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Kazakh outlet Orda, staff subjected to months of threats, online harassment, cyberattacks

Authorities in Kazakhstan should thoroughly investigate recent threats against independent news website Orda and its chief editor Gulnara Bazhkenova, and ensure the outlet and its staff’s safety, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

On October 5, unidentified individuals sent a severed pig’s head to Orda’s editorial offices in the southern city of Almaty, with a torn photo of Bazhkenova in its mouth, according to news reports and Bazhkenova, who spoke to CPJ by phone.

The incident is the latest in a series of threats, online harassment, and cyberattacks against Bazhkenova, her family, and Orda, following the outlet’s publication of an investigation into alleged lobbying practices by a company reportedly connected to Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Bazhkenova told CPJ she believes these incidents are connected to this and other investigations into Nazarbayev-linked organizations.

CPJ emailed representatives of Nazarbayev for comment via an address provided on his official website but did not immediately receive any reply.

“The shocking and repulsive campaign of threats and harassment against Gulnara Bazhkenova and her outlet Orda are something no journalist ought to face for simply doing their work,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Kazakh authorities must swiftly and transparently investigate all incidents of harassment of Bazhkenova and her staff, hold the culprits accountable, and ensure that journalists can operate free from such odious forms of pressure.”

Orda’s July 13 investigation suggested that a London-based company allegedly controlled by Nazarbayev had employed a British lord to lobby on behalf of the former president’s U.K. business interests. A week later, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks began against the outlet’s website, forcing it offline for three weeks, Bazhkenova said.

While Orda has strengthened its cybersecurity, Bazhkenova said DDoS and other forms of cyberattacks have continued “incessantly” since July, with perpetrators constantly seeking “weak spots,” causing the site to go offline for short periods.

Bazhkenova said they do not believe the cyberattacks came from Kazakh authorities, who normally simply block websites, and that such attacks require considerable resources—experts have told her they cost up to $15,000 per day to carry out.

Alongside the website cyberattacks, she said, unidentified users have flooded Orda’s Telegram chat with indecent images and insults directed at Bazhkenova and Orda staff, orchestrated mass complaints that caused the outlet’s Instagram accounts to close, and posted Bazhkenova’s photo and number and the number of Orda’s editorial office in social media ads proposing sexual services, causing them to receive large numbers of unsolicited calls, among other forms of online harassment.

In recent weeks, the online insults have been replaced by threats against Bazhkenova and her seven-year-old son, the journalist said. Photoshopped, pornographic images featuring Bazhkenova and her son have been sent to the outlet’s Telegram chat, accompanied by the address of her son’s school and threats to kidnap him, she said.

On October 4, the day before the pig’s head delivery, threats against Bazhkenova and her son were graffitied in large letters on a square overlooked by Orda’s office windows, according to Bazhkenova and a post by the journalist. Bazhkenova said she filed a complaint with police following this incident and police are investigating both incidents together.

CPJ emailed Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs for comment but did not receive a reply. Information Minister Darkhan Qydyrali, whose ministry oversees the media, condemned the pressure on Orda on Facebook and offered the outlet legal support.

In October 2021, independent news website HOLA News was apparently blocked by Kazakh authorities for 10 days following reporting on Pandora Papers leaks concerning Nazarbayev’s wealth. Bazhkenova said Orda also was blocked for one day during that time over its coverage of the same story.

At the start of Kazakhstan’s mass anti-government protests in January 2022, Orda was one of two outlets blocked before authorities enacted a nationwide internet shutdown.

Source: CPJ