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 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 or 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 to seize temporarily sound-enhancing equipment.
During a September altercation between foreign workers, mostly Indian construction workers, and local security at a major construction site in Astana, which resulted in dozens of foreign workers being deported, citizens reported that access to social media, including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp, was partially or fully blocked in multiple instances. The government denied responsibility and said that technical difficulties were to blame.
Freedom of 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, and penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.96 million tenge ($40,000) and imprisonment for up to 10 years.
On January 24, the Astana city court found the chief editor of Central Asia Monitor newspaper and Radiotochka.kz web portal Bigeldy Gabdullin guilty of extortion in return for nonpublication of negative information about wrongdoing. According to several media outlets, including Zakon.kz, Kazinform, Tengrinews.kz, and Ratel.kz, Gabdullin admitted his guilt in full, repented, and restituted the injured parties’ material losses. The court sentenced Gabdullin to five years of probation.
On February 17, police stopped the Aktau reporter of Radio Azattyk, Sania Toiken, under the pretext she did not have a seat belt fastened. Police took her to a station for interrogation in regards to the oil workers’ hunger strike she witnessed in her reporting work. Police held her in the station for two hours, causing her to miss the regional governor’s press conference.
The Independent Tribuna newspaper’s chief editor, Zhanbolat Mamay, was arrested on February 10 and charged with money laundering. The Tribuna newspaper has been a target of investigation and litigation since its founding in 2012. The newspaper closed in June after Mamay’s arrest. On September 7, the Medeu district court in Almaty found him guilty of money laundering and sentenced him to three years of restriction of freedom, confiscation of property, and a three-year ban on journalistic activity.
Press and Media Freedom: 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 Information and Communication 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 October authorities prevented reporters from carrying out their duties in 30 instances. Adil Soz found that authorities denied or significantly restricted journalists’ access to public information 138 times.
Journalists working in opposition media and covering stories related to corruption reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors. According to media watchdog organization Adil Soz, the internet portal Zhumyrtka.kz News closed on January 24 as a result of threats of criminal persecution and prison sentences for their publications.
On March 2, the Kapshagay city court ruled that, pursuant to the amnesty law, the prison term for the president of the Kazakhstan Union of Journalists, Seitkazy Matayev, should be cut in half. On November 16, the Kapshagay city court ruled to release Matayev, and he was released from prison on December 4.
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. The prosecutor general may suspend communication services in cases where communication networks are 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.”
By law internet resources, including social media, are classified as forms of mass media and governed by the same rules and regulations. Authorities continued to charge bloggers and social media users with inciting social discord through their online posts.
In July Uralsk police opened a criminal investigation against blogger Aibolat Bukenov for allegedly disseminating false information presenting a danger to the public order or the rights and legal interests of citizens or organizations. On Facebook, Bukenov posted his criticism of the Uralsk government spending 25 million tenge (approximately $77,000) for a pyramid of flowers. He opined that that money should have been spent on road repairs instead. On January 10, a court in Almaty found activist Zhanar Akhmet guilty of illegally organizing a rally. She posted a call to her followers to attend an appeal hearing on the case of movie director Talgad Zhanybekov to support him during his trial. Zhanar Akhmet was found guilty and punished by an administrative fine of 113,450 tenge ($350).
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 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 libel cases against journalists and media outlets remained a problem. Media freedom NGO Adil Soz reported 13 criminal libel charges and 73 civil libel lawsuits filed against journalists and media.
On April 4, a district court in Almaty ruled in favor of ex-minister Zeinulla Kakimzhanov’s lawsuit claims against Forbes Kazakhstan magazine and news site Ratel.kz, assigning 50.2 million tenge ($155,000) in damages as compensation for a story “harming Kakimzhanov’s honor and dignity.” Media and civil society activists criticized the court proceedings for a number of procedural violations.
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 believed 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.
NGO Adil Soz reported that during the first nine months of 2016, 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. On June 15, James Palmer, a reporter for Foreign Policy magazine, published an article critical of government expenditure for Expo 2017. Two days later, the magazine’s website was blocked in Kazakhstan and an Expo spokesperson made a statement asserting Palmer never visited the country and fabricated the story. The Minister of Information published a statement denying the government blocked the website.
Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to the Freedom on the Net 2017 report, “the government centralized internet infrastructure in a way that facilitated control of content and surveillance.” Authorities, both national and local, monitored the internet traffic and online communications. The Freedom on the Net report stated that “activists using social media were occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who had prior knowledge of their planned activities.”
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.