Kazakh government agencies and parliament have banned workers from using smartphones and tablets with photo and video features to prevent leaks of government documents. The move, which is in line with government measures to restrict access to information and limit freedom of speech in the country, has invited ridicule from Kazakh netizens.
On March 24, the newly-elected Mazhilis, the lower chamber of the Kazakh parliament, joined the government in banning smartphones and tablets form the workplace, Tengrinews reported the same day, citing the parliamentary press service. To facilitate the ban, which concerns the Mazhilis’s staff not MPs, special storage areas are being set up at the entrance to parliament. The Senate, the upper chamber, will follow suit at a later date, Tengrinews said.
Earlier in March, certain ministries confirmed that they intended to ban the use of mobile devices in all government buildings after an internal government document on imposing the ban was sent around on WhatsApp: according to the document, all staff members of ministries and visitors will now have to leave their devices before entering the buildings. At the same time, they will be allowed to use mobile phones without photo and video features.
“This measure is being adopted due to the active use by civil servants of the aforementioned mobile devices for work purposes and increasingly frequent facts of leaks of official information via mobile app WhatsApp,” the instruction reads. “However, it is permitted to use in government bodies mobile devices with ‘call/answer/SMS’ functions that are not equipped with Internet modules or photo- and video cameras.”
“We have received such regulations. Generally, this is a common practice among many [foreign] governments. I believe this is normal,” Health and Social Protection Minister Tamara Duysenova told journalists on March 17. Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov explained the measure by the fact that “many issues are top secret” at his ministry.
The ban has received mixed reaction from the public but most Kazakh netizens were negative about the measure and suggested that this was being done to mask the incompetence of people working for and in government. “God, one can somehow understand the adoption of quite incompetent laws and legislation, but the ban on smartphones is the pinnacle of stupidity and permissiveness of bureaucrats,” one comment on Tengrinews’s website read.
Kazakhstan is facing perhaps the worst economic crisis in its recent history and the government does not want the public to see official documents that may expose excesses in government day-to-day business or show incompetence of government agencies.
In 2014 the government adopted legislation to criminalise the “spread of deliberate false information” and punish it with a prison term of up to 10 years. The legislation, which came into force following amendments to the Criminal Code, was adopted after rumours of the bankruptcy of three commercial banks circulated on social media in the wake of a 19% devaluation of the Kazakh tenge in February 2014.
The ban, if implemented rigorously, will significantly reduce the leaks of official documents in Kazakhstan. With no official documents to back up hearsay, authorities will now be able to clampdown on moles in government agencies and crush them by bringing charges of spreading rumours. As a result, the already limited freedom of speech in the country, where the media is regarded as “Not Free” by the Washington-based media watchdog Freedom House, will deteriorate further.