Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan

Not Free
32
100
A Obstacles to Access 10 25
B Limits on Content 11 35
C Violations of User Rights 11 40
Last Year's Score & Status
38 100 Not Free

Overview

Internet freedom in Kazakhstan deteriorated markedly during the coverage period, primarily in connection with the popular unrest triggered by longtime president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s surprise resignation in March 2019 and a flawed election that confirmed his chosen successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in office in early June 2019. To suppress protests and other expressions of dissent, the government disrupted mobile internet connections, throttled access to social media, and temporarily blocked independent news websites. Activists, journalists, and ordinary internet users faced detention and in some cases prosecution for their online activity. Meanwhile, an ongoing crackdown on the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) party intensified, and the government expanded both its control over the internet infrastructure and its powers of surveillance.

Nazarbayev had ruled Kazakhstan since 1991, and he retained the title “Leader of the Nation” and control over the Security Council—along with legal immunity and other privileges—after his resignation as president. Under the regime he established, parliamentary and presidential elections have been neither free nor fair, and all major parties exhibit political loyalty to the president. The authorities have consistently marginalized or imprisoned genuine opposition figures. The dominant media outlets are either in state hands or owned by government-friendly businessmen. Freedoms of speech and assembly remain restricted, and corruption is endemic.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • Routine blocking and throttling of social media ebbed for a short period after Nazarbayev’s resignation in March 2019. However, as the June presidential election approached, these restrictions resumed. The government also employed other controls, including blocking news sites and disrupting local mobile networks (see A3, B1).

  • Arrests, harassment, and intimidation of journalists and activists in response to their online activity all increased as the authorities sought to discourage dissent during the leadership transition (see C7).

  • Government-funded trolls, whose presence was previously not obvious or consistent, became far more visible on social media platforms, and more information about their networks came to light (see B5).

  • The state-owned telecommunications giant Kazakhtelecom proceeded with two acquisitions during the coverage period that would leave it with control over two-thirds of the mobile service market (see A4).

A Obstacles to Access

The government continued to improve information and communication technology (ICT) and e-government infrastructure. However, the state-owned telecommunications firm Kazakhtelecom made deals that gave it some two-thirds of the mobile market, stifling competition. The government disrupted internet connections for mobile users in major cities during a series of political protests in mid-2019, and users experienced connectivity problems when trying to access social media platforms.. The National Security Committee (NSC), the country’s most powerful security service, continued to solidify its grip on the telecommunications sector.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 56

Internet access has increased significantly over the past decade. According to the most recent government data, 77 percent of the population used the internet as of February 2018.1 In October 2018, the official statistical agency reported a 1.6 percent decline in the number of fixed-line internet subscriptions relative to 2017.2 The mobile penetration rate was reported at 142 percent, a slight decline from 2017.3 Some 14.6 million mobile subscribers, in a country of about 18 million people, access the internet from their devices.4 The government’s Digital Kazakhstan program aims to increase the internet penetration rate to 82 percent by 2022,5 in part by expanding broadband connectivity through fiber-optic infrastructure to a large portion of rural areas.6 The country’s mobile networks continue to expand, but third-generation (3G) mobile services are only available to 87 percent of the population, and 4G services cover just 73 percent.7

According to May 2019 testing data from Ookla, the average download speed of a fixed-line internet connection in Kazakhstan is 37.49 Mbps, while the average download speed of a mobile internet connection is 20.75 Mbps.8 Connection speeds in Kazakhstan compare favorably to those of other Central Asian countries.

Most people access the internet from their mobile devices, at home and at work, and in various public places in cities, where high-speed internet is often available free of charge via Wi-Fi hotspots.

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 23

Both mobile and fixed-line internet connections remain relatively affordable. In 2019, unlimited monthly fixed-line broadband subscriptions started at 3,500 tenge ($9.40),1 while monthly mobile broadband subscriptions with 8 or 10 GB of prepaid traffic were as low as 1,790 to 1,890 tenge ($4.80 to $5.10).2 As of December 2018, the average monthly salary in Kazakhstan was 174,642 tenge ($470).3 In the 2019 Inclusive Internet Index, which ranks 100 countries in terms of the affordability of prices for internet connections, Kazakhstan placed 27th, outperforming Russia, Ukraine, and other comparable countries.4

Amid shrinking purchasing power caused by inflation and currency depreciation, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Information and Communication asked mobile service providers to develop affordable plans for economically vulnerable groups in November 2018.5 Shortly thereafter, several plans featuring reduced tariffs were launched.6

Internet access is more limited in rural areas, where 42 percent of the population resides. The government pledged in late 2018 to invest 60 billion tenge ($160 million) in fixed-line internet connections for villages, benefiting 2.4 million rural residents over three years. Prices for the connections were expected to match those in cities,7 despite the fact that the average monthly salary is substantially lower in the countryside, at about 96,000 tenge ($258) for rural professionals.8

Internet access is distributed relatively evenly across Kazakhstan’s ethnic communities. All public institutions are required to provide at least Kazakh and Russian versions of their websites, and many private-sector entities follow this example. In late 2017, authorities announced the start of an eight-year transition from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet, with the stated aim of modernizing the Kazakh language by reducing the number of letters and making it compatible with most encoding and fonts for digital communications.9

Gender does not seem to be a barrier to internet access in Kazakhstan.10

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 16

During the coverage period, mobile internet connections were repeatedly throttled or disabled altogether in an apparent attempt to prevent political protests. In addition, social media platforms, notably Facebook, were throttled or blocked outright during live-streamed addresses by exiled dissident and former business magnate Mukhtar Ablyazov,1 and at other sensitive political moments, such as Nazarbayev’s surprise resignation as president in March 2019. The throttling of social media has been common in recent years, but the episodes are typically localized or brief, allowing the platforms to remain important forums for online discussion.

On May 9, 2019, the country experienced its most extensive network disruptions in recent memory in anticipation of antigovernment protests. Mobile internet connections were disabled in major cities, and all popular platforms were blocked, as were several independent news sites (see B1).2 Localized mobile internet disruptions were also reported in Almaty on May 1, during a protest organized by Ablyazov’s banned DVK party,3 and in Nur-Sultan (the capital city known as Astana until it was renamed in honor of Nazarbayev in March 2019) on May 16, during an international conference that was disrupted by protesters.4 Networks were later suspended during and after Kazakhstan’s snap presidential election on June 9, 2019, beyond the coverage period.5 Mobile service providers conceded that their services had been disrupted but denied responsibility.6

A number of legal and other mechanisms allow the government to suspend telecommunications networks at will.

In October 2018, the government issued a decree giving the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the NSC priority access to telecommunications networks as well as the right to suspend those networks in the event of social, natural, or man-made emergencies, or a risk thereof. Experts voiced concerns about the decree’s vague terminology—particularly “social emergency situation” and “risk of emergency situation”—and warned that an information vacuum could exacerbate any crisis.7 The government defended the measure as a globally accepted practice,8 noting that the decree actually reduced the number of state bodies entitled to suspend telecommunications networks under an array of existing laws.9 The decree does not specify limits on the duration of network suspensions.

The NSC has controlled the State Technical Service (STS) since 2017,10 assuming the authority to block content and disrupt internet networks for investigative purposes and to “prevent crimes.” The committee can act without a court order, though it must notify other state bodies within 24 hours.11 Also in 2017, the NSC and a number of other state entities adopted new rules for blocking or suspending internet networks, communication resources, and other internet-related content. The rules are classified.12

A law adopted in 2016 empowered the NSC to suspend “networks and means of communication and access to the internet” in “urgent cases that may result in commitment of grave or especially grave crimes.” The committee is not required to obtain prior approval and can subsequently inform the Prosecutor General’s Office and the relevant regulator—the Ministry of Digital Development, Innovation, and Aerospace Industry as of 2019.13

Since 2014, the Prosecutor General's Office has also been authorized to issue orders to shut down communication services without a court order if “networks are used for felonious aims to damage interests of individuals, society or state,” including the dissemination of illegal information and calls for extremism, terrorism, mass riots, or participation in unauthorized public gatherings.14 Orders must be executed by either telecommunications companies or the STS within three hours.

In 2012, amendments to the Law on National Security allowed the government to forcibly suspend telecommunications during antiterrorist or riot-suppression operations.15

The government centralizes internet infrastructure in a way that facilitates control of content and surveillance. State-owned Kazakhtelecom, through its operations and a number of subsidiaries, holds a de facto monopoly on the country’s backbone internet infrastructure. The NSC’s supervision of the STS allows it to oversee peering centers and cross-border connections.16 Kazakhstan’s Law on Communication was amended in 2017 to make the management of cross-border internet exchange points (IXPs) a state monopoly in the name of “information security.”17 In February 2019, KazNIC, the nonprofit registry for the country’s .kz domain, announced the launch of an independent IXP, but it offers peering only of domestic, not international, traffic.18

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 26

While the government generally does not distort competition or keep new players out of the ICT market, it did little to prevent the merger of Kazakhtelecom with two major mobile service providers during the coverage period.

There are several significant internet service providers (ISPs) in Kazakhstan, but Kazakhtelecom holds a dominant position. As of July 2018, it controlled 68 percent of the fixed-line market,1 a decline from 85 percent in 2014.2 It also fully or partially owns a number of other backbone and downstream ISPs. The state owns 52 percent of Kazakhtelecom through Samruk-Kazyna, its sovereign wealth fund.3 Alexander Klebanov, a wealthy businessman with close ties to the ruling elite, owns a further 25 percent of the company.4

Competition in Kazakhstan’s mobile service market has been put at risk by recent mergers. In December 2018, Sweden’s Tele2, which jointly operated a mobile service provider called Tele2-Altel with Kazakhtelecom, announced that it would sell its stake in the venture to Kazakhtelecom.5 The deal was completed after the coverage period, in June 2019.6 In July 2018, Kazakhstan’s antitrust authority allowed Kazakhtelecom to acquire 75 percent of Kcell,7 following the withdrawal of its owner, Sweden’s Telia Company, from the region’s markets.8 At the end of the year, Kazakhtelecom officially bought out Telia, acquiring a controlling stake in Kcell at 31 percent below market value. Kazakhtelecom now commands about two-thirds of Kazakhstan’s mobile service market.9 Its only major competitor is the foreign-owned Beeline Kazakhstan.

All mobile service providers were given the right to offer 4G service in 2016.10 Since mid-2018, the government and providers have been speculating about introduction of 5G technology; pilot tests have taken place in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.11 Kazakhtelecom voiced its intention to become the sole 5G provider in Kazakhstan,12 but Beeline was reportedly in talks regarding a 5G license as of 2019.13

Companies providing telecommunications services are required to purchase and install equipment related to the System for Operational Investigative Measures (SORM), which enables state surveillance, and to bear costs related to data-retention obligations. These may deter new players from entering the ICT market.

No special licensing is required for businesses that decide to set up Wi-Fi hotspots.

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 04

The Ministry of Information and Social Development oversees mass media, including online content. The Ministry of Digital Development, Innovation, and Aerospace Industry is responsible for the telecommunications sector (including ICT infrastructure), e-government, and cybersecurity. Until the first half of 2019, both online content and the telecommunications sector were supervised by the now-defunct Ministry of Information and Communication.1 Ministers are nominated by the prime minister and appointed by the president. The ministries’ operations were not transparent or subject to independent oversight.

The NSC has increased its power to make decisions about ICT infrastructure and online content. By the end of 2018, a cybersecurity entity called the National Coordination Center for Information Security was expected to be launched under the NSC’s supervision,2 although its status remained shrouded in secrecy. The leadership of the NSC is appointed by the president in coordination with the chairman of the Security Council.

The Internet Association of Kazakhstan (IAK), established in 2009, claims to unite the country's internet businesses and the broader online community,3 although some of its former members have questioned the group's independence, transparency, and nonprofit status.4 The IAK is currently idle. Other associations of telecommunications companies or e-commerce professionals, for example, do not represent a serious counterweight to the government or perform self-regulatory functions.

The .kz country domain is managed by the nonprofit KazNIC registry. The Kazakhstan Association of IT Companies administers domain names and regulates KazNIC tariffs. A 2015 law granted the government the power to appoint both the registrar and the domain name administrator. Though the government made no changes to the incumbent personnel, some experts expressed concern that this power may be abused.5

B Limits on Content

The authorities have intensified restrictions on online content. In the period before the snap presidential election in June 2019, a number of independent news sites were temporarily taken offline. Entire platforms hosting user-generated content are subject to regular blocking, often without any public justification. The most frequently cited pretext for restrictions of online content is the need to combat extremism. DVK-related material remained subject to removal on extremism grounds during the coverage period.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 26

The government has extensive authority to block online content. Websites and entire content-hosting platforms were blocked during the coverage period, and users trying to access social media and communication platforms routinely experienced connectivity problems (see A3). There are no aggregate data on the number of blocked websites, though ministries occasionally release information on content restrictions. For example, in August 2018 the Ministry of Information and Communication announced that it had blocked more than 1,800 online “materials” since the beginning of 2018 and intended to block 9,340 more through 534 court proceedings.1

Online content related to pornography, extremism, terrorism, or violence is the most frequently blocked, though political and social content is often targeted as well. Users who wish to circumvent censorship tend to use virtual private networks (VPNs), but many anonymizing tools have themselves been blocked, and others frequently experience service problems.2

Just after the coverage period, on June 9, 2019, Kazakhstan held an early presidential election following the March resignation of Nazarbayev. On election day and for days after, users in several cities where major antigovernment demonstrations took place found that mobile internet services were throttled and that social media platforms—including Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, and WhatsApp—were temporarily inaccessible.3 Services were completely disrupted in public parks and other areas where demonstrations were held.4

During antigovernment demonstrations in Almaty, Nur-Sultan, and other cities on May 9, 2019, access to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube was temporarily restricted but restored the same day.5 A number of independent news websites, including azattyq.org (the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Bureau.kz (the site of the country’s leading human rights group), Exlusive.kz, Fergana News, HOLANews.kz, Informburo.kz, Lada.kz, Time.kz, The-Village.kz, and Vlast.kz, were also temporarily blocked.6 Users reported that access to VPNs was temporarily restricted as well.7 The authorities refused to acknowledge or explain the blocks.8

Over the course of that month, the authorities renewed their practice of regularly restricting access to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Access to Telegram was persistently restricted. The episodes of blocking usually coincided with live-streamed video appearances by Ablyazov, the exiled DVK leader, who broadcasts for about two hours several evenings each week.9 Some users have trouble accessing the affected platforms even with VPNs. The authorities have typically attributed disruptions to ill-explained technical issues.10 The outages became more regular after the DVK was designated as an extremist organization in a March 2018 court ruling. The authorities stated that “technical work” being carried out as a result of this ruling could explain service interruptions to Telegram in particular.11 In March 2019, after Nazarbayev resigned, users noticed that the restrictions had eased.12 However, they returned in May 2019 as antigovernment demonstrations, often organized by DVK supporters, broke out across the country.

In March 2019, authorities blocked the petition website GoPetition.com after users circulated an open letter on the platform asking the government to reconsider its decision to change the name of Kazakhstan’s capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan, after the first name of the outgoing president.13 Two other petition websites, Change.org and Avaaz.org, remained inaccessible during the coverage period; they had previously been blocked for hosting petitions calling for the resignation of top government officials and the repeal of harsh antiterrorism laws (see C2).

In November 2018, the independent news site Nasha Gazeta, based in Kostanai, a provincial center in northern Kazakhstan, was blocked for unknown reasons. ISPs denied any involvement in the blocking, and the site’s journalists had not received any warnings from the government.14

The practice of “undeclared blocking” had been observed repeatedly in the past. Other news sites, including those of international media outlets like the Daily Mail, Kyrgyzstan’s Kloop.kg, and the Russian-language Meduza.io, were intermittently inaccessible during the coverage period. One journalist reported that two other independent news outlets based in Kyrgyzstan—Kaktus.media and Vb.kg—were also inaccessible in Kazakhstan.15

SoundCloud, a popular hosting platform for podcasts and music, was temporarily blocked in September 2018, ostensibly for carrying extremist and terrorist materials.16 SoundCloud had been blocked for similar reasons in the past and was restored after removing certain content at the government’s request. Coub, a video hosting platform, was blocked in May 2018, also for hosting extremist and terrorist materials and remained inaccessible throughout the coverage period.17 Other hosting websites were intermittently or permanently unavailable during the coverage period. These included Archive.org, Issuu, LiveJournal, Reddit, Tumblr, and ustream.tv.

The Tor Project’s website is inaccessible from Kazakhstan, though it is not officially blocked. According to public records on Tor’s use, the numbers of relay and bridge users from Kazakhstan have declined in the past three years.18

The Ministry of Information and Social Development has been developing an “Automated System of Monitoring the National Information Space” to uncover illegal content online since 2017, although the system was not yet in use during the coverage period (see B2).

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 14

The authorities use various nontechnical means to enforce the removal of content, including direct pressure on outlets to take down specific material and similar requests aimed at international social media platforms.

In September 2018, Russian literary portal Prose.ru complied with a request to remove a page with allegedly extremist and terrorist content after the Ministry of Information and Communication temporarily blocked it.1

In August 2018, the ministry announced that more than 63,000 items of illegal online content had been removed at its request since the beginning of 2018. Nearly all (62,271) of these items related to supposed extremism or terrorism; other content was removed for glorifying suicide and violence (281), facilitating illegal drug use (590), inciting national enmity (205), containing pornography (52), and spreading “fake news” (11).2

In March 2018, the government asked YouTube, Telegram, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki to remove DVK-related content under penalty of blocking.3 The next month, the Ministry of Information and Communication reported partial compliance,4 and in July 2018 it warned that if a platform refuses to delete disputed content or groups, the government would restrict access to it for Kazakhstani users.5

According to its transparency report, Twitter received two requests from the government to remove a total of six accounts in 2018, and complied with neither.6 That year, Google received 71 takedown requests—the majority of them on national security grounds—from the government, covering 5,946 items. Google only deleted items in response to less than a third of these requests. In one case, the Ministry of Information and Communication asked Google to remove ”7 Image Search URLs, 17 Google Photos files, 10 Google Drive folders, and 595 Google Drive files,” some of which contained jihadist propaganda. Google ultimately removed 4 Photo files and 263 Drive files.7 In the same period, Facebook reported one removal request from the government.8 The company complied with the request, restricting access to a video “alleged to violate local extremism laws.”

In 2016, the Ministry of Information and Communication adopted new rules for the monitoring of media, including online media, for objectionable content using the planned “Automated System of Monitoring the National Information Space.”9 The authorities have continued to conduct human monitoring since then,10 but the automated system was expected to be in use by the end of 2019.11

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 14

While the legal framework and procedures for blocking websites and removing content did not change during the coverage period, the government has greatly expanded its authority to censor the internet in recent years, and extralegal blocking remains a common practice. All website blocking and content removal procedures lack transparency.

Minister of Information and Social Development Dauren Abayev has repeatedly declared that his ministry does not block websites and that, in the event that certain websites are inaccessible, users should blame ISPs.1 For their part, ISPs do not accept blame for website blocking; the STS, overseen by the NSC, has the ability to block websites on its own.

According to Kazakhstan’s Mass Media Law,2 all internet resources, including websites and pages on social media platforms, are considered media outlets. Under 2014 amendments to the law, the Prosecutor General’s Office is authorized to order ISPs to block content without a court order. ISPs must comply with such requests until the website owner deletes the content in question. The law provides no leeway for an ISP to reject the order or for the website owner to appeal.3 In 2016, the Ministry of Information and Communication gained the authority to issue takedown and blocking orders until website owners remove specific content.

By equating all internet resources with media outlets, the Mass Media Law makes web publishers—including bloggers and social media users—liable for the content they post, but it does not specify whether they are responsible for content posted by third parties. In 2015, the Ministry of Information and Communication stated that social media users could be held liable for extremist comments posted on their pages by third parties, as permitting the publication of extremist materials in a mass media outlet is an offense under the criminal code that can be punished with up to 90 days in jail.

Amendments to the Communications Law in 2016 obliged ISPs to monitor content passing through their networks and to decide whether to restrict any problematic material.4 The amendments do not specificity how ISPs are to carry out this obligation. The administrative code in force since 2016 imposes fines on ISPs for not complying with censorship orders.5

In order to avoid having a website or page permanently blocked and to escape legal liability, owners of internet resources must remove content that is deemed extremist or is otherwise banned. Once illegal content is identified, ISPs and the STS must suspend access to the entire website within three hours. The party responsible for the content then receives a request for its removal; if they comply, ISPs and the STS must unblock the website.6

Websites can also be blocked by court order, even in the absence of the defendant’s representative. No notification—to the public or the website owner—about the reason for the blocking is required. The courts frequently issue orders to block websites, banning dozens at a time, mostly on the grounds of religious extremism. The appeals procedure is opaque and has yet to be tested. An individual must apply for judicial approval simply to view court rulings on blocking cases.7

In 2017, the Ministry of Information and Communication launched a pilot version of a blocked websites roster, which users could check to determine whether a website was blocked by a court decision or government order.8 Many blocked websites were not listed. The roster was not visible on the new website of the Ministry of Information and Social Development, the successor of the Ministry of Information and Communication.

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 14

Self-censorship in the media is pervasive, even among independent online news outlets.1 The climate of self-censorship extends to private businesses as well.

A 2017 law prohibits anonymous online comments.2 Although this ban is loosely observed, it limits the space for free speech on popular news sites that comply with the requirement. Many users still engage in discussions on social media platforms—mainly on Facebook—but they generally avoid a range of taboo topics.

The designation of the DVK as an illegal extremist organization prohibits any mention of the party. As law enforcement bodies continue to pursue DVK groups on Telegram, bringing some participants to court on extremism charges (see C3), the chilling effect of the DVK ban is intensifying.

Despite long-standing and widespread self-censorship, more youth have become vocal on social media in the aftermath of Nazarbayev’s March 2019 resignation. A number of reformist movements, most notably Oyan Qazaqstan (Awake Kazakhstan), actively use online platforms to communicate their messages and coordinate offline activities (see B8).

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 14

Compared with print and broadcast media, the online media landscape in Kazakhstan is subject to less overt forms of restrictions on the free flow of information, such as progovernment propaganda and pressure to self-censor (see B4). While social media remain the most liberal setting for the public exchange of news and opinions, online discourse is prone to manipulation, including by commenters paid by the government.1 According to one analysis, the activities of paid commenters (dubbed Nurbots, after former president Nursultan Nazarbayev) serve to distract internet users in times of crisis and to play up the state’s successes.

Ahead of the snap presidential election in June 2019, the Central Election Commission (CEC) warned that bloggers and social media users should provide information on all candidates if they want to campaign for any of them, which is a misinterpretation of legislation that requires only state-funded media outlets to provide equal coverage of all candidates.2

Some users alleged in early 2019 that popular vloggers—united under the Salem Social Media brand and sponsored by Eurasian Resources Group, a large mining company with close ties to the government—may receive government funding.3 Similar practices are reportedly employed at the provincial level.4

In April 2019, Factcheck.kz issued a report on the government-sponsored troll farm Smmnetwork LLC. The investigation revealed the existence of a network of fake accounts that could be connected to the First President’s Foundation, a powerful state-funded nonprofit established by Nazarbayev in 2000.5

Civil servants, public officials, and employees of state-owned companies are obliged to follow a set of guidelines, published in 2014, on their use of the internet. The guidelines urge employees not to post or repost material that is critical of the government, and not to “friend” the authors of such material, in order to preserve the image of the civil service and prevent the dissemination of false information or leaks.6 Government officials were barred from using smartphones in the workplace beginning in 2016.7 In October 2018, the authorities announced that they would allow civil servants to use smartphones again, but some of their features would be blocked. A special system would reportedly be used to disable cameras at the entrances to government buildings.8

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 13

Most major nonstate online media outlets are affiliated with government officials or business figures with ties to the government. These outlets are likely to be recipients of government procurement contracts obliging them to produce favorable reporting. Indeed, many online media outlets are frequent recipients of such contracts, including domestic privately owned blogging platforms.1 The value of such contracts, whose details are kept secret, reached 47 billion tenge ($126 million) in 2018.2 The Legal Media Center, a nongovernmental organization focused on media rights, sued the Ministry of Information and Communication to demand information about the contracts, but a court rejected the case in January 2018, citing “commercial secrecy.”3 In 2019, the government planned to spend nearly 36 billion tenge ($97 million) on media contracts, and several billion more was to be distributed less transparently by provincial and local administrative bodies.4

Online news media are not required to register with the government. There are no serious restrictions on their access to advertising, but periodic blocking discourages businesses from placing ads on independent news sites. Furthermore, the digital media market in Kazakhstan, as in many other countries, is quite weak. According to the IREX 2019 Media Sustainability Index, most media in Kazakhstan depend on financing from their founders and owners or grants from international organizations.5 Online outlets’ ability to remain in business is also limited by certain regulations, including a 20 percent cap on foreign-owned stakes in any company.6

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 24

Despite the challenging business environment for independent outlets, a small number of respected and critical websites continue to operate in Kazakhstan, and they were joined by several newcomers during the coverage period. The restrictions on the online media market remain less severe than those on the traditional media sector. The 2019 Inclusive Internet Index ranks Kazakhstan 50th overall among 100 countries, citing the relative availability of internet connections and pro-internet attitudes within the government and the population at large.1 However, the country scored rather poorly on the quality of its locally produced online content.2

International social media and communications platforms are accessible and popular, although connectivity is regularly restricted (see B1). YouTube, VKontakte (VK), Wikipedia, and Instagram are among the top sites in Kazakhstan.3 Users can freely access most international news platforms, but only a small share of Kazakhstanis consume content in English. While there is much more domestic online content available in Russian than in Kazakh, including on news portals and social media, the volume of Kazakh-language content is gradually increasing.

Tools like VPNs are widely used to circumvent sporadic blocking, and there appears to be some semiofficial acknowledgement of this fact. When asked about Kazakhstan’s website blocking regime at the Eurasian Media Forum, Aleksandr Aksyutits, the head of Salem Social Media (see B5), dismissed the impact of the blocking by noting that people can use VPNs to access the restricted sites.4

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 26

Though users continue to share content on various topics, including corruption and blatant cases of injustice, the use of social media and other digital tools to organize civic activism and political campaigns is limited. Popular platforms are subject to periodic restrictions, particularly ahead of and during demonstrations. The authorities have blocked Telegram persistently since April 2018 to prevent users from accessing DVK group chats (see B1). Informants have even infiltrated critical groups on Telegram and other platforms to build cases for prosecutions (see C3). Online petition websites are also blocked to prevent campaigning for causes.

Discussions of political or social issues on social media are often eclipsed by sensationalist content that is widely shared online. Several campaigns were organized online during the coverage period, mostly in relation to Kazakhstan’s presidential election, though they had limited real-world impact.

In May 2019, activists and opposition figures used social media to coordinate numerous antigovernment demonstrations across the country, including on May 1 and May 9. At the end of April 2019, the Prosecutor General’s Office warned that organizing “unauthorized” demonstrations on “social networks and instant messengers” constituted a violation of Article 488 of Kazakhstan’s code of administrative offenses.1 On May 8, the authorities announced that several citizens were “brought to administrative responsibility” for participating in the May 1 demonstrations and that more would be charged if they participated in the next day’s rallies, as indeed they were.2

In April 2019, two activists, Asya Tulesova and Beybarys Tolymbekov, unfurled a banner that read “You can’t run away from the truth” during the Almaty Marathon. The banner also displayed two hashtags: #ForAFairElection and #IHaveAChoice.3 The activists were arrested, tried, and sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention, of which they served 14.4 Their friends who filmed their protest were fined. Using the two hashtags, many social media users offered vocal support for the activists. Dozens attended their trial and held an indoor public gathering on their behalf, while many more donated money to pay their fines.5

In March 2019, the decision to rename the capital city after Nazarbayev prompted numerous critical memes and other objections on social media, but the change went forward as planned. An online petition circulated in protest of the decision was blocked.

In early 2019, the Ministry of Public Development announced its intention to create an official petition platform,6 but this ministry was subsequently eliminated weeks later as part of the broader government reorganization that preceded Nazarbayev’s resignation.

C Violations of User Rights

Prosecutions of social media users on charges of extremism and distributing false information continued during the coverage period. Users also faced pressure from the authorities through enhanced surveillance, intimidation, or detention. Some were caught up in the government crackdown on dissent ahead of the country’s June 2019 presidential vote.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 16

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but this right is qualified by other laws and severely restricted in practice by prohibitions on defamation, publication of false information, and other speech-related offenses (see C2).

Although internet resources are deemed mass media outlets, bloggers do not enjoy the same rights as journalists, and even formally employed journalists face numerous restrictions on their work. In February 2019, for example, the Ministry of Information and Communication said it would further restrict journalists’ already limited access to events at state bodies.1 Police and progovernment thugs who harass bloggers and journalists are seldom punished and enjoy de facto immunity.

The president appoints all judges, and the judiciary is not independent in practice. The Constitutional Court was abolished in 1995 and replaced with the Constitutional Council, to which citizens and public associations are not eligible to submit complaints.

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 04

The government uses a number of provisions in the criminal code and the code of administrative offenses to restrict forms of online expression that may be protected under international human rights standards.

Article 174 of the criminal code prescribes up to 20 years in prison for the incitement of social, national, tribal, racial, class, and religious hatred.1 Prosecutions under this provision are widespread, and human rights advocates have repeatedly voiced concerns about the lack of clarity in its terminology, especially the concept of “social” hatred.2 Article 274 prohibits the dissemination of rumors or “patently false information, fraught with the risk of breach of public order or imposition of serious damage,” which can also be punished with fines and up to seven years in prison.3 Defamation and insult (Articles 130 and 131, respectively) are criminal offenses.4 Defamation may result in fines and up to three years in prison.5 Insults may result in in fines or up to 180 hours of correctional labor.6 The criminal code provides stricter punishments for insulting state officials, judges, and members of the parliament. Desecration of the president’s image and insulting the president or his or her family members are also criminal offenses (Article 373), punishable with a fine and up to three years in prison.7 Government officials and progovernment business magnates have a history of using defamation and insult charges to punish critical reporting.

In 2015, the Ministry of Information and Communication stated that social media users could be held liable for extremist comments posted on their pages by third parties, as this may be regarded as permitting the publication of extremist materials in a mass media outlet, an offense under the criminal code that is punishable with up to 90 days in jail. Users who post or share such content may be fined for its “production, storage, import, transportation and dissemination,” and in some cases, jailed for up to 20 years.8

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 26

The authorities routinely arrest and prosecute individuals for posting critical commentary online. A number of users were prosecuted for DVK-related online activity during the coverage period, while others were punished for political content related to the country’s presidential vote.

Ahead of the June 2019 election, several users and websites were fined for holding online polls to test voter support for the candidates. The CEC argued that, according to relevant legislation, such polls can be conducted only by specialized legal entities with clearly explained methodologies and authorization from the CEC.1

In May 2019, Zhanbolat Mamay, an opposition-aligned journalist, received a warning from the authorities after a debate he moderated was live-streamed. In 2017, he had received a suspended sentence for “illegal entrepreneurship” and was barred from engaging in journalistic work. The warning, issued by the penitentiary authority, informed him that his suspended sentence would be replaced with a jail term if he received a second such notice.2

In a novel April 2019 case, environmental activist Bolatbek Blyalov served 15 days in detention for a Facebook post in which he said he had filed an application with the city administration of Nur-Sultan to hold a peaceful protest against the planned construction of a nuclear power plant. The court explained that he had no right to announce the date and place for his action before getting official approval.3

The classification of DVK as an extremist group made it illegal to disseminate Ablyazov- or DVK-related content online, including through private messages.4 There were a number of arrests and prosecutions on these grounds during the coverage period,5 including the following:

  • In February 2019, a court in Aktau acquitted a woman on charges of “calling for the violent overthrow of the government” through her participation in a pro-DVK Telegram channel.6 The presiding judge was fired a few days after clearing the defendant, Aigul Akberdi.7 His ruling was immediately challenged,8 and the court put Akberdi back on trial in May 2019.9

  • In September 2018, Ablovas Jumayev, Akberdi’s husband, was sentenced to three years in prison for sharing content in a DVK Telegram channel.10 Jumayev insisted that he only posted in the channel prior to the DVK’s extremism designation in March 2018 and that he stopped posting after the ban. In July 2019, he was released from jail after the court replaced the rest of his prison term with a suspended sentence.11

  • In December 2018, a court in Almaty sentenced two men to eight years in prison and a third man to seven years in prison after finding them guilty of “inciting national hatred” and promoting terrorism.12 The three men, who are affiliated with the DVK, had been arrested under dubious circumstances a year earlier. They were reportedly invited to shoot a video in support of the DVK by an acquaintance—who was allegedly acting on behalf of security services—at a safe house furnished with jihadist symbols.13 Hidden-camera videos of the encounter were later leaked on the internet and used to bring charges against the defendants. Several nongovernmental organizations denounced the case as fabricated and politically motivated.14

  • In November 2018, a court in Almaty sentenced a man to four years in prison for a series of pro-DVK, antigovernment Facebook posts.15 He was found guilty of belonging to the DVK and offering “information support” to the banned party.

Authorities routinely use terrorism and extremism charges, including “incitement of hatred,” to prosecute online activity.16 Since 2015, the number of cases brought against citizens on these charges has risen sharply, with the most popular punishment being “restriction of freedom,” or suspended sentences.17 Experts emphasize that vague wording in the text of Article 174 of the criminal code makes it more likely to be applied arbitrarily, especially against internet users.18 Religious extremism cases often target individuals who share Islam-related content of a nonviolent or innocuous character, and human rights advocates have criticized the lack of expertise among judges and prosecutors in evaluating such material.19

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 14

The government places restrictions on anonymous communication. Since December 2017, users have been required to identify themselves using government-issued digital signature technology or SMS verification in order to comment on domestic websites,1 which can face fines for failure to enforce the rule.2 Some news outlets and other sites introduced identification functionality in response to the change, but more simply disabled their comment sections, inviting readers to comment on social media platforms instead.

The government is cracking down on VPNs and other anonymizing tools via court orders.3 For example, in March 2018, a court blocked the IPVanish VPN service.4 Encryption tools are not restricted, but most users do not employ them.

SIM-card registration is required for mobile phone users. The government also requires users to register all devices that use mobile networks—including mobile phones, tablet computers, and smartwatches—with their mobile service providers, linking a person’s government-issued identification document, SIM card information, and device IMEI (international mobile equipment identity) codes. The Ministry of Internal Affairs operates a database that collects data from all mobile service providers. Under 2018 legal amendments, unregistered mobile devices were to be disabled by service providers beginning in January 2019.5 However, in February 2019, law enforcement bodies admitted that there had been multiple “technical problems” that would require mobile service providers to further modernize their networks.6 It was unclear what this would mean for device registration. Authorities have presented the 2018 amendments as a means to fight mobile device theft, counterfeiting, and terrorism. However, human rights advocates warned of their effects on user privacy and their potential to enable surveillance.7

Since 2016, users have had to obtain an SMS code to access public Wi-Fi networks. Such authentication potentially opens the door to surveillance due to the country’s SIM-card registration requirement.8 Businesses can be fined up to 226,000 tenge ($600) for failing to comply with the new rules, while users can be fined up to 22,600 tenge ($60).9 As of 2019, more hotspots had introduced this system, but open access to public Wi-Fi networks remained the norm.

  • 1. “Парламент принял закон в пользу коррупционеров” [Parliament passed a law in favor of corrupt officials], Adil Soz, 21 December 2017, http://www.adilsoz.kz/news/show/id/2535
  • 2. Almaz Kumenov, “Kazakhstan: Online Anonymity Ban in Force from April,” Eurasianet.org, February 2, 2018, http://bit.ly/2t501ue
  • 3. Meyirim Smayil, “MIC commented on their fight against VPNs and anonymizers”, March 14, 2017, Tengrinews.kz, http://bit.ly/2oPyFWn; Askar Muminov, “Anonymizers outlawed,” [in Russian] Kursiv, June 8, 2015, http://bit.ly/1KWiYzw
  • 4. “VPN blocked by court decison in Kazakhstan” [in Russian] Profit.kz March 12, 2018, https://bit.ly/2HJKGmM
  • 5. “New Rules of Mobile Phone Registration in Kazakhstan”, Sputniknews, June 14, 2018, http://bit.do/eJoC2
  • 6. “Mobile Phone Registration: Police Says There Are Errors”, Profit.kz, February 8, 2019, http://bit.do/eJoYZ
  • 7. Vyacheslav Polovinko, “Kazakhstan Cracks Down on Internet”, Novaya Gazeta, November 2, 2018, http://bit.do/eJoTE
  • 8. “Kazakhstan introduced new rules for public points of internet access,” [in Russian] Digital.Report, March 16, 2016, http://bit.ly/1S3t3Nw
  • 9. Serikzhan Mauletbay, "Connecting to public Wi-Fi without SMS-registration may cause penalty", Tengrinews.kz, January 27, 2017, http://bit.ly/2m6TZ4Q

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 26

It is difficult to estimate the scope of government surveillance in Kazakhstan, but digital rights groups allege that large-scale surveillance infrastructure is in place. The government employs SORM technology, which originated in Russia and is similar to that employed by other former Soviet countries, for deep packet inspection (DPI) of data transmissions, among other functions. An investigation by the news site Vlast.kz published in February 2019 revealed a vast network of ties between Kazakhstan and Russia in the area of cybersecurity.1

In January 2018, new technical regulations for SORM developed by the NSC entered into force.2 Sweden’s Telia Company, which owned the mobile service provider Kcell, warned in 2017 that the impending new surveillance requirements gave the government real-time access to providers’ networks, threatening freedom of expression.3 Human rights monitors have since alleged that law enforcement bodies and special services watch and wiretap phone conversations of opposition activists without following proper procedures.4

Various authorities monitor internet traffic. The STS is responsible for overseeing cross-border network traffic through a system called “Centralized Management of Telecommunication Networks.” All telecommunications service providers must be connected to this system and are required to grant authorities physical access to their control centers.5 Kazakhtelecom, which maintains a DPI system separate from SORM, insists that it is used for traffic management and provides no access to users’ personal data.6

A fully automated software system that monitors online content, allegedly supplied by a firm close to the Russian security services, was expected to be deployed in 2019. According to documents leaked in December 2018, the system uses artificial neural networks to detect key phrases signaling politically sensitive content on both social media and messaging applications.7 The authorities dismissed the leaked materials, calling them “false.”

Activists using social media are occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who have prior knowledge of their planned activities. Reports have emerged that authorities penetrated group chats on WhatsApp and Telegram, based on claims by activists that they faced repercussions for material they posted only on the communication apps. It is unclear how authorities could have gained access to these closed chats, but it is generally understood that either there are informants in critical groups or police seize and access the phones of detained activists.8

In 2015, WikiLeaks published an exchange of emails between an alleged secret service official and Hacking Team, an Italian firm that sells surveillance software. The exchange suggests that the government might have obtained software to monitor and interfere with online traffic, including encrypted communications, as well as to perform targeted cyberattacks against certain users and devices.9

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 26

During the coverage period, telecommunications companies fully implemented the new SORM technical regulations (see C5), effectively granting the Kazakhstani government real-time access to their subscribers’ data.

There is a process that governs authorities’ ability to request user data from various companies, but it is not always followed. Security agencies can effectively access user data stored by the companies at will, as firms that wish to operate in the country have no means of resisting their demands. In its “exit report,” Tele2, the Swedish mobile service provider whose stake in Tele2-Altel was bought by Kazakhtelecom (see A4), noted that “it was not possible for Tele2 KZ to know how often the SORM system was used and whether the required warrant had been obtained.”1

Legislation obliges both fixed-line ISPs and mobile service providers to retain records of users’ online activities, phone numbers, billing details, IP addresses, browsing history, protocols of data transmission, and other data.2 Providers must store user data for two years and grant access within 24 hours to “operative-investigatory bodies,” including the NSC and other security agencies, when approved by a prosecutor or “by coordination with the Prosecutor General's Office.”3 The administrative code in force since 2016 imposes fines on ISPs for failure to store user data.4 Tele2’s “exit report” revealed that the company “started preparations to publish the number and nature of requests it receives from law enforcement to disclose historical (meta)data on customers’ usage of telecommunications services… but was not allowed publish the data.”5

Domain names using the .kz country code must operate on domestic servers.6 In 2016, through amendments to the Informatization Law, this data localization requirement was expanded to mandate that all personal data collected domestically by local companies be stored in the country.7 In late 2017, the government announced that it planned to negotiate with foreign social media and messaging platforms in an effort to persuade them to operate local servers that could provide easier state access to citizens’ personal data. It was unclear whether negotiations had concluded in 2019.8

Domestic website owners are required to retain commenters’ data for at least three months and provide the government with this information upon request.9

Kazakhstan’s so-called “national security certificate” was due to come into force in 2016, though progress toward rolling it out appears to have stalled.10 Initial announcements indicated that all users would be required to install the certificate—essentially a back door—onto their devices, which prompted security and privacy concerns.11 The certificate project was temporarily revived after the coverage period.12

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 25

The coverage period featured an uptick in violence against activists. Journalists working for online outlets, most notably azattyq.org, were also repeatedly subject to police harassment while reporting on protest actions in cities such as Zhanaozen,1 Nur-Sultan,2 and Almaty.3

After the coverage period, on June 9, 2019 (the day of the country’s presidential election), reporters from Agence France-Presse, azattyq.org, Eurasianet, Vlast.kz, and others were arrested,4 sometimes violently, amid a police crackdown that included the detention of hundreds of protesters.5

On May 9, 2019, a Vlast.kz journalist was briefly detained by police in Almaty while trying to report on that day’s protests. Many activists and bloggers were detained in Almaty, Nur-Sultan, and other cities on May 8 and May 9 in an attempt to prevent their participation in protest actions.6

Some activists who planned to participate in protests against the renaming of the capital city in March 2019 were visited by police or summoned to “prophylactic” visits with local authorities, as were those who questioned the legitimacy of the presidential transition and snap presidential election throughout April and May 2019.

On April 2, 2019, Svetlana Glushkova, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s "Current Time" online television service, was tried and fined for allegedly assaulting a citizen in Nur-Sultan who she claimed was preventing her from covering a protest.7

Stanislav Voytsekhovskiy, a resident of Temirtau in central Kazakhstan, was threatened with libel charges in August 2018 for raising awareness on social media about possible violations of environmental regulations by the Arcelor Mittal steel factory in his town.8 In September 2018, he was beaten by unknown attackers.9 Two weeks later, Voytsekhovskiy recorded several videos in which he apologized for spreading misinformation and retracted all his previous statements.10

In a positive development, a long-running criminal case against human rights activist Aleksandr Kharlamov, who had been accused of incitement of religious hatred for running an atheist blog, was dropped in June 2018.11 The case had been pending since 2013; in the intervening period, Kharlamov was subjected to arrests, house arrests, and forced medical examinations.12

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 13

Technical attacks against activists, dissidents, and online news media were not observed during the coverage period, but several cyberattacks against government and private targets were reported.

In February 2019, a group of hackers calling themselves KazHackMe successfully attacked the websites of a number of Kazakh universities.1

In October 2018, Kundelik, a web service that stores schoolchildren’s educational activities, temporarily crashed after a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) incident. The service, which has four million users, is hosted on servers belonging to the state-owned National Information Systems.2

In July 2018, the Ministry of Defense and Aerospace Industry asked KazNIC to disable 124 .kz websites for failing to meet cybersecurity requirements.3 Shortly thereafter, the ministry reported that it found 288 compromised websites on the Kazakhstani segment of the internet.4

Activists and dissidents were subjected to technical attacks prior to the coverage period,5 and some expressed suspicions that the government was involved. Opposition figures and dissidents in exile were targeted by malicious software in 2015. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that the attacks were conducted by the government via the Indian security company Appin Security Group.6 There are concerns among potential victims that these attacks will resume.

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

Previous Reports