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Newspaper ordered to pay approx. US$136,000 for "moral damages"

(Adil Soz/IFEX) - 12 August 2010 - The newspaper "Uralskaya Nedelya" ("Uralsakaya Weekly") in western Kazakhstan has been ordered to pay KZT 20 million (approx. US$136,000) in damages to the Tengizneftestroy construction company.

On 6 August 2009, the newspaper published an article by journalist Luqpan Akhmediyarov titled "Backstage tender", which revealed that the construction company had begun preparation for a large state project long before the tender was announced. The journalist was assuming that the company had been assured that it would win the tender.

Tengizneftestroy then filed a lawsuit against "Uralskaya Nedelya" and Luqpan Ahmediyarov, claiming that it needed to protect its business reputation and recover moral damages incurred by the article. The trial was held on 21 April 2010. The company initially requested KZT 70 million (approx. US$467,000) as payment in moral damage, but this amount was later reduced by the court to KZT 20 million.

The construction company did not deny that it began preparation works before the official tender was announced, but provided its own explanation that the company simply wanted "to reaffirm its commitment for fulfilling the scope of work specified by the tender".

The West Kazakhstan Regional Court appellate board, which heard the case on 15 June 2010, did not change the court decision to fine newspaper KZT 20 million in moral damages. The court said that "the newspaper should pay the fine as compensation for the 'company's moral suffering'."

The court did not consider the testimony of linguistic expert R. Karymsakova, an expert with the Public Center for Expertise for Information Disputes, which is affiliated with Adil Soz. According to Karymsakova's examination of the article, the quotes that the plaintiff considered defamatory were only the author's opinions.

The Legislative Department of Adil Soz believes that the court's decision violates the principles of freedom of speech and will lead to paper's bankruptcy and closure. Cases and fines like this threaten the financial existence of mass media and their responsibility to report the truth. Adil Soz also believes the court's decision violates democratic principles of freedom of speech, expression and opinion, as stated in the Constitution of Kazakhstan and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Kazakhstan ratified in 2005. "The application of the law was also violated," says Adil Soz. The court sentenced the newspaper to pay compensation for "the company's moral suffering". However, Kazakh law clearly states that legal entities, such as Tengizneftestroy, can't have "moral sufferings".

The newspapers' assets are sufficient only for payment of printing services, taxes, salaries and utility costs. Tamara Esljamova, the editor-in-chief of "Uralskaya Nedelya", believes the newspaper will be unable to pay such a heavy fine and it will lead to the paper's bankruptcy and closure. The newspaper asked readers for help and they suggested that the newspaper begin a campaign called "Action of Trust", in which readers will raise funds and lend them to independent media outlets in the region to help the newspaper pay the fine. The newspaper will repay the money to readers later.

The newspaper will appeal the judge's decision to the Supreme Court.

This isn't the first time "Uralskaya Nedelya" has been involved in judicial proceedings.

"Uralskaya Nedelya" began publishing in 2001 and it is the only weekly in Kazakhstan to have employees as founders and shareholders.

So far in 2010, the amounts requested from journalists and newspapers in Kazakhstan as payments for moral damages has reached KZT 41.3 million (approx. US$279,370).

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