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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Facebook Can Shield User Info of Kazakh Reporters

(CN) - Facebook does not have to provide Kazakhstan's dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev's government with information that he could use against the last vestiges of the country's free press, a federal judge ruled.

Nazarbayev's regime, which has held onto power for nearly 25 years, has been in U.S. courts from coast-to-coast for nearly a year to learn the identities of people who exposed confidential emails about his government on Jan. 21, 2015.

The communications shed light on a $1 billion merger between Kazakhstan's two largest banks, extravagant spending by government officials, and international collaboration in suppressing dissent.

In one embarrassing revelation, the emails showed that Nazarbayev paid more than $105,000 for three letters by Napoleon Bonaparte that a deputy took from France.

Claiming that its servers were hacked, Kazakhstan's government deployed a U.S. statute known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act against dissidents who had long been a thorn in Nazarbayev's side.

One of those dissidents - Irina Petrushova, the editor-in-chief of the outlet Respublika - recently told Courthouse News about the gruesome intimidation campaign against her since Respublika provided a platform for Nazarbayev's opponent in 2002.

Within a span of a few months, Petrushova received death threats delivered through a decapitated dog and a funeral wreath, shortly before the newsroom she ran burned down in a firebombing. Petrushova fled Kazakhstan shortly after, once she learned of her imminent arrest.

Petrushova has operated Respublika in exile from Russia and the European Union for more than a decade, and the outlet recently turned to publishing on Facebook to thwart government censors that banned the outlet's print and online versions within its borders.

In a Sacramento federal courthouse, Kazakhstan issued a subpoena that would have forced Facebook to disclose private and electronic information associated with Respublika accounts and the page of Muratbek Ketebaev, another dissident who is also Petrushova's husband.

On Thursday, Magistrate Judge Kendall Newman allowed Facebook to quash that subpoena based on "significant concerns regarding the reporter's privilege and the First Amendment."

"Kazakhstan contends that it does not seek journalistic information or content, such as reporter's notes, drafts, or communications," Newman's 10-page opinion states. "However, it does seek the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and MAC addresses of administrators and posters on the Respublika Facebook page and the Ketebaev Facebook page. Such persons may well be journalists, writers, and other staff or contributors to Respublika, whose identifying information and location may be entitled to protection, especially in light of the serious allegations of oppression and intimidation by Kazakhstan made by Respublika."

Respublika is still not entirely in the clear because litigation continues in New York, where Kazakhstan alleges further intrigue.

Kazakhstan accused billionaire businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, one of Nazarbayev's political opponents, of stealing more than $5.6 billion from BTA Bank, where he once served as chairman and majority shareholder, The Independent reported.

Over human rights groups' protests, France's prime minister ordered Ablyazov's extradition to Russia late last year.

In a twist, Kazakhstan now claims that Ablyazov is "purportedly a prime suspect in, and major beneficiary of, the alleged hacking," according to Newman's ruling.

"More specifically, Kazakhstan contends that Respublika and Ketebaev have been using the materials as part of an ongoing propaganda campaign that portrays Ablyazov and his accomplices as innocent victims of a frame-up orchestrated by the Kazakhstan government, and that Respublika is actually receiving financial support from Ablyazov," the ruling states.

Human rights groups have found such government conspiracies against its citizens to be routine in Kazakhstan, whose judiciary ranks 111 out of 142 countries studied by Transparency International.

Amnesty International released a 60-page report this week titled "Dead End Justice: Impunity for Torture in Kazakhstan," replete with cases of false confessions.

Newman allowed the Manhattan court to sort out the "complex issues" that he said included "the intersection of the rights of an alleged hacking victim to discover the identity of the purported hackers with the well-established reporters' privilege rooted in the First Amendment, all against a backdrop of troubling international conflicts."

The California magistrate became the third judge to rule in favor of press freedom in the litigation.

In October, Southern New York U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos found Respublika enjoyed the First Amendment's "near absolute right to publish truthful information about matters of public interest that they lawfully acquire."

A Washington appeals court later found that the state's media-shield law protected Respublika's online publishing company, LLC Media-Consult, from Kazakhstan's subpoena against its web-hosting company, eNom.

These protections could be jeopardized if Kazakhstan convinces Ramos that Respublika did not obtain the emails legally.

In that case, a new subpoena fight against Facebook could return to California.

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