Astana Attempts to Suppress Internet 'Menace'

Kazak Internet sites have become a powerful source of anti-government criticism

Astana Attempts to Suppress Internet 'Menace'

Kazak Internet sites have become a powerful source of anti-government criticism

Having successfully muzzled most of its domestic media, the Kazak government is now struggling to close off that awkward peephole into independent opinion - the Internet.

At first the administration took a lenient view of the country's burgeoning websites. With around only 50,000 Internet users in this former Soviet republic, officials reasoned their audience, after all, represented less than one per cent of the population.

But the authorities are now concerned the sites are increasingly being used as a very effective source of anti-government criticism.

Over the past three years, dozens of opposition and independent media have been forced out of business. Those that remain are obliged to deliver a one-sided view of events in Kazakstan, devoid of any anti-government sentiment.

But demand for 'alternative information' continues nonetheless. Prior to Web, it was met by periodic access to foreign media and occasional opposition newspapers which briefly popped up through the censorship blanket.

None of this fulfilled the thirst for unfettered information. Then in 1998 a website called Eurasia came on the scene packed with information and opinions abhorrent to the government.

Some connect this Moscow-based site with the name of the main political opponent of Nazarbaev, former prime-minister Akejan Kajegeldin, now living in exile. The site soon became immensely popular in Kazakstan.

It was devoured by opposition and senior government officials alike. Soon other sites sprang up and the government became more and more worried.

Increasing numbers of people in Kazakstan found ways of accessing the Internet. For most, it was now their only source of free information. At first, the government countered the threat by setting up its own websites, filling them with items of juicy scandal alongside official versions of news and opinion.

These sites failed to attract a large following. People still opted for the 'rogue' sites in the hope of learning the truth about events at home and abroad. The situation began to resemble that of the Soviet era when people starved of objective information tuned in to the Voice of America, the BBC and radio stations like Radio Liberty.

Some Internet information was reprinted in opposition newspapers. A great deal more spread by word of mouth. Material which at first had reached only a small circle of people began circulate more widely.

The authorities decided to try and choke off these hostile voices. They created a central billing network with total control over the Web in Kazakstan, in effect becoming the national Internet provider. New decrees were issued to enforce the clamp-down.

Howls of protest arose from opposition politicians, human rights and journalistic organisations. The government's initiative was widely reported abroad and probably earned President Nazarbaev his inclusion in a 1991 list of the 'Top Ten Suppressors of the Press'.

Stung by the label, Nazarbaev rescinded the anti-Web decrees. But, according to some sources, the authorities maintained efforts to shield Kazak eyes and ears from cyber criticism. As the only official Internet provider, the government was able to block the Eurasia site after it incriminated highly placed Kazak bureaucrats in a financial scandal.

Unofficial sources said the move was imposed by the Kazak national security services. For a month and half, the Eurasia site could not be accessed in Kazakstan. The blackout was widely publicised, again tainting the image of Kazakstan.

The government then decided to create new legislation under which the Internet was declared a mass media information service with all the responsibilities this entails; according to Kazak law the press are barred from publishing information deemed to threaten national security

Thus any story critical of the authorities could be classified as an attack on statehood and national security, an offence that would land offenders in court. And these courts invariably come down on the side on the government.

Thus, the Kazak government is employing a two-pronged approach to taming the Internet.

First, the administration, in its self-appointed role of Internet provider, can block sites it does not like. Second, the threat of prosecution hangs over any journalist who delivers anti-government stories on the Web.

As yet it is not entirely clear what will happen to those sites, including foreign ones, rated as a threat to Kazak statehood. If they can be successfully blocked, the government can claim victory in its fight to suppress the last chink in its wall against unfriendly criticism.

The exercise will be keenly watched from abroad and could give heart to other governments troubled by unwelcome attacks from the Web.

Sergei Duvanov is a regular IWPR contributor.

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