As ever more people in Kazakhstan get onto the Internet, the government is adopting expanding measures to limit access to websites they deem harmful.
Those efforts have earned the country a demotion in Washington-based Freedom House’s latest online freedom rankings to “Not Free,” down from “Partly Free” last year.
The watchdog found in its annual Freedom on the Net report that the government is increasingly cracking down on independent journalism and online content deemed extremist.
“The government also continues to pass restrictive laws banning certain content online and expanding its powers to shut down communication networks and media outlets,” the report found.
Freedom House said that the most significant cases of censorship target reporting on the Islamic State group. The authorities have routinely blocked not only content released by the extremist organization, such as recruitment videos targeting Kazakhstan, but also reports about it in local and foreign media, including EurasiaNet.org.
But there was also pervasive blocking of material unrelated to religious extremism, Freedom House said. Those included reports about the closure of the Adam Bol magazine, the possibility of Ukraine-style secessionism in Kazakhstan, and a minor ethnic clash in south Kazakhstan in February.
That public unrest prompted authorities to temporarily disconnect Internet services and block mobile telephone networks.
Law enforcement bodies have made wide use of a 2014 law allowing the prosecutor’s office to issue blocking orders without court rulings, Freedom House said. When blocking orders are sought, the courts frequently “review those applications in bulk and the proceedings are not transparent,” the report found.
In order to prevent the use of proxy servers to bypass online blocks, the courts last year banned any websites or tools that let users hide their Internet Protocol address, which determines the location of a given web-surfer.
Authorities have also adopted legislatives changes to instill a spirit of self-censorship.
Amendments to the Criminal Code that came into force in January stiffened penalties for libel, included harsher measures for online content considered illegal, and criminalized rumor-spreading.
The authorities have wielded the anti-rumor law with alacrity this year. Several people have been fined and one man was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail in August for spreading rumors about a fight in Astana.
“In addition to blocking and removing content, the online media landscape in Kazakhstan is also subject to less overt forms of restrictions on the free flow of information, such as pro-government propaganda,” Freedom House said. “Social media remains the freest environment for the public exchange of news and opinions, but discourse there is considered to be very prone to manipulation and propaganda.”