The International Press Institute (IPI) today urged Kazakh Information and Communications Minister Dauren Abaev to uphold his pledge to fully investigate the mass detention of journalists in connection with planned protests across the country last Saturday.

At least 44 journalists were detained alongside demonstrators and activists, according to Kazakh media freedom watchdog Adil Soz. Some journalists reported that photos and video of the protests had been deleted from devices while the journalists were being held.

Correspondents from Russia Today, RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, and other media outlets were among those held in cities such as Almaty, Astana, Atyrau, Djezkazgan, Karaganda, Shymkent and Uralsk.

Although the exact number of journalists detained was unclear, local sources told IPI that all of the journalists detained over the weekend had been released, most within hours. Kazakh authorities attributed the detentions to a “misunderstanding” and Abaev said on Saturday that he would work to “work to find out why [the journalists] were detained”.

IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis welcomed an investigation, but he emphasised that in addition to determining what happened, authorities needed to create a climate of respect for free expression and press freedom and to hold officers of the security services who violated those rights accountable.

“To see so many journalists detained, even if for a short time, really appears to signal a larger effort to stop journalists from covering – and the public from learning about – an issue of undeniable public interest in Kazakhstan,” he said. “Efforts to control the public discourse are wrong, but doing so by threatening journalists with detention or politically motivated charges is unacceptable.”

In the weeks leading up to last Saturday’s planned protests, some vocal activists reported having been arrested and given 10 to 15-day prison sentences. In at least one case, an activist was charged in connection with content posted on social media.

Kazakhstan has been rocked for weeks by protests against proposed land reforms that would allow farmland to be sold and foreigners to rent agricultural land for up to 25 years. After postponing the implementation of the land reforms until 2017, the government established a commission to review them and invited opposition leaders to participate.

Local governments in Astana, Almaty and Atyrau reportedly have made it illegal to publicly demonstrate against proposed land reform.

IPI today also renewed its call for the release of Seitkazy Matayev, the head of Kazakhstan’s Journalists Union and National Press Club. Matayev remains under house arrest after having been taken into custody in February on accusations of tax evasion and embezzlement.

Supporters of Matayev have widely rejected the charges as being politically motivated.