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Independent newspaper punished with draconian fine

A Kazakh newspaper routinely harassed for its coverage of government policies, human rights abuses and corruption has been fined US$400,000 and handed a distribution ban, report the Almaty-based Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The partially state-owned BTA bank is claiming damages from the "Respublika" newspaper for an article published last March that allegedly caused clients to withdraw funds from the bank. BTA filed a lawsuit against the Almaty weekly in summer 2009; the newspaper unsuccessfully appealed the damages. In September 2009, the newspaper was ordered to pay the fine. On 17 March, "Respublika" appealed to the economic court, claiming that it is unlawful for printing houses to refuse to print the newspaper.

"Respublika" says the article is factually correct and the issue had been reported in other publications. The distribution ban imposed last month, and upheld by an appeals court on 1 March, will remain until the newspaper pays the fine. But the ban prevents the newspaper from earning an income to pay the damages; it is currently only able to publish online. The newspaper has turned to its readers for help and has already paid US$54,000.

On 17 February, Kazakh media organisations urged the government to ensure that "Respublika" be permitted to publish, reports Adil Soz. Meanwhile, the newspaper is printing copies using office equipment.

"The newspaper is crushed by this fine. The recent court decisions have resulted in the refusal of printing houses all over the country to print the newspaper. This infringes on the right to freely receive and disseminate information and the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution," said Adil Soz.

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