Briefing paper by International Partnership for Human Rights, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, November 2011
This briefing paper explores problems of censorship and control of the internet and other new media in Central Asia. It focuses on the situation in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the authorities closely monitor and restrict the use of the internet and other communications technologies, filter and block access to undesirable online content, and intimidate and put pressure on websites and internet users who publish or share information that is critical of official policies.
The authorities of the three Central Asian countries have sought to justify their repressive approach to the internet and other new media with the fight against ”extremism”, ”destructive” forces and other vaguely defined threats to national “security” and ”stability”. However in reality this fight is used as a pretext for implementing measures to stifle free speech and help preserve the governments’ grip on power. Broad and vague restrictions on access to and use of the internet and other communications technologies are in serious violation of international human rights law, which only allows for limitations on the right to freedom of expression in exceptional circumstances and in compliance with certain strict requirements.
Recently several initiatives have been made at the regional level in the former Soviet Union to regulate the use of the internet as part of the struggle against “extremism” and other purported threats to national security. Among others, an ambiguously worded draft “code of conduct” on “information security” has been drafted, and efforts are under way to create a joint mechanism to control social networks. These initiatives give rise to concern about enhanced regional cooperation undermining freedom of expression in the internet.
In spite of its proclaimed commitment to promoting IT, the government of Kazakhstan has created different mechanisms to monitor and filter online material. Access is regularly blocked to web sites that contain information that shows those in power in a bad light. As of October 2011, more than 100 web sites had been blocked for allegedly containing “extremist” propaganda, among them the popular blog community Live Journal. The online video portal stan.tv, which has provided independent coverage of the oil worker strike that is currently under way in the country, has been sued by authorities for allegedly violating health and safety regulations. Its journalists have reported intimidation and two of them were brutally attacked last month. The online news outlet guljan.org, which reports on corruption and other misconduct involving official figures, has been subject to invasive cyber attacks and one of its reporters was recently convicted on criminal defamation charges.
Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most hostile countries for internet users, with its monopoly state-run provider offering only a highly censored version of the internet. All online activities in internet cafes are recorded, while rates for private internet connections remain excessively high. New repressive measures have followed the July 2011 explosions at an ammunition depot, whose destructive impact the authorities wanted to hide. Security services have tried to track down internet and cell phone users suspected of reporting on the accident to the outside world; the website of Austria-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights was hacked after it published a set of stories about the explosions; and a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent who blogged about the events was imprisoned on trumped-up charges (even if later amnestied). A campaign has also been re-launched to dismantle private satellite dishes, one of the few remaining means for obtaining independent information in the country.
Aside from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is the most repressive country for internet users in the former Soviet Union. It is characterized by a pervasive regime of online control and censorship: material that does not please authorities is systematically filtered and blocked. Email and cell phone correspondence by “suspicious” individuals is subject to surveillance, and participants in online discussions on politically charged issues risk facing harassment, as did a number of arbuz.com forum users, who were arrested in early 2011. The recent launch of a new social networking site by the state telecom monopoly has raised concerns about growing control in this area of the internet. Internet users who openly speak up on social problems are highly vulnerable to intimidation and harassment. Recent victims include two women human rights defenders who published online articles about shortcomings in waste management, the care of old people, as well as the implementation of a reform to promote non-cash transactions.