Saniya Toiken | 2017 Courage in Journalism Award

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Kazakhstan

In the oil-rich fields and communities of western Kazakhstan, Saniya Toiken pursues justice by reporting the truth.

The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter is one of the few to chronicle the discontent that has been growing in Kazakhstan and the times when it has bubbled over, with workers and citizens taking to the streets, over the past decade. Like the protestors, Toiken is a favorite target of the government and law enforcement, who regularly detain, threaten, and blackmail her in an attempt to obstruct her work.

Yet Toiken refuses to be silent. In honor of her persistence, the IWMF has recognized her with a 2017 Courage in Journalism Award.

Toiken was born in 1969 in the eastern part of Kazakhstan, to a laborer and a teacher. In 1991, when she was 22, her country declared independence from the Soviet Union — the last republic to do so. The country has been ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his authoritarian regime ever since.

Toiken became a journalist just as her country was spreading its wings as an independent nation. She began at newspapers and a television station in Almaty, at a time when “the concept of a free press did not exist.”

Though independent Kazakhstan is not the democracy it purports to be, according to Toiken, it has been prosperous, fueled by oil and natural gas production and some of the world’s largest reserves. Ironically, and as often happens in developing economies, the adjacent communities that supply workers for the production facilities remained poor, and grew more and more discontent.

The strikes began in 2008, a year after Toiken joined Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Hundreds of workers demanded better pay and working conditions but were ignored, their leaders fired. Toiken said that most local media outlets turned a blind eye to the situation. “I could not ignore the people who were suffering from injustice,” she said. “I had to report these clashes.”

The authorities retaliated. In one instance, on the way home from reporting in a remote industrial community, Toiken’s car was chased over deserted back roads until her driver crashed. She was left to navigate home on her own, intent on preserving the information she had worked so hard to gather.

When she exposed problems associated with one local company, she was threatened and placed under surveillance. She then attempted to cover the trials of the laborers who had led the resistance; authorities detained her and bullied her interview subjects. Friends and acquaintances distanced themselves out of fear of reprisal.

“Being an independent journalist in Kazakhstan is not safe,” Toiken said. “The person who writes about corruption ends up being prosecuted, or even imprisoned.”

The country’s most tragic and well-known uprising took place in 2011. A months-long strike among workers of the Ozenmunaigas oil company in Zhanaozen came to a head on the country’s independence day, when at least 14 workers were killed by police in what has become known as the Zhanaozen massacre.

In covering the aftermath, Toiken found herself in the papers, but not by her own hand. The local newspaper in Atyrau region published seven ads accusing her of trying to sell her rented furniture and apartment and listing her telephone numbers. She was forced to move, and did so — further into the troubled oil region of Mangistau. At one point she worked with an investor to start her own newspaper, but government pressure intervened there as well, and she was forced to step down. Undeterred, she continued to covered the plight of regular citizens — and continued to be detained and interrogated by police, and even by Russian authorities during a business trip.

After oil prices dropped in 2014, the Kazakh currency lost 45 percent of its value and the economy itself became unstable. Toiken posted many RFE/RL reports during this time, but none so compelling as the cell phone video she shot of her own abduction on May 30, 2017. “They took me by force,” she said, from none other than the central square of Zhanaozen. She documents that she was not given the opportunity to pick up a backpack with medicines she needed. “If something happens to me, let this video prove it,” she said in the chilling report. After finally seeing a doctor and many hours of questioning, she was released.

Toiken said that a top-ranking official once asked her, “Why do you work as a journalist? Do you think you will change something? You understand — power is us.”

Her answer was resolute. “I want everyone in my country not to be afraid to demand respect of their rights. I want my compatriots to freely express their opinion. Unfortunately, the real picture is far from this.”

Toiken is currently working on her own investigative piece about the Zhanaozen massacre. It’s focus? The women who were imprisoned afterward. “My duty as a journalist is to tell the public what is happening.”

Follow on Twitter: @sonitab

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Saniya Toiken

Saniya Toiken before her abduction on May 30, 2017.

Saniya Toiken

Saniya Toiken

Toiken working in the studio

Toiken at work in the studio.