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Irina Petrushova

The Committee to Protect Journalists praised Petrushova and Respublica for exposing government corruption and political cronyism in Kazakhstan, a state where the media is routinely censored and frequently harassed.

Irina Petrushova

Since Respublica’s inception two years ago, Petrushova and her staff have uncovered numerous accounts of alleged government corruption and secret financial dealings of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Respublica’s pioneering investigative journalism spurred other news media to pursue the newspaper’s leads.

Shortly after Petrushova, 36, reported that Nazarbayev had secretly stashed some $1 billion of oil revenue into a Swiss bank account, she and her staff began to receive anonymous threats.

In one instance, Petrushova found a decapitated dog hanging by the office window with a screwdriver plunged into the body to pin the message, “There will be no next time.” Petrushova found the dead dog’s head at her home.

Three days later, Respublica’s news office was firebombed, completely destroying the building. Petrushova and her staff relocated their office, and she hired a bodyguard to watch over her family, including her two young sons.

Last September, Petrushova fled to Moscow, where she continues to report and edit for the Almaty-based newspaper. Despite her self-imposed exile, Petrushova said attempts at intimidation will not deter her from her work.

“It’s just like it was in the time of the Soviet Union,” Petrushova said.

CPJ and other media watchdogs say that, although Petrushova has endured harassment and gruesome anonymous threats, many independent journalists in Kazakhstan face even greater obstacles.

The U.S. State Department’s 2002 Human Rights Report on Kazakhstan cited several instances in which “the government harassed and monitored independent and opposition media, and [consequently] many journalists practiced self-censorship.”

Not included in the State Department’s report is a more recent example in which independent journalist Sergei Duvanov was badly beaten and imprisoned on a statutory rape charge, which his supporters say is a government set-up.

Kazakhstan currently has no major independent Internet provider, newspaper, or television station; most media outlets are owned by the government or private companies, which, many press watchdogs say, are controlled by government loyalists.

Despite the official resistance to independent media, Petrushova said many members of parliament and others within government bodies appreciate the “important reasons to discuss [more sensitive, controversial] subjects.”

“I know many deputies of Parliament and bureaucrats read our newspaper closely,” she said. “In private comments, they say: ‘keep your chin up!’ If they could say that publicly, that would be a great help.”

Petrushova says that journalists can get accustomed to living under pressure. 

“What is impossible to get used to is when the authorities in a country, in our country, in this case, from psychological pressure move on to the physical pressure and they use invented pretexts to put journalists behind bars,” she told Voice of America on Nov. 20. 
Speaking at the CPJ awards ceremony in New York, Petrushova said she has learned to accept the fear of reprisals in order to expose government corruption.

“Like hundreds of my colleagues in other countries around the world, I fear for myself and my sons.”. However, she said, “I am even more afraid that my children will have to live in a totally corrupt society. I fear they will have to lie, to offer bribes, to grovel.”

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