The actions of the government of Kazakhstan does not typically attract too much in the way of international attention. But its remote central Asian location and low profile does not mean it escapes the eyes of human rights campaigners.
And last week Amnesty International published a report which highlighted the efforts of the current regime to close down access to social media in the country.
One Party State
Kazakhstan is, to all intents and purposes a one-party state, with the ruling Nur-Otan holding all 98 seats in the legislative assembly and President Nursultan Nazarbayev having been in office since 1991.
As is almost always the case in such political environments, the President and ruling party have adopted increasingly authoritarian methods of keeping hold of power and in Kazakhstan, this has included numerous efforts to clamp down on dissent and opposition in all forms.
Political opponents have been barred from running for office, a change in the law dramatically reduced the number of legal political parties in the country, and now their attention has turned to social media.
Amnesty International’s report, entitled ‘Think before you post: Closing down social media space in Kazakhstan’ documents the steady undermining of the right of Kazakhstan’s citizens to freedom of expression when online.
New cyber crackdown
The latest crackdown on online freedom in Kazakhstan began in early 2016 when the Government passed a new law which required all internet users to download what was described as a “national security certificate”.
This was a piece of surveillance software which allowed Kazakh officials to monitor the online activity of every citizen, block access to individual sites, and monitor all communications which took place over the https protocol.
As Amnesty’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, Denis Krivosheev, notes in the report, “Now the authorities can, and do, track dissenters online and use social media postings to prosecute, convict and imprison human rights activists. Freely expressed opinions are becoming incriminating evidence in the courts.”
In May, two Kazakh human rights activists, Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan, were arrested and charged with “incitement of discord” and various other offences, in what has been perhaps the highest profile case of its kind so far in the country.
Their crime had been to post information about peaceful anti-Government protests online. In November, the two men were sentenced to five years each in prison.
According to Amnesty, 32 other men were detained along with them and held for 15 days, and at the protests themselves, which took place on 21st May, between 300 and 500 further people were also detained. During the protests, access to a number of social media sites including Facebook, YouTube, Periscope, and Google was reported to have been blocked.
Amnesty admits in their report that aside from the cases of Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan, there have been relatively few cases where people have been detained and subjected to criminal proceedings online. This, of course, is to be welcomed.
But Amnesty notes that the impact of their detentions and the available of the powers has had “a chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
They interviewed a number of activists from Kazakhstan who believed that the people were actively self-censoring their online posts for fear of Government reprisals.
This is no doubt the impact that the Government had hoped the news laws would have, as scaring citizens into censoring their own online activity is far more cost-effective that attempting to censor their activity for them.
The result, however, is not just a climate of fear, but a climate in which freedom of expression on social media has been severely curtailed for any Kazakh citizens who aren’t using a VPN to protect their privacy online.
As Denis Krivosheev concludes at the end of the Amnesty report, “Kazakhstani authorities should abort this unprecedented crackdown on social media… [and] ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld by amending the administrative and criminal legal codes currently used to silence critics and lock up peaceful protesters.”
It is a noble statement, but there is absolutely no evidence that anything is going to change in Kazakhstan anytime soon.