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. 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 the 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. The 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 the local media. The law prohibits insulting the president or the president’s family.
The new criminal code penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.96 million tenge ($48,000) and imprisonment for up to 10 years. It penalizes “inciting social, national, clan, racial, or religious discord” with imprisonment of up to 20 years. For example, on October 12, police arrested Ermek Narymbaev, a blogger and activist, and Serikzhan Mambetalin, former head of the Rukhaniyat Party, after receiving information that “they had circulated material on social media that contained clear signs of inciting national discord [and] insulting national honor and dignity.” According to Human Rights Watch, by arresting Narymbaev and Mambetalin, police appeared more interested in muzzling government critics than in combating actual criminal activity. An Almaty court confirmed a two-month pretrial detention order on October 15.
Press and Media Freedoms: Many privately owned newspapers and television stations received government subsidies. Lack of transparency in media ownership is a significant problem. Companies allegedly controlled by members of the president’s family or his 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 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 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: During the first six months of the year, press advocacy NGO Adil Soz recorded four attacks on editorial offices and journalists. According to the NGO, authorities prevented reporters from carrying out their duties in 18 instances during the same period, and authorities denied or significantly restricted journalists’ access to public information 92 times. In the first half of the year, Adil Soz reported two instances of violence against journalists. In each case authorities caught the perpetrators, who apologized to the victims.
Journalists working in opposition media and covering stories related to corruption reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors.
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 mass (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. During the year the government used this definition to close a social media outlet of a news portal that had been closed by court order.
On October 22, an Almaty court permanently shut down independent news outlet ADAM magazine and ordered its Facebook page closed. This followed an August court ruling to suspend the publication for three months for violating a provision of its registration papers under which it was required to publish in both Kazakh and Russian. Prosecutors stated the magazine was the same publication as its predecessor, ADAMbol, which a court order closed in December 2014. The government won a court order in February to cancel ADAMbol’s registration and right to publish after it published allegedly “prowar propaganda” in an article on the Ukraine conflict.
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 is also able to 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. For example, in April 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. In June the Almaty City Court ordered the owner of Nakanune.kz, Guzyal Baydalinova, to pay a 20-million-tenge ($74,000) fine in compensation for damages to the business reputation of Kazkommertsbank. According to Human Rights Watch, Baydalinova maintained that the article published by Nakanune.kz contained credible allegations on a matter of serious public concern that police should investigate. Baydalinova’s lawyer also pointed out that the bank did not establish for the court any actual financial cost to the bank because of the article.
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 the media continued.
Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites. Many observers expressed the view that the government planted progovernment propaganda in internet chat rooms. The government regulated the country’s internet providers, including state-owned Kazakhtelecom. Nevertheless, websites carried a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government. Official statistics reported 68 percent of the population had internet access in 2014.
The Ministry of Investment and Development 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 10 cases of blocking or restricting access to websites during the first half of the year. In September a district court in Astana ordered Vimeo.com to shut down for allegedly posting extremist content; access was restored in October. Flickr.com was also unavailable between September and October, although there was no legal action relating to that site. Intermittent blocking of website LiveJournal continued, although it was unblocked in November. According to NGO Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2015 report, the most significant cases of censorship were related to domestic and international coverage of the country’s connection to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
In several cases the government denied it was behind the blocking of websites. Bloggers reported anecdotally their sites were periodically blocked, including the 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.
Authorities charged pro-Russia blogger Yermek Taychibekov with “inciting interethnic hatred” for his allegedly antagonistic writings and Facebook postings after blogger Botagoz Isayeva filed a complaint. During police questioning in August, Taychibekov allegedly exhibited behaviors that led to his committal for a 30-day psychiatric evaluation. He was declared competent and released from the psychiatric institution on September 9. Authorities returned Taychibekov to the detention center while a trial proceeded.
Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to the 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. In January social media announced and coordinated an unauthorized 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.
Freedom on the Net reported during the year that the country had 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.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government generally did not restrict academic freedom, although the government prohibited academics, like other citizens, from infringing on the dignity and honor of the president and his family. Many academics practiced self-censorship.