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Free Speech Fears for Kazakstan Internet

New watchdog designed to monitor “destructive” website content, but could that include political debate as well as extremist literature? By Milana Orazbekova in Almaty
By IWPR Central Asia

A newly set-up internet watchdog in Kazakstan is an attempt to censor an important source of independent news and comment, media rights groups and journalists say.

The Centre for Computer Incidents will operate under the Agency for Information Technology and Communications, and officials say it is tasked solely with identifying websites that carry extremist material or pornography.

Unveiling the centre on March 1, the communications agency’s head Kuanishbek Yesekeev said its purpose was to “regulate destructive resources”.

Agency spokesperson Janar Kondratenko elaborated, telling IWPR, “The centre’s staff members will monitor websites, and those which disseminate religious and political extremism, or pornography, will receive a warning that their information platform contains information that is against Kazakstan law. They will be obliged to remove such information.”

Kondratenko insisted that the Centre for Computer Incidents would act entirely within the law, and would not be used to pursue opposition supporters.

The new centre is being seen as a practical step toward implementing legislation passed last year which reclassified internet content so that it was subject to the same regulations as print and broadcast media. This means that like conventional media outlets, websites are prohibited from publishing classified information, terrorist propaganda, and incitement to overthrow the government. The law also empowers the authorities to block foreign websites if the contents are deemed to contravene domestic law.

Opponents of the move fear that authorities could interpret “computer incidents” to include anything critical of the regime.

“What does ‘destructive resources’ mean?” asked Almaty-based sociologist Gaziz Nasyrov, referring to the phrase used by Yesekeev. “Any criticism of the authorities could be included within this category, and I suspect that’s what is going to happen.”

Tatiana Burdel, director of Media Ontystik, a non-government group in the southern city of Shymkent, said the authorities had a habit of using vague, catch-all terminology “to cover all eventualities”, and described the new internet monitoring centre as “another noose around the press’s throat”.

Ali Dosaev, political editor of the Tauport.kz website, fears that any critical reporting risks being construed as “political extremism” or “destructive”.

He said that as a journalist, he could easily land in trouble if he wrote something about the succession to President Nazarbaev, whose current term in office runs out in 2012.

“I believe that changeovers in power are a cornerstone of democracy. But if I express a view on this without contravening the constitution or the criminal code, I could still end being categorised as an extremist,” said Dosaev.

The head of the MediaNet Centre for Journalism in Kazakstan, Vyacheslav Abramov, says the decision to impose controls on web content was not unexpected. “Working from their own concept of freedom of expression, the authorities want to control this information sector,” he said.

Abramov noted the irritation caused when disgraced senior officials use the web to publish allegations about the Kazak leadership.

In 2008, President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s former son-in-law Rahat Aliev fled abroad and was later found guilty in absentia of kidnapping, embezzlement and organised crime. From exile, he set about getting his revenge by publishing allegations about Kazakstan’s leaders, including a book about the president which appeared on the internet last year.

A government official who wished to remain anonymous said the recent allegations by Aliev and others had come as a shock to the authorities, who had not anticipated that their opponents would use the web to wage virtual war on them.

“In a country where barely one-third of factories are running and the mood of protest is on the rise…. compromising information that appears on the internet can only fuel popular discontent,” he said.

Milana Orazbekova is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kazakstan.

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