An international human rights watchdog has urged Kazakhstan to repeal controversial new legislation allowing the government to impose tight restrictions on journalists during emergencies.
The “blanket emergency restrictions” that came into force on April 12 are “unjustified and overreaching,” Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch said in an April 15 statement.
The new controls “expose just how far the authorities are willing to go to muzzle the media outlets and independent society groups they deem threatening,” Williamson added.
The decree governing “additional measures and temporary restrictions” obliges editors to seek prior government approval for anything they wish to publish during emergencies (which could include anything from political, social, or industrial unrest to natural disasters). It also gives the authorities the right to suspend or close media outlets and suspend political parties.
The restrictions are “barefaced government censorship,” Williamson said, and “extend far beyond any reasonable and proportional restrictions and violate Kazakhstan’s international commitments.”
The legislation comes into force as Astana watches the escalating crisis in Ukraine and seeks to keep a lid on any manifestations of discontent at home.
Public protest is relatively rare in Kazakhstan but there are pockets of disaffection. This spring Kazakhstan has witnessed a spate of sporadic, unrelated protests over grievances ranging from the devaluation of the tenge in February to land and housing rights.
On April 15 police detained a group of women and children who had chained themselves to the fence outside the prosecutor’s office in Astana to protest what they called the unfair seizure of land, Radio Azattyq reported. This was third time in recent weeks that Astana police have rounded up children brought along by their mothers to protests.
Kazakhstan has also witnessed small outbreaks of industrial unrest, with strikes this month in the western oilfields and the industrial city of Karaganda.
The last serious outbreak of unrest was in 2011, when a strike in the energy hub of Zhanaozen ended in fatal clashes with the security forces.
The authorities implicated elements of the media in that unrest and closed down around 40 outlets (as well as the opposition party Alga!) leaving Kazakhstan with few independent voices. Earlier this month one of Kazakhstan’s last surviving independent newspapers, Assandi Times, was closed by court order.
Kazakhstan ranks 161 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2014 World Press Freedom Index.