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Web crackdowns spread

A new law in Kazakhstan increases internet oversight, while Azerbaijan arrests producers of satirical web video.

A police officer guards a group of suspects accused of kidnapping two Kazakh bankers during the first hearing in a trial in Almaty Nov. 9, 2007. Rakhat Aliyev, the embattled former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, was tried (and convicted) in absentia because he lives in exile in Vienna. From there, he is waging a war of information online. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — With less than six months until it takes over the chairmanship of one of Europe’s flagship human rights organizations, Kazakhstan has thumbed its nose to Western governments and introduced a draconian internet law. 

The new legislation follows similar crackdowns on online political communication in other former Soviet republics and signals a growing fear among officials in authoritarian states after public uprisings in Iran and Moldova were fuelled by internet social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook. 

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a law on July 10 that classifies all online public discussions as forms of publication. As a result, any comment that appears on a blog, forum, chatroom or social networking site, such as Facebook and Live Journal, is subject to the country’s already punitive mass media and libel laws. 

The law also restricts foreign news outlets, which can be blocked if they are likewise found to disseminate information that violates the Central Asian state’s laws on expression. 

Human rights groups immediately sounded alarm bells. “The wording of these bans seems to target political discussion, and it is so broad that it could easily give rise to arbitrary interpretations,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release. 

The Kazakhstan law seems to have been primarily in reaction to web pages that published information about Rakhat Aliyev, President Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law who now lives in Austria. After a falling out with the first family last year, Aliyev — a former ambassador and security chief — is now waging an information war against his former relatives from afar, publishing allegedly compromising telephone conversations. 

Kazakh authorities for their part have convicted the former first son twice in absentia, sentencing him to what amounts to decades in prison, first for what they say was his masterminding the abduction of three bank managers, and then accusing him of planning a coup d’etat. 

But the internet’s power, recently in evidence, to mobilize large groups of people and spread information not sanctioned by the powers that be was also foremost in Kazakh officials’ minds. 

“The internet should be subject to regulation,” Kazakhstan’s Agency for Information and Communications Chairman, Kuanyshbek Yesekeev, was quoted as saying in the local press. “If it is allowed to drift, then we will repeat the historical experience of Moldova, where because of the internet people went out onto the streets to strike.”