Editors of four Kazakh opposition newspapers started a hunger strike Wednesday to protest an alleged government attempt to shut them down before December presidential elections in this Central Asian nation.
The four newspapers and two others, which support Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the main opposition challenger to the ex-Soviet republic's long-ruling President Nursultan Nazarbayev, were forced out of print Monday after the Vremya-Print publishing house broke their agreement.
The move could leave Tuyakbai, who leads the For a Fair Kazakhstan opposition alliance, without any media outlets before the Dec. 4 vote.
The editors of Svoboda Slova, Epokha, Zhuma-Times and Apta-Kz, along with several dozen of their journalists and supporters, gathered outside Vremya-Print's building in the commercial capital, Almaty, to begin the hunger strike and show solidarity with the printing house, which they said was a victim of government pressure.
Nazarbayev has ruled the oil-rich country for 16 years, drawing accusations of blocking democratic reforms and allowing corruption to flourish. He has been jittery following opposition successes in several other ex-Soviet republics.
Tuyakbai said Wednesday he had "full knowledge" that Vremya-Print's refusal to print opposition papers' editions was the result of "strong official pressure."
"This is in violation of the constitutional provision that guarantees freedom of speech," he told reporters. "The authorities do not want any other opinion apart from theirs to be heard ... What kind of free election can we talk about?"
In a statement late Tuesday, the Executive Director the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Ann Cooper, said the forced shutdown in printing the Kazakh opposition papers "calls further attention to Kazakhstan's dismal press freedom record and raises additional concerns about the legitimacy of the coming election."