Press freedom campaigners say that Kazakhstan’s reporting environment has “drastically turned to the worse” since the new president came to power.
The press conference was supposed to be one of the last that Nurgul Tapayeva would cover before heading on maternity leave.
With only two months to go before her baby was due, Tapayeva, a journalist with the Kazakhstan service of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was visibly pregnant. That did not deter her assailants.
The attack occurred on July 22 at the offices of the Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law, which is situated on the fourth-story of a nondescript, out-of-the-way building in Almaty. A gang of women bum-rushed and jostled Tapayeva toward the edge of a flight of stairs as they tried to grab her phone.
“It was such a shock. I was worried for the child,” she told Eurasianet. “After that incident I couldn’t sleep because the child was moving around so much, especially at night.”
Elsewhere in the corridors of the building, all hell had broken loose.
Civil society campaigners worry that this kind of aggression, directed at independent journalists and activists, is become more commonplace. Unusually for Kazakhstan, political uncertainty has been in the air since Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president in March. The pressure is on for regime loyalists to ensure that displays of public discontent are kept to an absolute minimum.
The intimidation tactics seem to have been borrowed from fellow former Soviet countries in which agents provocateurs are routinely recruited to cow protesters, dissidents and journalists. Victims of this treatment point to security services as likely ultimate culprits.
This marks something of a departure for Kazakhstan, where wags have dubbed the gang of female provocateurs tateshki. The coinage is based on the Kazakh word tate (“auntie”) and is inspired by Ukraine’s titushki, a term referring to thugs deployed to cause trouble at political gatherings.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.