Kazak Rights Groups Denounce Internet Censorship Bill

Bill would allow authorities to close or block websites carrying material critical of their policies.

Kazak Rights Groups Denounce Internet Censorship Bill

Bill would allow authorities to close or block websites carrying material critical of their policies.

The Kazak authorities look likely to push through a bill designed to control internet use in the country, in spite of calls from media organisations for it to be reconsidered.

On February 23, a parliamentary working group met for the second time to discuss amendments to a number of existing laws which are mainly intended to control web use.

While the authorities say some regulation of the internet is necessary to prevent users accessing illegal information, media representatives warn that the changes could give the government power to censor the web for political reasons.

Although press freedom is enshrined in the Kazak constitution, observers say privately-owned and opposition-leaning media in the country are subject to tight controls.

In 2008, media watchdog Reporter Without Borders, RSF, cited several examples of pressure on the Kazakstan press, including cases of outlets being closed down after they criticised the authorities.

In Kazakstan, journalists can be prosecuted for insulting the president and other officials. Details of the president’s private life, health and financial affairs are classified under state secrecy regulations. The authorities control most of the country’s printing presses, as well as the bulk of radio and TV broadcasting facilities.

The internet – which is currently unregulated – is seen as a last refuge for those seeking alternative sources of information, and is widely accessed by Kazakstan residents.

If the bill is passed, changes will be made to existing legislation on media, national security, and communications to allow web-based content to be subjected to the same controls imposed on conventional media.

Examples of material which the press and broadcasters are prohibited from publishing include classified information, terrorist or extremist propaganda, pornography and calls for the overthrow of the government.

The bill proposes adding to this list a ban on foreign nationals using media to promote electoral candidates, as well as a prohibition on using a news outlet to call on workers to strike.

The proposals would allow the authorities to block foreign websites if the content went against Kazak domestic law.

Other draft changes include an obligation on internet service providers to gather personal information on customers – including their phone numbers, postal addresses and passport information – and keep this on file for two years.

Provider firms would be held legally responsible for not complying, and would have to hand over this information to the law-enforcement agencies at the latter’s request.

The amendments also propose giving the prosecution service new powers to close down news outlets if they are deemed to be breaking the law.

The chairman of the government agency for information technology and communications, Kuanyshbek Yesekeev, who presented the legal amendments, said they represented an attempt to regulate internet use and protect users from what he called “negative” material.

But media representatives warn the restrictions could lead to censorship of the web.

The free speech group Adil Soz and the National Association of Broadcasters produced a report calling for the changes to be revised after a public debate.

Their report, publicised at a press conference on January 27, noted that Kazakstan has some of the harshest media laws in the former Soviet Union. It said the authorities were trying to bring the internet under the same tight controls as those already imposed on other media.

It also argued that the amendments went against the Kazak constitution, which uphold political and ideological pluralism, creativity and freedom of speech.

In their analysis, the NGOs called for clearer criteria to determine which web-based content can be treated as media. They pointed out that the catch-all term “internet resource” used in the bill could extend to content like personal ads.

Of particular concern to the NGOs was the proposal to give state prosecutors the power to suspend or close news outlets. Under current laws, only a judge is empowered to require this.

The head of Adil Soz, Tamara Kaleeva, said the proposals would allow the authorities to censor the internet for political reasons.

Under the amendments, an enormous list of justifications can be invoked to block websites which the government considers damaging, said Kaleeva.

Meanwhile, Rozlana Taukina of the Journalists in Danger foundation argued that the changes were unconstitutional and contradicted international standards of press freedom.

“Our bureaucrats want to place an iron curtain around Kazakstan,” she said. “The aim of the bill is to strengthen the authorities and protect them from dissident thoughts and ideas, and prevent journalists from doing their professional work.”

Taukina said there was a growing mood of public discontent in Kazakstan which could lead to protests erupting.

The country has been hard hit by the global economic downtown, and thousands of workers have been affected by the widespread closure of businesses.

“There are many matters of concern to society, but journalists won’t be able to write about them,” said Taukina.

Other observers argue that the bill is an attempt to legalise the existing practice of blocking controversial web sites. For some time, many sites linked to opposition groups have been sporadically blocked.

“As far back as I remember, it has been always like this – if they [authorities] want to block a site, they do so,” said Yuriy Mizinov, editor-in-chief of internet site Zona.kz.

In October and November 2007, users found they were denied access to several opposition websites, including Zonakz.net, which published transcripts of audio recordings of conversations apparently between high-level officials. The voices were discussing a plot to eliminate President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s disgraced ex-son-in-law Rakhat Aliev.

The site Geokz.kz, which has published personal information about government members, including details of their business interests, has also been blocked repeatedly.

Igor Loskutov, a media lawyer with Adil Soz, noted in a report published on the organisation’s website that with Kazakstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE coming up next year, the government had to introduce legal methods of controlling web content.

But some say there is little point in the government extending its powers to block and close websites, saying it is well-nigh impossible to monitor the vast amount of material available on the net.

“It costs a huge amount of money to monitor millions of sites. I think that given the current economic crisis, it is not worth spending funds on it,” said Adil Jalilov, head of the MediaNet Centre for International Journalism.

Jalilov questioned the effectiveness of obstructing access to opposition sites.

“I believe that blocking a political opponent’s blog is pointless,” he said. “He can open another one on a different server, of which there are plenty.”

Anton Dosybiev is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

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