While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government limited freedom of expression and exerted influence on the 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.
In January the prime minister signed a decree establishing rules on 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 can censor media sources by requiring them to provide their print, audio, and video information to the authorities 24 hours before issuance/broadcasting for approval. Political parties and public associations can be suspended or closed should they obstruct the efforts of security forces. The regulations also allow the government to restrict or ban copying equipment, radio and broadcasting equipment, and audio and video recording devices and temporarily seize sound-enhancing equipment.
Freedom of Speech: The government limited individuals’ ability to criticize the country’s leadership, and regional leaders attempted to limit criticism of their actions in the local media. The law prohibits insulting the president, the president’s family, and other senior officials.
The new criminal code penalizes intentionally spreading false information with fines of up to 12.96 million tenge ($71,000) and imprisonment for up to 10 years.
Press Freedoms: According to official statistics, the government owned 16 percent of the country’s media outlets in 2013. Many privately owned newspapers and television stations received government subsidies. Companies allegedly controlled by members of the president’s family or loyal associates owned the majority of those broadcast media outlets that the government did not control outright. According to media observers, the government wholly or partly owned most of the seven 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 Investment and Development, although websites are exempt from this requirement.
The law limits the simultaneous broadcast of foreign-produced programming to 20 percent of a station’s weekly airtime. This provision burdened smaller, less-developed regional television stations that lacked resources to develop programs, although the government did not sanction any media outlet under this provision.
For a few days in April, authorities blocked access to the website of the newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya in West Kazakhstan (uralskweek.kz). Subscribers of Kazakhtelecom JSC and Kcell were not able to access the website. Editor in chief of the newspaper Lukpan Akhmedyarov believed that the website was blocked because it published information on an April 12 meeting criticizing the government’s plans to join Russia and Belarus in establishing a Eurasian Economic Union. During the first half of the year, the information portal Azattyk (the Kazakhstani bureau of Radio Freedom/Radio Liberty) reported its website had also been blocked on several occasions.
Violence and Harassment: During the year press advocacy NGO Adil Soz recorded 16 attacks on editorial offices and journalists, compared with nine in 2013. According to the NGO, reporters were prevented from carrying out their duties in 30 instances between January and September, and authorities denied or significantly restricted journalists’ access to public information 230 times, compared with 187 times in 2013.
Journalists working in opposition media and those covering stories related to corruption reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors.
On April 15, journalists of television channels KTK, 31 Channel, the Kazakhstan news agency Interfax-Kazakhstan, Radio Azattyk (Radio Freedom/Radio Liberty), and Internet Channel 16/12 covered a protest in Astana, where women with children chained themselves to the fence near the General Procurator’s Office to protest the state’s exercise of eminent domain. The protesters had been evicted from their homes and said that the compensation was too low to afford another house in Astana. Radio Azattyk reporter Svetlana Glushkova reported that police did not allow the journalists to film the protest and twisted the arms of journalists and cameramen. The cameraman of 16/12 Internet Channel received a head injury for filming the protest.
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 limit media freedom.
In April the president signed legislation to allow the procurator general to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. When communication networks used “for criminal purposes to harm the interests of an individual, society, or the state, or to disseminate information violating the Election Law of Kazakhstan or containing calls for extremist or terrorist activities, riots, or participation in mass (public) activities carried out in violation of the established order,” the procurator general can suspend communication services.
On April 21, the Medeusky District Court in Almaty ruled the newspaper Assandi Times constituted a “structural part” of the opposition Respublika newspaper, which was banned for alleged extremism in 2012, and therefore must stop its operations. On June 12, the Almaty City Court upheld the decision.
On November 20, the Medeusky District Court bailiff delivered a court order suspending operations of leading independent journal ADAMbol. According to a complaint filed by the Almaty akim’s office, the magazine’s August 29 issue contained an article containing “signs of war propaganda.” On December 24, the Medeusky District Court ruled the magazine be closed. At year’s end the magazine was shuttered, and an appeal was pending.
Libel Laws/National Security: The law on state secrets 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.
Private parties can initiate criminal libel suits without independent action by the government, and an individual filing such a suit is also able to file a civil suit based upon 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 new criminal code significantly increases penalties for defamatory remarks made in the mass media or “information-communication networks.” The three parts of the new code’s article 130 are: part 1, simple libel; part 2, libel committed publicly or through media or communication networks; and part 3, libel as described in part 2, but accusing a person of corruption, a severe or especially severe crime, or leading to severe consequences. Maximum fines for each part increase from approximately 370,400 tenge ($2,000) for part 1; 926,000 tenge ($5,000) for part 2; and house arrest to imprisonment, but without any fine for part 3 to approximately 1.852 million tenge ($10,000); 3.704 million tenge ($20,000) and 5,556 million tenge ($30,000). In addition, article 130 carries potential prison terms of one, two, or three years for violations under parts 1, 2, and 3. Journalists and freedom of speech activists fear this provision will strengthen the government’s ability to restrict investigative journalism and be used for political purposes.
NGOs reported that libel cases against journalists and media outlets remained a problem. During the year Adil Soz cited 38 criminal cases against media outlets and journalists, including eight cases where the defendants were charged with inciting interethnic and religious hatred or discord. There were also 106 instances of civil charges against media outlets and journalists during the year.
On March 5, a court opened a criminal defamation case against independent journalist Natalya Sadykova. The case was initiated when a former parliamentarian, Marat Itegulov, claimed an article published on the Respublika online portal was aimed at defaming him. He accused Natalia of authoring the article under a pseudonym. On March 17, the Aktobe City Court sanctioned Natalia’s arrest in absentia. Since March 9, Natalya and her family have remained in Ukraine.
The Law on National Security prohibited “Influencing public and individual consciousness to the detriment of national security through the deliberate distortion of information.” According to experts, 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 the government’s order to enact the suppression of mass riots.
The law prohibits publication of any statement that promotes or glorifies “extremism” or “incites social discord,” terms international legal experts said the government had not clearly defined. The government subjected media outlets that criticized the president to intimidation, such as law enforcement actions or 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 the media continued.
On July 30, an Almaty court found Zharylkap Kalybay, chief editor of the magazine Zhuldyzdar Otbasy-Anyz Adam (Celebrities Family-Legendary People), guilty of “propagating and justifying extremism.” The court fined Kalybay 27,780 tenge ($150) and the magazine 129,640 tenge ($700). The court also ruled the magazine’s April issue had to be confiscated. The issue contained photographs and memories of Adolph Hitler from his associates and friends. It also included excerpts from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In June the same court found the issue dedicated to Hitler insulted 13 veterans of World War II and ruled Kalybay must pay 991,000 tenge ($5,350) to each of the plaintiffs.
Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites and planted progovernment propaganda in internet chat rooms. The state regulated the country’s 22 internet providers, including the state-owned Kaztelecom. Nevertheless, websites expressed a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government. The UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development reported 55 percent of the population had internet access in 2013.
The Ministry of Culture and Sport 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.
Adil Soz reported 25 cases of blocking or restricting access to websites during the first half of the year. The government’s intermittent blocking of the website LiveJournal continued, although the site remained accessible outside the country. Bloggers reported anecdotally their sites were periodically blocked, including the independent news sites ratel.su, uralskweek.kz, socialismkz.info, and www.janaozen.net, as well as the website of the banned newspaper Respublika. Websites such as respublika-kaz.info, guljan.org, and kplustv.net were permanently blocked.
Courts frequently suspended opposition websites while considering claims against them.
In 2011 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 April the president signed a law further restricting freedoms of communication (see section 2.a., Censorship or Content Restrictions).
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government generally did not restrict academic freedom, although academics, like other citizens, were prohibited from infringing on the dignity and honor of the president and his family. Many academics practiced self-censorship.