Kazakhstan, which considers itself a regional model after holding the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, seems to be straying from its fine promises to embark without detours on the road to cybercensorship. In 2011, a unprecedented social protest movement prolonged by a violent uprising, a wave of odd attacks and the Head of State’s health problems made the authorities even more nervous, causing them to tighten their control over information, especially online.
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Website filtering and blacklists
Some twenty websites deemed “extremist” were blocked on August 20, 2011 by order of a district court in Astana (the capital), which ruled that the sites were helping to promote “terrorism and religious extremism” and contained “calls commit acts of terrorism and to manufacture explosive devices.” Unexpectedly, those blocked sites include the highly popular Russian-language blog platforms LiveJournal and LiveInternet. The blockage of these platforms seems totally unfounded, since much of the banned content has nothing to do with the terms of the decision. The latter was denounced by bloggers, notably by means of an online petition.
According to the report “Central Asia: Censorship and Control of the Internet and Other New Media” by the International Partnership for Human Rights coalition, Net filtering is carried out with the assistance of the leading ISP Kazakh Telecom, which controls most of the bandwidth.
The report stresses the lack of transparency of the work done by the “Center for Computer Incidents,” which involves drawing up blacklists of “destructive” websites. A presidential Security Council is already compiling lists of websites that should be blocked. According to this body, 125 websites containing “extremist” elements had been blocked by October 1, 2011. Measures are underway to block 168 more.
News websites in the authorities’ line of sight
The pretext of the fight against terrorism is frequently used by the authorities to justify temporary or long-term blocking of independent news sites such as eurasia.org.ru, respublika-kaz.info, kplustv.net and krasnoetv.kz, which provide alternative insight into the struggle to replace ailing Head of State Nursultan Nazarbayev, and into the most publicized and longest wave of protests in Kazakhstan’s history and subsequent unrest. Censorship gained ground the country last year. Its main thrust was an attempt to impose a blackout on news about the strikes in the oil sector, and debates over the assertion of a “terrorist” threat in a country previously spared by this phenomenon. Bombings in the western city of Aktobe in May 2011, and later in the northern town of Taraz in November, fueled speculations that they could be attributed to an organized crime plot involving Islamist insurgents or Kazakh secret service forces.
News website guljan.org, which is highly critical of the authorities’ abuses and corruption, is blocked on a regular basis, and sustained massive cyberattacks shortly after it was launched. The site and its editor, Guljan Ergalieva, were fined 5 million tenge (about USD 33,800) in damages for “attacking the honor and reputation” of senior official Sarybay Kalmurzaev in January 2012.
News website Stan TV has been constantly hounded by the authorities, with “inspections” of all kinds, attempted bribery, threats, attacks, and court orders aimed at closing the offices. The website produces reports that are regularly broadcast K+, an independent satellite station devoted to Central Asian news, which is very critical of Kazakh authorities. Stan TV is a popular leading source of news on the conflict that has been going on for several months between the regime and striking employees of the Karajanbasmunay and Uzenmunaygaz companies in the western province of Mangystau. Two Stan TV journalists were violently assaulted while covering these events.
Clampdown on dissent: A region cut off from the world
On December 16, 2011, the celebration of Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence was disrupted by workers who had been on strike for several months in Zhanaozen (in Mangystau). Under what are as yet unclear circumstances, the police fired real bullets into the crowd and the rebellion spread throughout the city, where most of the official buildings were burned. The official toll is at least 15 dead, but alternative sources claim the number is higher. The authorities responded by declaring a state of emergency and imposing a news and communications blackout, preventing any accurate assessment of the situation. The protest’s epicenter – Zhanaozen and surrounding cities within a radius of at least 39 miles – have been totally cut off from the world and deprived of Internet connections and telecommunications. Elsewhere in the region, and particularly in the city of Aktau (the provincial capital) where tense demonstrations persisted for several days, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to exchange SMS messages or access the Internet from a mobile phone.
In the absence of updates from the state press agency, preoccupied with independence festivities, Twitter, Facebook, and K+ labeled videos on Youtube have become the only sources of information – or disinformation – as reported by Global Voices. On December 16 and 17, on Twitter, the key word #Zhanaozen produced countless alarming tweets about “massacres” and “the civil war in Zhanaozen.” The uncertainty grew when Twitter, along with a number of Russian and Kirghiz media, were blocked in the evening of December 16. Heated debates about a possible propaganda or counter-propaganda operation filled the Kazakh Web.
Although Twitter was soon accessible again, several leading news websites remain blocked, including Guljan.org, the Russian citizen news agency Ridus.ru, and the site of the opposition newspaper Respublika. For several days, the security services first prevented journalists from accessing the offices of these media by blocking their entry or even stopping them for questioning them on their way there. Then they let them through, but tried to interfere with their work as much as they could by imposing an escort or preventing them from meeting certain people. In several cases, the content of their computers, USB flash drives and audio recorders were closely examined. Blogger Murat Tungishbayev was brutally assaulted while filming a police check.
On January 26, 2012, the Public Prosecutor’s office announced charges against the organizers of the social protest movement that degenerated into riots, the opposition leaders who supported them, and journalist Igor Vinyavsky, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Vzglyad. The authorities also pledged to pursue the policemen accused of killing demonstrators, allegedly corrupt high-ranking officials (including Zhanaozen’s mayor), and executives of the oil companies employing the strikers. These latest measures are viewed as a gesture to calm a population who is becoming increasingly unwilling to put up with the rampant corruption of its bureaucrats. Meanwhile, a genuine manhunt was initiated to identify those who took the videos proving that policemen had fired into the crowd. The Stan TV staff members who had broadcast them have had to endure even greater pressure. On January 13, 2012, the National Security Committee (KNB) called in most of the news staff for questioning.
A 2009 Internet Law puts bloggers in the same penal category as journalists and holds Internet website administrators and their ISPs responsible for any content posted by others on their platforms, obliging them to hire moderators.
Criminializing defamation has consequences for online freedom of expression, yet officials are entitled to special treatment. Media and journalists critical of the government often pay for it, as shown recently in the Guljan.org case (see above).
Within the framework of a policy that centralizes all news sources inside the country, a September 2010 decree forced websites using the suffix .kz to channel all their traffic through servers based in Kazakhstan. Originally implemented for newly created sites, it gradually was applied retroactively. In May 2011, the government had insisted that Google use only servers located in Kazakhstan so that it would be easier for the authorities to monitor searches. It reversed its decision after Google announced in June 2011 that it was leaving the country and suspending google.kz.
On December 30, 2011, new repressive regulations on Internet access were adopted. A decree made video surveillance and filtering equipment mandatory in cybercafés. Visitors are now required to present an ID and managers must maintain a log of the websites visited. Most importantly, cybercafé owners are required to provide the security forces, simply upon request, access to their visitor register, the log of sites accessed, and the video surveillance recordings. They must also keep a record of security services’ requests. In addition, owners must install a program allowing access to banned websites to be blocked. The use of proxies is prohibited, and the sanctions for such violations are not yet known. They will undoubtedly be the subject of a forthcoming application order. These new rules are a severe blow to cybercafés, which are already closing one after the other while the number of individual Internet and mobile phone accounts keeps on growing.
The authorities’ agitation vs. the international community’s silence
The increased use of cybercensorship is symptomatic of the harsher repression being waged by a regime worried about the end of the “Kazakh stability” myth. Yet Astana leaders are still strong. Despite the many frauds attested to by OSCE observers during the last elections, people did not riot in the streets. The international community remains discreet about human rights issues. Nursultan Nazarbayev can count on Kazakhstan’s vast natural resources to lessen global criticism. One recent example is the recent USD 3 billion partnership agreement concluded in February 2012 between Kazakhstan and Germany.