• Feature

As press freedom shrinks in Kazakhstan, journalists are standing up for civil liberties

Following Russia’s lead, the autocratic Kazakh government is moving to control social media, forcing journalists to defend their profession.

On Sept. 15, Kazakhstan’s lower chamber of parliament approved the first reading of a bill that broadly aims to protect children’s rights. In addition to clarifying the procedure for adopting children, establishing medical centers for children with disabilities, and refining the rules on how public schools choose textbooks, the bill casts a broad net to regulate social media and digital content. The stated goal of this particular provision is to tackle two serious problems in the country: cyberbullying and adolescent suicide.

Yet, in autocratic Kazakhstan, where authorities have a long record of censorship, it is important to look at the subtext beyond children’s rights. “They’re trying to convince us that social media monitoring is meant for the well-being of the children,” said Assem Zhapisheva, a freelance journalist and activist, “but this is largely an attempt to exert control over content creators and bloggers.”

In Kazakhstan, more than 45 percent of the country’s 19 million citizens use social media at least once a week for news and information — a rate on par with Ukraine and Peru, and well above Germany and South Korea. This dependence on social media platforms for information is both a blessing and a curse because social media is a notorious hotbed of misinformation, especially during the pandemic. Still, in a media environment where everything but pro-government content is starved of oxygen, platforms like YouTube, Telegram and Instagram offer independent journalists space for news and public debate.

If the bill passes, social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would need to register as local entities and remove content deemed harmful to children by Kazakh authorities. If a social media company refuses to register and appoint a Kazakh citizen as the head of the company’s local offices, it will be blocked in Kazakhstan under the new legislation. Mihra Rittman, the senior researcher for Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, is concerned about the effects of the law’s broad scope. “There’s no doubt that freedom of expression and access to information will be at serious risk if these provisions are adopted as they’re worded now,” Rittman commented over email.

Kazakhstan’s civil society immediately condemned the proposed legislation online, organizing an open petition addressed to the country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The petition, which has so far amassed over 10,300 signatures, calls the proposed legislation “an introduction of censorship which is expressly prohibited by the Constitution and international human rights standards.”

Indeed, although Kazakhstan’s Constitution protects citizens’ right to expression, the government has a long history of restricting press freedom. In the early years of independence, almost 50 independent TV and radio channels were in operation in the country. In 1997, Kazakhstan’s dictator-to-be Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a reform of the country’s media market that led to 31 channels — mostly those that were known for their critical reporting of the government — losing their licenses.

Freedom of the press only degenerated from there. Since 1997, more than 40 clauses regulating mass media have been added to Kazakhstan’s administrative code. The government allowed its allies to consolidate multiple outlets, instituted a strict registration system for mass media, and authorized the tax and law enforcement services to audit any media outlet in the country without due warning. These legal and administrative reforms led Kazakhstan to drop from 116th place to 155th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index between 2002 and 2021.

“We’ve been watching the government take control over the media using different methods,” said Vyacheslav Abramov, the general director of Vlast, an independent online publication that Abramov helped found in 2012. “By 2010 we saw the full decline of independent media in Kazakhstan.”

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  • 2010 also marked an early point in the rapid expansion of the internet in Kazakhstan. While only 4 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2007, by 2010 that number had reached 31 percent and continued to grow. The advent of new platforms — including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Telegram — created an opportunity for social media-based journalism. Kazakhstanis increasingly turned to digital platforms to conduct journalistic investigations, discuss and analyze events in the country, report on political protests ignored by pro-government media, and push against the official narrative. Some of these social media thought leaders were formally trained in journalism, while others have learned the tools of the trade on the go.

    Journalists working across these different camps are deeply concerned by the children’s rights legislation, but they are approaching the problem with different professional norms and beliefs about the distinction between journalism and activism. It raises the questions of whether a journalist can be an activist, and what is objectivity when the government forces one to take sides.

    “I ask myself this all the time. I don’t think I know the answer to this question,” Abramov said with a laugh. “Kazakh journalists have been under constant pressure for the past 25 years. When they sign open letters or, like their colleagues in Russia or Belarus, join protests to protect the freedom of speech, I think they stop being journalists and become activists. But in our realities, I think it is justified.”

    Lukpan Akhmedyarov, the former editor-in-chief of Uralsk Week, one of the last independent traditional media outlets left in Kazakhstan, also struggles to give an unequivocal answer. “I have been taught that you stop being objective when you become an activist,” he explained. “Journalism and activism shouldn’t be compatible. I wouldn’t join protests in a country with functioning courts and independent legislature and rule of law where political mechanisms work. Unfortunately, in most of the former Soviet Union journalists are forced to protest, to violate the norms of professional etiquette. We’re forced to blend journalism and activism.”

    Others are less concerned about professional norms and more openly embrace an activist identity. Assem Zhapisheva is one such journalist. In 2019, she live-streamed a large protest in Almaty, after which she was blacklisted by most traditional outlets in the country. Her previous articles were scrapped, and no one would accept her pitches. She moved online, starting a YouTube channel called “I Don’t Want to Cut My Tongue Off.” Having her own channel meant she could focus on the news that government-funded media ignore and topics that many consider controversial.

    “Today journalism and activism are heavily mixed together. Objectivity is a myth and it is impossible not to take sides.”

    Zhapisheva grew her YouTube channel to over 80,000 subscribers and over 6 million views in two years, making it one of the most popular in Kazakhstan. Her related Telegram channel has over 2,000 followers; she affectionately calls it her own “nonexistent radio station” where she gets to be more subjective with her content. In 2020, Zhapisheva founded Masa Media, a Vox-like project that explains to readers between the ages of 14 and 35 the complexities of the country’s political, legal and legislative systems in Kazakh and Russian languages. The project’s About page states that it aims to raise “a generation for whom knowing their civil rights is cool, progressive and vital,” reflecting Zhapisheva’s position that journalism and activism can co-exist together.

    “Today journalism and activism are heavily mixed together. Objectivity is a myth and it is impossible not to take sides,” said Zhapisheva, who grew up witnessing the shrinking press freedom in her country. “[Kazakhstan] is backsliding in terms of censorship. This is why [journalists] must be braver. It is no longer enough just to lay out the news. Each time we cover an eviction or a court case, we are telling society what needs to be done and what needs to be demanded from the government. We thus become activists.”

    Several other figures of the nontraditional media landscape also got involved because of perceived government oppression and ineptitude.

    After getting his undergraduate degree, Murat Daniyar wanted to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but decided that it didn’t sit well with his principles. Instead, he started the YouTube channel “Jurttyn Balasy,” or “The Nation’s Boy” in Kazakh, which today has 235,000 followers and over 22 million views. “I position myself as someone who cares about what’s happening in my country,” he said, explaining his motivations. “As a citizen of Kazakhstan, I know that our constitution allows the freedom of expression and prohibits censorship, and so I criticize the government when it does something wrong.” Daniyar is now seriously considering entering traditional politics.

    Adil Zakenov, one of the administrators of a satirical Instagram account “Le Shapalaque,” turned to socio-political commentary after witnessing the government’s injustices during his university years. Zakenov’s adaptation of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” into Kazakh political comics went viral, amassing him almost 55,000 followers. A typical Le Shapalaque comic, sometimes commissioned by international NGOs, cleverly uses pop culture and art references to shed light on the situation with women’s rights, adolescent suicide rates and civil liberties in Kazakhstan. “I think a democratic society is built on the understanding of one’s civil rights. The better people know their rights, the better they know what to demand from their government, which in the long term should improve our country,” Zakenov said.

    Regardless of whether they see activism as part of the profession, journalists and media figures in Kazakhstan are focused on leveraging their voices to stand up for their civil liberties.

    The odds of the fight are stacked against them, however, as autocratic regimes have the power and resources to stomp out dissent both online and off. Governments learn new tactics for repression from each other, exemplified with the diffusion of Russia’s foreign agents law across Eurasia in recent years — including Kazakhstan, which adopted a similar law in 2015.

    In Central Asia, a region where governments frequently adopt Russia-inspired repressive laws, local authorities are likely to closely watch and copy Putin’s tactics to restrict expression and association online.

    Similarly, Kazakhstan’s children’s rights law — and the prospects for controlling Western-based media platforms — did not emerge in a vacuum. Recognizing the dangers that digital freedom could pose to their rule, authoritarian governments around the world have been enacting legislation that limits social media. Turkey’s recent Internet legislation, for example, requires websites with more than a million daily users to appoint a local representative to enforce court orders to remove content. Tech platforms must also store user data within Turkey which may expand government surveillance of its citizens.

    Kazakhstan’s closer neighbors are also taking active steps to curtail internet freedom. In late August this year, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov signed into law a controversial “false information” bill. The new law compels internet providers to register their clients in a unified identification system and provide authorities with full information related to users if a court or a state agency requests such data. The law also stipulates that owners of websites and social media accounts must have their personal data publicly available while anonymous internet users would be located and cut off.

    On Oct. 13, the government of Turkmenistan used YouTube’s imperfect copyright rules to request a block of a channel that belongs to EurasiaNet, a news organization known for its independent coverage of Central Asia, Caucasus and Russia. The incident is not the first time Central Asia’s arguably most autocratic government used YouTube’s rules to block critical reporting. In May, the opposition-run Chronicles of Turkmenistan also reportedly had its YouTube channel blocked after complaints from Turkmen state media.

    These developments come on the heels of Russia’s September parliamentary election. In the run-up to the election, Russia’s government forced Google and Apple to remove from their stores an app that opposition activist Alexei Navalny used to promote candidates who were not affiliated with Putin’s ruling party. Telegram also removed some Navalny-linked information prior to the election. Both Google and Apple have local employees in Russia whom the authorities threatened to prosecute if the tech companies did not comply with the demands.

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    In Central Asia, a region where governments frequently adopt Russia-inspired repressive laws, local authorities are likely to closely watch and copy Putin’s tactics to restrict expression and association online. This is something journalists and activists are keenly aware of. “Because these tech companies agreed to cooperate with the Russian government, we all expect them to cooperate with the Kazakh government too,” Zhapisheva said.

    There are worrying signs of such cooperation already: In a widely-condemned move on Nov. 1, Facebook granted the Kazakh government access to its internal content-reporting system, which could allow the government to flag and remove content it deems “harmful.”

    But even in light of authorities’ efforts to restrict press freedom online and off in Kazakhstan, every journalist who we interviewed indicated one certainty — a willingness to adapt and to continue their crucial work, as they have always done. Kazakhstan’s new children’s rights law — and Facebook’s speedy acquiescence with the regime’s efforts to control digital communication — is worrying. Nevertheless, activists, journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organizations have repeatedly demonstrated creativity in the face of repression, taking advantage of social media platforms’ distinct features to advocate for causes big and small.

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