While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government limited freedom of expression and exerted influence on media through a variety of means, including laws, harassment, licensing regulations, internet restrictions, and criminal and administrative charges. Judicial actions against journalists and media outlets, including civil and criminal libel suits filed by government officials, led to the suspension of several media outlets and encouraged self-censorship. The law provides for additional measures and restrictions during “social emergencies,” defined as “an emergency on a certain territory caused by contradictions and conflicts in social relations that may cause or have caused loss of life, personal injury, significant property damage, or violation of conditions of the population.” In these situations the government may censor media sources by requiring them to provide their print, audio, and video information to authorities 24 hours before issuance/broadcasting for approval. Political parties and public associations may be suspended or closed should they obstruct the efforts of security forces. Regulations also allow the government to restrict or ban copying equipment, broadcasting equipment, and audio and video recording devices and temporarily seize sound-enhancing equipment.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The government limited individual ability to criticize the country’s leadership, and regional leaders attempted to limit criticism of their actions in local media. The law prohibits insulting the president or the president’s family.
The 2015 criminal code penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.96 million tenge ($40,000) and imprisonment for up to 10 years. For example, Kazkommertsbank, one of the largest banks in the country, sued the web portal nakanune.kz for publishing a reader’s letter. The bank claimed the website published false information implicating the bank in corruption. On May 23, Baydalinova was sentenced to 18 months’ incarceration. On July 12, the court suspended her sentence.
The criminal code penalizes “inciting social, national, tribal, racial, or religious discord” with imprisonment of up to 20 years. Civil society activist Zhanat Yesentayev was arrested in Uralsk on May 17, amid land reform protests. He was charged with incitement of interethnic discord in social media. In July he agreed to a plea bargain and was sentenced to two years and six months of restriction of freedom and a ban on participation in public protests, public performances, and posting any messages in social media on public, political, social, or environmental issues.
On January 21, a court in Astana sentenced civil society activist Bolatbek Blyalov to three years of restriction of freedom, meaning he was restricted to his city of residence and required legal supervision in the manner of parole, for instigation of ethnic and social discord. Blyalov had posted videos against the use of heptyl fuel, a highly toxic Russian Proton rocket fuel, at Baikonur cosmodrome.
On January 23, a court in Almaty convicted Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev, finding that their October 2015 social media postings incited social discord and insulted the honor and dignity of the country. The court sentenced Narymbayev to three years in jail and Mambetalin to two years in jail. On January 29, Mambetalin was released from prison after he publicly repented his actions. His prison term was replaced with a one-year restriction of freedom and a three-year ban on public activity. On March 30, a court replaced Narymbayev’s prison term with three years’ restriction of freedom and prohibited him from participating in public activities for five years. On July 14, he reportedly fled the country.
Press and Media Freedoms: Many privately owned newspapers and television stations received government subsidies. The lack of transparency in media ownership and the dependence of many outlets on government contracts for media coverage are significant problems. Companies allegedly controlled by members of the president’s family or associates owned many of the broadcast media outlets that the government did not control outright. According to media observers, the government wholly or partly owned most of the nationwide television broadcasters. Regional governments owned several frequencies, and the Ministry of Investment and Development distributed those frequencies to independent broadcasters via a tender system.
All media are required to register with the Ministry of Information and Communication, although websites are exempt from this requirement. The law limits the simultaneous broadcast of foreign-produced programming to 20 percent of a locally based station’s weekly broadcast time. This provision burdened smaller, less-developed regional television stations that lacked resources to create programs, although the government did not sanction any media outlet under this provision. Foreign media broadcasting does not have to meet this requirement.
Violence and Harassment: According to the NGO Adil Soz, through August authorities prevented reporters from carrying out their duties in 86 instances; 57 of them occurred during the May 21 land protests. Adil Soz found that authorities denied or significantly restricted journalists’ access to public information 114 times.
Journalists working in opposition media and covering stories related to corruption reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors.
The president of the Kazakhstan Union of Journalists and former spokesman for President Nazarbayev, Seitkazy Matayev, was arrested in Almaty on February 22 on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement of state funds related to his news agency KazTAG’s government contracts. (Like many other media outlets in the country, KazTAG maintained contracts with the government for media coverage.) On October 3, a judge in Astana sentenced Matayev to six years in prison and his son, Aset, the director of the news agency, to five years and confiscation of business-related real estate property and assets.
On April 19, Tamara Kaleyeva from the NGO Adil Soz was elected to replace Matayev as the new head of the Union of Journalists. Since her appointment, however, she and the organization have been subjected to three on-site tax audits.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law enables the government to restrict media content through amendments that prohibit undermining state security or advocating class, social, race, national, or religious discord. Owners, editors, distributors, and journalists may be held civilly and criminally responsible for content unless it came from an official source. The government used this provision to restrict media freedom.
The law allows the prosecutor general to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. In cases where communication networks were used “for criminal purposes to harm the interests of an individual, society, or the state, or to disseminate information violating the Election Law… or containing calls for extremist or terrorist activities, riots, or participation in large-scale (public) activities carried out in violation of the established order,” the prosecutor general may suspend communication services.
By law internet resources, including social media, are classified as forms of mass media and governed by the same rules and regulations. Several bloggers and social media users were charged with inciting social discord through their posts and sentenced to imprisonment. Civic activists and bloggers Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev were sentenced to two and three years in jail respectively on January 22 on charges of “inciting interethnic hatred discord” by posting excerpts of an unpublished book about Kazakhstan’s dependence on Russia. Their sentences were later reduced to house arrest.
Pavlodar resident Ruslan Ginatullin was detained July 5 after posting social media page links to two YouTube videos, one discussing “Russian Nazis” and the other on the conflict in Ukraine. Ministry of Justice “experts” determined content in the two videos incited interethnic discord. Ginatullin’s lawyer said the charges were baseless, and his client was a staunch pacifist who posted the videos to warn individuals against war and extremism. A blogger in Aktobe, Sanat Dosov, went on trial November 29, also charged with inciting social discord for allegedly posting articles critical of Russian President Putin.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides enhanced penalties for libel against senior government officials. Private parties may initiate criminal libel suits without independent action by the government, and an individual filing such a suit may also file a civil suit based on the same allegations. Officials used the law’s libel and defamation provisions to restrict media outlets from publishing unflattering information. Both the criminal and civil codes contain articles establishing broad liability for libel, with no statute of limitation or maximum amount of compensation. The requirement that owners, editors, distributors, publishing houses, and journalists prove the veracity of published information, regardless of its source, encouraged self-censorship at each level.
The law includes penalties for defamatory remarks made in the mass media or “information-communication networks,” including heavy fines and prison terms. Journalists and human rights activists feared these provisions would strengthen the government’s ability to restrict investigative journalism.
NGOs reported that libel cases against journalists and media outlets remained a problem. Media freedom NGO Adil Soz reported 47 criminal libel charges, with four ending in conviction, and 55 civil libel lawsuits filed against journalists and media. Only 17 cases were ruled in favor of journalists. Adil Soz indicated the numbers represented a nearly fourfold increase in criminal cases against media outlets and individual journalists over the last two years. On July 12, an Almaty court ruled an article in the independent Tribuna newspaper harmed the dignity and honor of Sultanbek Syzdykov, the former director for organizing the Asian Winter Games “Asiada-2011,” and imposed an administrative fine of five million tenge ($15,000) on the author of the publication and the newspaper. The newspaper filed an appeal that the courts rejected in October.
National Security: The law criminalizes the release of information regarding the health, finances, or private life of the president, as well as economic information, such as data about mineral reserves or government debts to foreign creditors. To avoid possible legal problems, media outlets often practiced self-censorship regarding the president and his family.
The law prohibits “influencing public and individual consciousness to the detriment of national security through deliberate distortion and spreading of unreliable information.” Legal experts noted the term “unreliable information” is overly broad. The law also requires owners of communication networks and service providers to obey the orders of authorities in case of terrorist attacks or to suppress mass riots.
The law prohibits publication of any statement that promotes or glorifies “extremism” or “incites social discord,” terms that international legal experts noted the government did not clearly define. The government subjected to intimidation media outlets that criticized the president; such intimidation included law enforcement actions and civil suits. Although these actions continued to have a chilling effect on media outlets, some criticism of government policies continued. Incidents of local government pressure on media continued.
Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites. Many observers believe the government added progovernment postings and opinions in internet chat rooms. The government regulated the country’s internet providers, including majority state-owned Kazakhtelecom. Nevertheless, websites carried a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government. Official statistics reported more than 70 percent of the population had internet access in 2016.
The Ministry of Information and Communication controlled the registration of “.kz” internet domains. Authorities may suspend or revoke registration for locating servers outside the country. Observers criticized the registration process as unduly restrictive and vulnerable to abuse.
The government implemented regulations on internet access that mandated surveillance cameras in all internet cafes, required visitors to present identification to use the internet, demanded internet cafes keep a log of visited websites, and authorized law enforcement officials to access the names and internet histories of users. In 2014 the president signed a law further restricting freedoms of communication (see section 2.a.).
NGO Adil Soz reported that during the first nine months, courts blocked 55 websites for propaganda of religious extremism and terrorism.
In several cases the government denied it was behind the blocking of websites. Bloggers reported anecdotally their sites were periodically blocked, as did the publishers of independent news sites ratel.kz, zonakz.net, and uralskweek.kz, as well as the website of the banned newspaper Respublika. Radio Azattyk reported that some of its news reports were not accessible in the country. During the May 21 protest rallies, there were multiple reports that access to social media, including YouTube, was partially or fully blocked.
Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to the 2016 Freedom on the Net report, Facebook users who planned to take part in protests reported several times they received police visits to their residences to “discuss their Facebook posts” and warn them against going to an unsanctioned gathering. The report noted internet users reported difficulties in accessing social media and communication apps during the land reform protests. In January activists utilizing social media announced and coordinated an unauthorized peaceful rally in support of the ADAMbol magazine, but authorities detained key participants--including journalists and human rights activists--near their residences as they were heading to the gathering. Civil society activists who discussed on social media their plans to take part in the May 21 land protests reported police visits to their residences to warn them against going to an unsanctioned gathering. On December 9, the Almaty specialized administrative court convicted civil society activist Almat Zhumagulov for re-posting another activist’s Facebook statement calling people to rally on the Independence Day and sentenced him to a 15-day administrative arrest.
Freedom on the Net reported during the year that the country maintained a system of operative investigative measures that allowed the government to use surveillance methods called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). While Kazakhtelecom maintained that it used its DPI system for traffic management, there were reports that Check Point Software Technologies installed the system on its backbone infrastructure in 2010. The report added that a regulator adopted a new internet monitoring technology, the Automated System of Monitoring the National Information Space.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government generally did not restrict academic freedom, although general restrictions, such as the prohibition on infringing on the dignity and honor of the president and his family, also applied to academics. Many academics practiced self-censorship.