Kazakhstan, which likes to portray itself as a regional model after holding the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s rotating presidency in 2010, seems to be forgetting all of its fine promises in order to embark with evident determination on the road of cyber-censorship.
A score of websites were blocked on 20 August on the orders of a court in the capital Astana, which said they were helping to promote "terrorism and religious extremism” and contained “calls to acts of terrorism and the manufacture of explosive devices.”
The blocked sites include the Russian-language blog platforms LiveJournal and LiveInternet, which are very popular in all the former Soviet republics.
“We call for the withdrawal of the court’s order, which is using the pretext of defending internal security to completely block major blog platforms, thereby censoring a great deal of content that has nothing to do with what the order is supposed to be targeting. It is legitimate to combat terrorism, but this should not result in the closure of independent news websites.
“Kazakhstan has long been regarded as a regional ‘pioneer’ in sophisticated control of the Internet but until now the control had been relatively limited. The blocking of LiveJournal and Google’s pull-out a few months ago represent a turning point. Is Kazakhstan beginning to slide down the same slippery slope taken by its neighbours, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, classified as Enemies of the Internet?”
Weakened by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s poor health and a muted succession struggle within the security services, the government is currently confronting the most sustained wave of protests in the country’s history. As a result, censorship has been on the increase in recent months. This has included a news blackout on the aftermath of two “terrorist” explosions in Astana and the western city of Aktobe in May, and curbs on coverage of the current strikes.
On 19 August, the authorities began a series of inspections of the premises of the Almaty-based independent news website Stan TV, of which the sole purpose was clearly harassment. The site produces reports that are often broadcast by the independent satellite TV station K+, which specializes in covering Central Asia and is very critical of the Kazakh government.
There have been visits by tax inspectors, fire inspectors checking compliance with fire prevention regulations, architects and even health department inspectors. Curiously, they were all particularly interested in the satellite dishes on the roof and all the other devices used to transmit reports abroad.
Stan TV has been one of the best sources of information about a three-month old dispute between the government and striking employees at Karajanbasmunay and Uzenmunaygaz, two companies in the western province of Mangystau. After many arrests of protesters, the violence increased with trade unionist Jasylyk Turbaev’s murder on 2 August and the murder of Jansaul Karabalaeva, a union leader’s daughter, on 24 August.
Google announced the closure of the Kazakh version of its search engine, Google.kz, on 8 June because the government insisted in May that it should use only servers located inside the country (which would make it easier for the authorities to monitor searches). The demand was part of a government policy of centralizing all news sources and forcing sites with .kz domain names to channel all their traffic through local servers.
“This desire to carve the Internet up into national sections is intolerable and incompatible with the Internet’s very nature,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We welcome the response from Google, which refused to bow to the government’s pressure and even forced it to backtrack.”
Central Asia’s most prosperous country and a “managed democracy,” Kazakhstan is ranked 162nd out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.