Kazakh Web sites protest proposed law

Ruth Spencer of the European Journalism Centre, a sharp young journalist whom I met at the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan, last month, has an update on efforts by the Kazakh government to censor the Internet.

Citing a Radio Free Europe report, Spencer writes that several leading Web sites in Kazakhstan shut down for one hour on Wednesday to protest the proposed law, which I wrote about here, here and here.

At Global Voices Online, Askhat Yerkimbay has a round-up of what the Kazakh blogosphere is saying about the proposed new law, which has passed the lower house of Parliament. Yerkimbay concludes:

In brief, the Kazakh language bloggers’ main disagreement is that this draft law would make it possible to ban a blog for any reason, while bloggers would have no rights.

There is some hope that President Nursultan Nazarbayev will veto the proposal, according to Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for Global Voices, whom I interviewed in Almaty. For one thing, Kazakhstan is scheduled to assume the presidency of the Organiation for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE), which is a very big deal.

It could be that Nazarbayev will decide that signing a restrictive anti-speech bill into law would harm his country’s image at precisely the moment that he is trying reach out to the world.

An update on the Kazakhstan Internet

In my latest for the Guardian, I offer an update on a proposal to crack down on the Internet in Kazakhstan, which I earlier wrote about here and here.

Global Voices’ man in Kazakhstan

While I was in Kazakhstan last week for the Eurasian Media Forum I had a chance to interview Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for Global Voices Online.

I was having a hard time tracking him down, because my coal-powered cell phone doesn’t work outside the United States. (It does, however, use clean coal.) Fortunately Robin Hamman, an American expat social-media wizard who now lives in the U.K., let me borrow his iPhone, and I was able to make contact.

Adil and I walked about a mile to a restaurant where I had thought we might get some authentic Kazakh food. No such luck. We ended up at a British-style pub, complete with a snooker match playing on two flat-panel TVs hanging from the walls on either side of us. I did order some genuine Kazakh beer. It tasted like … beer. Quite good.

We spent a couple of hours talking about his life and career, then walked back to the InterContinental Hotel, where I conducted a brief video interview in the mezzanine-level press room that had been set up for the forum.

More on the Kazakhstan Internet

Yevgeniya Plakhina reports that those proposed amendments cracking down on the Internet continue to wend their way through Kazakhstan’s parliament.

In an e-mail to Media Nation, she writes: “Lower House of Parliament passed the amendments in the first reading. Of course, there’s an oppurtunity to call them back — senate and the president can. but it might not happen.”

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.

Coming tomorrow

Welcome, Danny Schechter readers, who may be looking for my blog item on an important Internet freedom-of-speech issue that we were confronted with during our time in Kazakhstan at the Eurasian Media Forum. The News Dissector, ever more diligent than I am, has already weighed in. I expect to have something up tomorrow morning.

Photos from Kazakhstan

Click here or on photo for Flickr slideshow

I’ve been too busy, and the proceedings have been too disjointed, for me to write anything yet on the Eurasian Media Forum. So, instead, I’ve uploaded a slideshow. Please have a look.