooting during the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre. But he was not among those who started the January protests that spread across this country, resulting in 238 deaths and more than 10,000 people detained by police.
“They were just usual guys who started it,” he said in his deep voice, the result of the bullet that pierced his vocal chords and circled his heart for a month before doctors were able to extract it. There was a touch of envy in that bass voice. He had been protesting, getting arrested, and imprisoned over rising gas prices in Zhanaozen for years. This had been his issue. He’d even had a meeting with the regional mayor a year ago, he said, where he advocated the price should be no more than 50 Tenge “because we are literally sitting on the gas.”
Nurgaliyev drives a water truck for the oil companies but he is also an activist who is detained on average seven times a year. In the past two years, he has been imprisoned three times for his protests on the gas situation. The first time he received a 10-day administrative sentence. The second time it was 15 days and the third time was 20 days, according to court papers he showed me.
But on Jan. 1, several local guys—not the usual activists—made a video complaining that gas prices had doubled in Zhanaozen, from 60 Tenge a liter to 120 Tenge a liter, and announced they were going to have a “meeting”—the English word used in Kazakhstan to mean protest. The men posted the video on YouTube and WhatsApp, which is where Nurgaliyev saw it.
So at 9 a.m. on Jan. 2, Nurgaliyev showed up at the city roundabout in front of the regional mayor’s office. The crowds swelled throughout the day and closed the roads. Several yurts were erected. He and other protesters characterized the protests that went on for six days as peaceful. There were a couple of police cars the first two days, but the officers just watched and then they were gone, he said.
“We started wondering why they were gone. It was unusual. Normally they detain us,” he said.
Zhanaozen is a dusty, desert town in western Kazakhstan about 90 miles from the Caspian Sea. Home to 150,000 residents, Zhanaozen (pronounced JA-NA-OO-ZEN) was mostly known for its rich oil fields and the oil workers' strike in 2011 that turned violent when police started shooting. The official death toll is 15, but protesters and their families insist that the real total is about 100.
Nurgliyev and others say there are no independent media in Zhanaozen. News of the protest spread through the country via social media by ordinary citizens and bloggers who posted photos and videos online. On Jan. 3, Saniya Toiken, a reporter from Azattyq—the Kazakhstan website of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty —arrived in Zhanaozen.
Those videos show people bundled up in winter coats huddled together as they listened to speakers standing on a small platform near the town’s sculpture of a black snow leopard with golden wings. In the background is a building with a three-story-high mural of the famous Kazakh writer Abai with the words “Keep your intelligence, courage and head together and then you will be different from the crowd.”
Each day the crowds swelled and each night a group of young men wearing covid masks showed up trying to provoke violence. Nurgaliyev said the old men told them to go away.
“I was surprised by how organized the protest was, how quiet and polite people were,” he said. Speakers at the protest were provided a microphone by the mayor, he pointed out.
As the protest continued, a negotiation ensued between the government and protesters. Nurgaliyev said he was one of four protesters at this negotiation table. The protesters' requirement was that no one would be questioned or detained by police for their participation; no one would be prosecuted; gas workers who left their jobs to protest wouldn’t lose their jobs and would still be paid. The government and the gas company met the demands and the protest ended January 8 about 2 p.m.
"I wanted people to show up for protests for so long," he said. "We couldn't get people to go. Now I'm glad the January protests happened."
It's been a few weeks since I left Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, and ventured into the regions of this ninth-largest country in the world. In three weeks, I have traveled 9,821 kilometers or 6,102 miles and interviewed more than 20 journalists. [Since my arrival in Kazakhstan two months ago, I have conducted 30 interviews.]
After seven flights, one train journey and three road trips in the various regions, I have a better understanding of what happened in this country when residents took to the streets to protest gas prices and government corruption. Dozens of journalists were detained, imprisoned, and, in some cases, tortured. But they fared better than their countrymen: 238 who were killed by government bullets or tortured in custody.
For most of these journalists, this was not the first time they'd been dragged into a police station for covering a protest. They knew what to do, how to protect their photos, how to demand official documentation for their detention, how to request an attorney and how to insist on bureaucratic formalities that most Kazakhstan citizens are unaware of.
While many accounts of the January protests were recorded by citizens themselves—this protest was started by social media—many of the official accounts of what happened in January were documented by brave, independent journalists. These are some of the faces of those who have told me their stories.
Through my travels, especially in the regions, I've been trailed by the KNB—Kazakhstan's version of the KGB. At one point I confronted one agent who was not very good at hiding his "secret" filming of me and the journalist I was interviewing. He didn't deny what he was doing and shortly later he left the area. The journalists seemed unfazed by this blatant spying.
A couple weeks ago, the Kazakhstan government complained to the U.S. Embassy here because I had published two stories about the arrest of blogger Makhambet Abzhan. I am here as a journalist Fulbright scholar doing interviews. I'm not here under a journalist visa. Journalists here are licensed and documented by the government. I normally don't publish my research until I'm finished. But, hey, Makhambet wrote me a two-page confession from prison!
Soon I hope to introduce you to these journalists' personal stories.
It's always painful to me when a journalist admits he took money for a story. While this is highly unusual in the Western media, it happens quite often in post-Soviet countries, especially in Central Asia. The problem is arising now from a clash of cultures. While old style media is on the downward slide, a new style of blogging from amateurs is increasingly popular. These bloggers have no training as journalists. Many I've interviewed aren't interested in journalism ethics. They see no problem with taking money to support their work.
But in several notable cases, Otabek Satoriy in Uzbekistan and now Makhambet Abzhan in Kazakhstan, taking money has put these amateur journalists/bloggers in severe jeopardy. Satoriy is already serving six years in prison. And though when he was initially arrested there was a large outcry that this was a muckraking journalist who was being suppressed by the government, eventually his unethical practices caused the media to turn the other way and drop support. Now, in Makhambet Abzhan's case, a similar situation is happening.
This is where I like to point out that old adage that if something appears to be too good, it probably is. I think Abzhan wanted to believe he'd won the lottery with this proposition. Instead he garnered a jail cell. Now, in order to free himself, he has to confess to his unethical practices. As his attorney says, “This is a case of a journalist who was being unethical. But it is not a criminal case. Abzhan did not extort.”
That argument may work in court. But it won't earn him supporters in the journalism community in Kazakhstan. This morning I corresponded with an editor of one of Kazakhstan's independent media outlets. The journalist told me that his outlet probably won't cover Abzhan's case anymore.
"It looked like the authoritarian regime was trying to repress an independent journalist," the editor said. "Now it is a completely different story."
I feel sorry for Abzhan. I feel sorry for his family, especially the woman he just married a month ago but whose marriage has not been officially registered. I suppose Abzhan felt he needed to come clean about what had happened. And if the proposal came from the businessman and not Abzhan, there isn't a criminal case. At this point, I'm sure Abzhan is more concerned about facing a possible eight years in prison. He's not thinking of how to restore his image as a journalist. That will come later.
What other ethical journalists tell me is that cases such as Abzhan's make it harder for them to get the public to trust them. It makes their jobs that much harder in a place where getting people to speak out is hard enough as it is.
I hope Abzhan is released from prison. And I also hope his case might be a warning to other bloggers who take money and see nothing wrong with their actions.
July 4: American Independence Day
I've been in Kazakhstan for five days. The first journalist I contacted is Makhambet Abzhan, a freelancer and popular blogger in Nur-Sultan, the capital where my husband and I are staying for the next month. I was eager to meet Abzhan because he was one of the journalists who covered the protests in Kazakhstan in January in which more than 227 people were killed. Many journalists who covered the riots were arrested and detained. Abzhan disappeared for a week after the government accused him of igniting one of the riots.
We agreed to meet on July 5 at a popular cafe. But on Monday, July 4, I discover that Abzhan has been arrested and is sitting in a Nur-Sultan jail on suspicion of extorting the equivalent of $107,000 from a wealthy businessman not to publish damaging information about him. I call Xeniya, my translator. She, my husband, Greg, and I rush off in a cab to a court house on the other side of the city. But when we arrive we are told that the government has changed the courthouse to one on the outskirts of the city —the exact opposite of where we are. It takes us half an hour to get there.
When we arrive we learn the hearing has been delayed. Abzhan has insisted on appearing physically in court instead of virtually. Also holding up the hearing is that the government wants Abzhan's attorney to sign an agreement not to discuss the case publicly. Who ever heard of such a thing? He refuses.
I interview Abzhan's attorney, his wife of three weeks, his attorney, and his supporters. No one can believe that Abzhan would ever extort money. So far this year he has prevailed in two court cases against him.
Using the courts and charging journalists with crimes unrelated to their journalism is the most popular tactic in Kazakhstan to intimidate and silence reporters. The government tries to shame journalists into silence by charging them with pornography or tax evasion or theft—or extortion.
Abzhan's hearing is rescheduled for the next day, July 5. That hearing lasts over three hours. The outcome is that the government has decided to keep Abzhan in jail for two months while it investigates the charges against him. Except it's unclear if the government has actually formally charged Abzhan.
I update my story and go back and forth with the editor at midnight. Finally the story appears online. You can read it here.
Forever a Nomad
I'm a Fulbright Scholar with the U.S. State Department in post-Soviet Central Asia. My previous Fulbright was in Ukraine. I report on journalists from post-Soviet states who are retaliated for reporting the truth.