President Nursultan Nazarbaev recently signed a new law placing blogs, social media networks, and chatrooms under the rubric of “mass media”, effectively creating criminal liability for users of these internet communication platforms and permitting the government to shut down and censor websites as it sees fit. The government denies this law as being any kind of tool for repression, framing the law as benefiting Kazakh citizens by granting protection from extremist literature, piracy, and 2009’s ultimate cliche excuse-pornography.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had urged Nazarbaev not to sign the law into effect. Miklos Haraszti, OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, criticized the legislation as contrary to both OSCE and international standards. Kazakhstan is set to chair OSCE in 2010-a decision that has been criticized by groups such as Human Rights Watch ever since the decision was made by OSCE’s council in 2007. Watchdog organizations have repeatedly questioned Kazakhstan’s ability to lead and uphold OSCE’s commitment to human and civic rights and the passing of this new internet law only reaffirms the apprehension.
Kazakhstan’s relationship with the internet is complex, with attempts to strengthen internet usage and boost the Kazakh telecommunications sector coexisting with efforts to monitor and suppress online content. Nazarbaev has been openly ambitious in regard to development of the Kazakh IT sector, which in the past decade has become the clear frontrunner and main internet service provider in Central Asia. That being said, online access is still accessible only to a minority, and Kazakh citizens living outside of major cities are well beyond the reach of the internet. Also, long before the enactment of the recent internet law plenty of legislation was already in place placing limitations on internet content (and aiding in the encouragement of self-censorship). More than 300 legislative acts exist that control information and telecommunications in Kazakhstan in one way or another. Although a few competitors do exist, Kazakhtelecom effectively holds a monopoly in the country and exerts an extraordinary amount of control. Traffic of all first-tier ISPs go through Kazakhtelecom’s channels, permitting an easy, centralized way to filter content. Furthermore, since Kazakhtelecom is the main provider of internet in countries like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan it censors content for its Central Asian neighbors as well.
In 2008, livejournal.com was blocked, with Kazakhtelecom denying any role in the matter. Oddly enough, the Russian-language version of the site, livejournal.ru (which also happens to be the most popular blogsite in Russia), remained accessible. Speculation on behalf of media outlets such as The Moscow Times was that the block had to do with Nazarbaev’s former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, who has openly criticized (and blogged about) the Nazarbaev government. Other websites such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have been blocked since last year.