Kazakhstan: Social media crackdown suffocates freedom of expression online

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The Kazakhstani authorities are using increasingly elaborate and aggressive methods to stamp out dissenting voices on the internet and social media, Amnesty International said in a briefing published today.

Think before you post: Closing down social media space in Kazakhstan documents the steady erosion of the right to freedom of expression online in Kazakhstan over the past two years. The briefing reveals how the authorities use recently adopted legislative powers to shut down or block access to particular websites, and deploy administrative and criminal sanctions to target individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

“The independent media in Kazakhstan has been all but strangled, but the internet remained relatively free of government control until now. Not anymore,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.

“Now the authorities can, and do, track dissenters online and use social media postings to prosecute, convict and imprison human rights activists. Freely expressed opinions are becoming incriminating evidence in the courts.”

Since January 2016 all internet users are required to install a “national security certificate” that allows the authorities to scan communications sent over the HTTPS protocol, and block access to individual webpages.

Human rights defenders Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan were detained in May 2016 after posting information about peaceful anti-government protests. They were sentenced to five years in prison each after being charged with “incitement of discord” and other undefined “crimes” on 28 November 2016.  Amnesty International considers both men to be prisoners of conscience held solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

At least 32 others were detained along with Bokaev and Ayan and held for up to 15 days.

On 21 May 2016, when the anti-government protests took place, between 300 and 500 people were temporarily detained in Almaty, and access to Facebook and Google was reportedly obstructed for many users. The sites YouTube and Periscope were temporarily blocked.

While criminal and administrative sanctions have so far only been imposed on a relatively small number of people, their use is having a far wider “chilling effect” on freedom of expression in Kazakhstan. Activists and human rights defenders interviewed by Amnesty International said they believed more and more people feel that they have to “self-censor” what they write on social media for fear of coming to the attention of the authorities.

“Kazakhstani authorities should abort this unprecedented crackdown on social media. Human rights activists must be allowed to safely and freely use social media and the internet to raise awareness and prompt critical discussions,” said Denis Krivosheev.

“Kazakhstan must ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld by amending the administrative and criminal legal codes currently used to silence critics and lock up peaceful protesters.”

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