Free the Kazakhstan Internet

Yevgeniya Plakhina

The InterContinental Hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is about as isolating an experience as you can imagine. The luxurious surroundings — and the ever-present security guards — effectively separated the several hundred journalists attending last week’s Eurasian Media Forum from whatever was going on outside.

So it was something of a surprise when that separation was breached last Friday afternoon. Between a panel on the global media crisis, which I moderated, and a panel on blogging, in which I participated, several people approached us with handouts, warning of proposed laws that would crack down on Kazakhstan’s burgeoning blogosphere. We exchanged pleasantries, and that seemed to be that.

Then, during the blogging panel, one of them — an audacious 24-year-old woman named Yevgeniya Plakhina, wearing a shirt that proclaimed “SHHH!” — got up and demanded to know why six of her friends had been arrested for demonstrating against the proposals.

The moderator, Vladimir Rerikh, a Kazakh journalist, clearly wanted the issue, and Plakhina, to go away. But Danny Schechter, a well-known American progressive journalist, spoke up on Plakhina’s behalf, and she was able to continue pressing her case. (Here is Schechter’s account.) The organizer of the conference, Dariga Nazarbayeva, the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, could be seen talking on her cell phone, leaving the hall and returning several times.

Afterward, Plakhina, a reporter for the newspaper Respublika, was hanging around in the lobby. I approached her for an interview and asked to take her picture. I explained that I would be posting her picture on my blog, and asked if that would create any problems for her. She said it would not, and posed willingly.

According to the materials Plakhina gave me, the Kazakh government proposes to regulate all online media — forums, chatrooms, blogs and social networks — by the same laws that currently govern mass-media outlets, which are not exactly based on the principles of the First Amendment. The legislation, if passed, could result in the blocking of foreign mass-media Web sites as well. In addition, the mass media would be prohibited from calling for peaceful demonstrations, according to the materials.

Plakhina told me that her group, For a Free Internet, began on March 2 by leaving comments on the prime minister’s blog — more than 70 on the first day, and 400 within a week. The comments were all expunged, she added, and moderation was turned on, making it impossible to leave any further messages.

On March 7, the campaign staged a flash-mob event in front of the office of the national Internet provider, she said. She gave me a DVD of the event.

I asked her whether she was surprised that she was allowed to speak. “Well, yeah, that was surprise. Maybe because they don’t know my face yet,” she said, laughing. She added that she may have been allowed to go on because Rerikh, the moderator, didn’t know what she was saying: “Well, thank God the moderator doesn’t speak English.”

Her friends were quickly released from jail. In an e-mail exchange yesterday, Plakhina told me:

Yes, my friends were released shortly after the session finished. I guess, the authorities were scared of international scandal, and released my friends. An advisor to the president on mass media Yermukhamet Yertysbayev has taken an active participation in releasing my friends. He came up to me at media forum and asked what happend with my friends, made a call and they’ve been released. They haven’t been charged with anything because we didn’t even start the demonstration (well, it was supposed to be a flash mob, not even a demonstration). Policemen had nothing to charge us with.

Kazakhstan is not North Korea, but neither is it a country where press freedom is firmly established. Several days ago, according to the Associated Press, an opposition newspaper publisher was imprisoned because he had not paid damages in a libel suit that, according to his supporters, was politically motivated.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Kazakhstan as 125th out of 169 countries in terms of press freedom. In addition, as Adil Nurmakov of Global Voices Online (one of numerous signers of Plakhina’s letter) has reported, the blogging platform LiveJournal has been censored by the government. (Not to get too self-righteous: the United States ranks only 36th in the Reporters Without Borders report, and 119th in its “extraterritorial” practices, including its imprisonment of an Al-Jazeera videographer at Guantánamo for six years.)

Plakhina’s group is trying to take advantage of the fact that Kazakhstan is about to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, arguing that the proposed laws are contrary to the democratic spirit of the OSCE.

EurasiaNet has a thorough account of the proposed legislation.

During my brief time in Kazakhstan, I got the impression that the government is trying to move beyond its repressive past. The country, a former Soviet republic, also seems to be an island of stability in a volatile part of the world. It would send a strong and encouraging message if the government drops its proposal to censor speech online.

For more information, you can contact For a Free Internet at blokirovke {dot} net {at} gmail {dot} com.

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11 thoughts on “Free the Kazakhstan Internet

  1. lkcape

    Welcome to the world that exists outside of the free democracies.I hope you have a heightened appreciation of the privilege that you are afforded by true freedom of expression that exists in our country.Everyone, Dan, is entitled to speak. And if Glen Beck is successful in is TV presentations, however uncomfortable it makes one feel, more power to him.Democracy is all about majority ruling and minority rights.If the minority is not allowed to speak, then your democracy is threatened.You may have found something about that in your trip to Khazahkstan.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Ikcape: You know what? I think democracy is threatened because I don’t have an hour-long talk show on cable news with a six- or seven-figure income. What do you think?In the U.S., fortunately, we all have a right to speak and write freely. No one has the right to be heard. I have a problem with a cable news operation that allows one of its hosts to insinuate, on the basis of no evidence, that the president is building concentration camps, and to deliver commentaries about the president while footage of marching Nazi troops rolls in the background.To suggest that Beck’s continued presence on Fox is a matter of free speech is to pretend that no one ever gets fired. Were Aaron Brown’s free-speech rights abridged when he was fired by CNN while hosting the best newscast on cable? Were Michael Savage’s free-speech rights abridged when MSNBC fired him for indulging in homophobic speech? Of course not.Please get a clue, then try again.

  3. lkcape

    You have the opportunity, Dan, it is there….GO FOR IT!Al Franken tried on radio and found that he couldn’t compete in the marketplace.You may want to make a quick stop in Tehran on your way home and see how censorship works, first hand.

  4. cavard

    Dan, I had a feeling something like this was going to break out at the conference. Please keep us informed on the status of Yevgeniya Plakhina. The fact that Dariga Nazarbayeva was seen making calls and kept checking in during the panel makes me suspicious.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    cavard: I plan to do follow-ups. Though Nazarbayev clearly is not ready to embrace democracy, it seems that he wants to improve Kazakhstan’s standing and image in the world. So this may have a happy ending.As for Nazarbayeva’s phone calls, it could be that she was making calls to get the demonstrators out of jail, given the delicacy of the moment.In general, I was impressed by the degree to which people felt free to speak. Adil Nurmakov (about whom more later), a member of the opposition, for instance, not only gave me a free-ranging interview for the better part of Thursday night, but he was also on the blogging panel on Friday.It struck me that there is a genuine effort under way to find a path toward more openness. I hope so.

  6. Peter Porcupine

    DK – Great story. The next time somebody asks what use such forums are, you can point to this as a concrete example.BTW – I hope you support the Electronic Freedom Foundation here at home as well!

  7. Mike

    The combination of pre-emptive arrests and people still willing to speak is interesting. Obviously there is not a major problem – I see very few news reports of people being arrested in Kazakhstan 😉

  8. cavard

    >>> As for Nazarbayeva's phone calls, it could be that she was making calls to get the demonstrators out of jail, given the delicacy of the moment. <<<Very true. Dan, I'm curious what Nick Daniloff or even David Filipov would have to say about the incident. They seem like the two best people to check in with.>>> It struck me that there is a genuine effort under way to find a path toward more openness. I hope so. <<<That's good. I think it'll come VERY slowly but it could happen. Look forward to your stories.

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