New law to restrict online expression as Kazakhstan prepares for OSCE presidency

By bne IntelliNews July 3, 2009

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Kazakhstan's online community and human rights organisations are appealing to members of the country's upper house of parliament to reject a controversial new law on internet use. Opponents of the law say it will tighten state control of online media and restrict freedom of expression.

A key provision of the proposed law on information and communications networks, which was passed by the lower house of parliament (Majilis) on April 29, would extend existing regulation of traditional media to encompass all online media - from blogs to online shops.

If adopted in its current form, the law will also make it possible to prevent Kazakh users from accessing foreign-based websites - in the past access to news sites such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has been blocked by the country's main internet providers. The law would increase the list of grounds for suspension or closure of media, and increase the powers of the Kazakh prosecutor general to suspend websites and other media.

The internet has long been the main forum of expression for opposition activists, since government control of broadcast facilities and Kazakhstan's severe criminal libel laws have made it difficult for journalists to criticise the authorities in traditional media. "Recently, the government made some changes to the laws concerning the media. While these were welcome, we are not convinced that the changes get to the heart of the problems about freedom of expression," Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, tells bne.

Several popular websites shut down for an hour on May 13 in protest against the Majilis' backing for the law. Activists have also prepared a draft law "On fences," which seeks to define garden fences as mass media - the law is intended to highlight the absurdity of the law on information and communications networks, according to Tamara Kaleyeva, president of Adil Soz, a local organisation set up to protect free speech.

The timing of the new law is ironic given that Kazakhstan is due to take over the presidency of the regional security organization the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010. Giving Kazakhstan the chair of an organisation dedicated to promoting democracy was widely criticised, so Astana has been working hard to present its open and democratic credentials.

In addition to local demonstrations against the planned law, international rights organisations including the OSCE have spoken out against the plans. "There is a big risk the new law will restrict freedom of expression," says Denber. "Some amendments to the law could be arbitrarily applied to restrict freedom of speech, and given Kazakhstan's past record in this area, there are grounds to fear they will be used in that way."

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