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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

SAY WHAT? :Newspapers Go Down Fighting

ATYRAU, Kazakhstan -- "If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, 'What's your business?' In Macon they ask, 'Where do you go to church?' In Augusta they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is 'What would you like to drink?'" From John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

And in Kazakhstan, they ask, "So, whom does your newspaper fight against?"

We are sitting on a chunk of concrete at an intersection in the middle of Atyrau, a settlement of 150,000 near the oil-rich Caspian Sea, with a reporter from Ak Zhayik, an independent local daily. The unpaved roads of dirt and clay connect neighborhoods of 250-year-old single-story houses, separated by peculiar fences made of what looks like rusted spare car parts hammered together. Children play in the mud barefoot; their toys are galoshes and 10-liter metal buckets. Adults, our colleague explains to us, are all busy selling, buying and exchanging goods at the market.

Across the muddy street from us is a three-story structure of steel and tinted glass f the offices for two oil consortiums exploring two oil fields in the region: the onshore Tengiz field and the recently discovered offshore Kashagan field. There is air conditioning inside the building, and several Jeep Cherokees are parked in a small asphalt parking lot in front of it. Executives in suits and ties float out from inside the building and hop into the Jeeps, which take them to Riverside Hotel, the only place in Atyrau besides the building that has both cold and hot running water, and functioning toilets, luxuries in a town that melts under the 42-degree heat.

Ak Zhayik fights against the inhabitants of this building. It says the consortiums pollute the Caspian with sulfur gas. It blames the consortiums f which include the most powerful U.S. oil companies f for the fate of 11,000 baby seals that were washed ashore dead or dying from repeated poisoning this spring.

So far, Ak Zhayik has not been persecuted for swimming against the tide, but it's a minor newspaper, distributed locally, 3,000 kilometers away from the capital.

Bigger fights were fought by the two newspapers supported by Akedzhan Kazhegeldin, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's former prime minister and rival f and both newspapers were punished for it. Published in Almaty, the former capital, those two papers exposed corruption under Nazarbayev's authoritarian rule. They had to shut down earlier this year after all Kazakh printing houses simultaneously refused to publish them.

"We fight a war against the government; that's why the government shut us down," says Yermurat Bapi, the editor of Soldat, one of the two newspapers.

The only independent newspaper that was not fighting against anybody, Vremya Po, was also shut down last month. Vremya Po printed both allegations of corruption in Nazarbayev's government and reports that Kazhegeldin took bribes while in office.

It was shut down, naturally, ostensibly because of its reports on Nazarbayev. But because it dared touch Kazhegeldin, it has little support from the liberal audience.

"He's a flake," Bapi says about Vremya Po's editor, Nurlan Ablyazov. Echoing Ablyazov's comments, an independent Almaty media expert adds, "He's a sketchy person. He wants to look like a political dissident, but he isn't."

"Either you are on one side of the barricades, or the other side," Ablyazov says. "If you try to be neutral, both sides consider you a traitor."

He then adds, with a suspicious frown: "So, whom does your paper fight against?"