“New Kazakhstan,” World Press Freedom Day, and Attacks on Social Media Freedom Global Voices Français

Gathering of opponents of the “cyberbullying law” at Gandhi Park. Almaty, April 23, 2022. Photo by Zhar Zardykhan

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed the amendments laws on “the protection of children’s rights, education, information and computerization”, which may further restrict the freedom of the media in the country. Ironically, this decision was announced on World Press Freedom Day on March 3, 2022.

In its initial draft, under the guise of protecting children from cyberbullying, the law would not only oblige foreign “online platforms” to register a local legal entity or a representative office headed by a citizen of Kazakhstan, but also to force them to delete “undesirable” information within 24 hours of being called by an amorphous “authorized body”. The draft bill was hastily adopted at the first hearinggiven that a dominant one-party political system offers no real scrutiny or criticism, on September 15, 2021, by the Mazhilis, the lower house of the Kazakh parliament.

According to the constitution, the Mazhilis has the exclusive right to initiate bills which, if passed, are sent to the Senate, the upper house, for approval to become law, unless the Senate rejects it. or amend it and send it back to the lower house. . If Mazhilis accepts the changes, the bill passes and waits for the president to sign it.

But even without the proposed bill, the current mass media law considers online platforms, including social media, as mass media, making their owners legally responsible like any media, therefore subject to suspension or banning. Thus, bloggers and other online content creators could be legally responsible for breaking the law as well as journalists, although journalists enjoy a few other legal privileges, such as accreditation. In addition, the 2014 amendments to the Communications Act has already expanded the list of officials empowered to block online postings without a court order, which includes the Attorney General, their deputies and the National Security Committee (KNB). This has already enabled more than 90% of websites to be blocked without court order.

Legal remedies are not limited to bans and blocks. On May 1, 2022, a resident of Kazakhstan with Ukrainian citizenship was arrested for ten days and currently faces deportation simply for reposting an Instagram story supporting a pro-Ukrainian rally on May Day, which she herself deleted before any legal complaints.

In his address to the nation On March 16, 2022, Tokayev shared his vision for the so-called “New Kazakhstan” following the massive protests and civilian deaths in January 2022, stressing the vital importance of competitive and free media, adding:

Государство осоеое Внимание уделит Созанию открыоо инормационного Пространства, Восиованых ых иллнDé. … Убеженен, что дальнейшие демократические преобразования невоззожны без независиous

The state will pay particular attention to creating an open information space and strong and demanded media. … I am convinced that the pursuit of democratic transformation will be impossible without independent and accountable mass media.

Ironically, from the start of his unexpected rise to power following the resignation of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev on March 19, 2019, and despite promising rhetoric, Tokayev’s presidency has been associated with the repression of dissent, the arrest opposition activists and the restriction of media freedoms.

For example, the Kazakh authorities would have been spy on journalists using the famous Pegasus softwareand implementation media censorship and local media blockages as soon as they were published on the financial embezzlement linked to the family of the former president. According to a report, during the state of emergency (January 3-12) declared during January protests in Kazakhstan, one journalist was killed, ten assaulted, eleven arrested and five newsrooms attacked. So far, the government has failed to conduct an impartial, transparent and effective investigation tragic events that claimed 232 lives according to official reports, with eight more torture deaths and excessive use of force during detention by security forces.

Under these circumstances, Kazakhstan’s nominal advancement from 155th position last year to 122nd in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranking World Press Freedom Index 2022 should not be confused with a sign of improvement, as it mainly reflects the change methodologywhile the individual Kazakhstan’s score actually went down from 49.72 to 48.28.

On internet freedom, Kazakhstan scored 33 out of 100 in the latest release from Freedom House Freedom on the Net index, which calls the country “not free”, citing the arrests and detention of journalists and bloggers, as well as the introduction of surveillance technologies and recurring denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

Detention of a journalist in Almaty, March 2, 2020. Screen capture from Azattyq TV YouTube channel

As for the original draft of the amendments known colloquially as the “cyberbullying law” (закон о кибербулллинге), it described in detail the status and function of online platforms and messaging services, their legal registration procedures and the nationality (but not the professional qualifications) of the head of their representative offices in Kazakhstan, rarely focusing on the cyberbullying or harassment. This draft bill, which has a clear resemblance to existing legislation in Russia and Uzbekistanwould not only grant the authorized body (уполномоченный орган) the right to block access to foreign online services and messengers without a court order, but would completely ban them in Kazakhstan if they did not agree to legally register and to open a representative office in Kazakhstan.

It was clear from the start that protecting children from cyberbullying was a morally appealing contemporary excuse, because until now Kazakhstan had never bothered to incorporate bullying, let alone cyberbullying, into its criminal code. or its administrative offences, and there are practically no criminal liability for cyberbullying. As expected, among the reasons for the Kazakh government’s request to remove content revealed by Google for 2020, bullying or harassment was only mentioned oncewith “criticism of the government” (44) and “threat to national security” (39) being the most common requests for censorship.

As soon as it was passed by the lower house of parliament, the bill sparked public outcry, particularly among journalists and human rights activists, followed by numerous appeals and petitions against the proposed amendments. Many of them agreed that the main purpose of the amendments was the restriction of social media, rather than the protection of children. Like Jamilya Maricheva, the founder of Protecta social media that monitors the misuse of budget funds, friends:

Очевидное, что это рано или поздно должно было случится, потому что на данный момент соцсети – это единственная свободная площадка, которая никак не может контролироваться со стороны властей.

Obviously, this had to happen eventually, because at the moment, social media is the only free platform that the authorities could not control in one way or another.

Traditional media in Kazakhstan are heavily dominated by state-owned outlets or by those with close ties to the government, while opposition print media have been systematically squeezed out. Overall, the the number of media is steadily declining.

Public protests continued through March 2022 as the bill was reviewed by the Senate, as many human rights and media freedom groups appealed the government to drop the bill altogether. This time, with the violation of key freedoms, the potential financial damages of the potential banning of social media platforms, estimated at $5 billion per year, was also highlighted. Meanwhile, in April, opponents of the bill held rallies both in the capital Nur-Sultan and Almaty.

Eventually, on April 14, 2022, the Senate returned the bill to the lower house, proposing significant changes, depriving the “authorized body” of the right to block access to websites, social media and messengers at its discretion, and limiting posts to be removed to only information that would be considered by a panel of experts to be cyberbullying targeting a child. On April 20, 2022, the lower house approved amendments by the Senate to be subsequently signed by the president, but critics still point out that the bill lacks clarity on the procedures and functions of the group of experts as well as clear and exhaustive definitions.

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