Kazakhstan

Not Free
32
100
A Obstacles to Access 10 25
B Limits on Content 11 35
C Violations of User Rights 11 40
Last Year's Score & Status
33 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

Internet freedom in Kazakhstan declined during the coverage period, largely because the government restricted internet access as protests took place across the country and ensuing violence—which it portrayed as a coup attempt1 —broke out in Almaty in January 2022. More than 200 people died during the protests, including six people who were tortured to death by law enforcement, though rights groups claim the number is higher.2 Government officials compelled some outlets to remove their protest coverage, while journalists covering the events and Kazakhstani citizens faced unlawful detention and physical attack. An investigation into the protests was still ongoing as of June 2022. The government also enacted amendments to the Law on Protection of Children’s Rights, which compels social media platforms to appoint special representatives and remove content deemed illegal within 24 hours. Additionally, in July 2021, it was revealed that phone numbers associated with Kazakhstani oligarchs, political figures, journalists, and activists were included in a dataset of people that had been selected for potential targeting by clients of NSO Group, which produces the Pegasus spyware suite.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019, when he stepped down. Nazarbayev maintained significant influence over governance, which waned after the January 2022 protests and riots. Parliamentary and presidential elections are neither free nor fair, and major parties exhibit continued political loyalty to the government. The authorities have consistently marginalized or imprisoned genuine opposition figures. The dominant media outlets are either in state hands or owned by government-friendly businessmen. Freedoms of speech and assembly remain restricted, and corruption is endemic.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2021 - May 31, 2022

  • In January 2022, the government restricted internet access across the country as authorities responded violently to protests and ensuing violence, gradually restoring access after three days (see A3).
  • In October 2021, the government blocked news outlet HOLA News for 10 days because it refused to remove articles covering the findings from the Pandora Papers, which detailed how many associates of former president Nazarbayev kept offshore accounts (see B1 and B2).
  • In May 2022, President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev signed amendments to the Law on Protection of Children’s Rights, which forces social media companies to open a representative office and remove illegal content related to cyberbullying within 24 hours. The government of Kazakhstan has the right to “restrict the activities” of platforms that do not comply (see B3).
  • During the January 2022 protests, online journalists were detained for their coverage and attacked by law enforcement (see C3 and C7).
  • In March 2022, a court sentenced bloggers Margulan Boranbay and Danat Namazbaev to five years’ imprisonment for Facebook posts in which they called for political figures they deemed corrupt to be punished and for a change in government. In July 2022, after the coverage period, a court added two months to Boranbay’s sentence (see C3).
  • In July 2021, a joint investigation by Forbidden Stories, a French nongovernmental organization (NGO), and a coalition of news outlets found that Tokayev, other politicians, oligarchs, journalists, and activists were included in a list of potential targets of Pegasus spyware (see C5).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 5.005 6.006

Internet access has increased significantly over the past decade. According to DataReportal, there were 16.4 million internet users in Kazakhstan in January 2022, which represents an 85.9 percent internet penetration rate, a 1.1 percentage point increase from 2021.1 According to official data from the Ministry of Digital Development, Innovation, and Aerospace Industry (MDDIAI), 94.5 percent of households have internet access, including access to mobile broadband.2 The 2022 edition of Economist Impact’s Inclusive Internet Index, which measures a range of indicators related to internet access, reported that Kazakhstan had a 14 percent fixed-line broadband penetration rate and a 129.4 percent mobile penetration rate.3

The government’s Digital Kazakhstan program has met its goal of increasing the internet penetration rate to 82.3 percent by 2022.4 The country’s mobile networks continue to expand. According to official data, broadband mobile internet is available to 83 percent of the population as of April 2022.5 The Inclusive Internet Index reported that 81.3 percent of the population had access to fourth-generation (4G) networks, while 93.4 percent had access to 3G networks.6 Several mobile service providers piloted 5G services during the coverage period. In June 2022, after the coverage period, the MDDIAI announced that 5G networks would be launched in Almaty, Nur-Sultan (which Tokayev announced would revert to its previous name of Astana in September, after the coverage period), and Shymkent by the end of 2022, with networks launched in other “regional centers” between 2023 and 2025.7

According to May 2022 testing data from Ookla, the median download speed of a fixed-line broadband connection in Kazakhstan was 35.6 megabits per second (Mbps) and the median mobile broadband download speed was 20.6 Mbps.8

Most people access the internet from their mobile devices at home and at work. In cities, including Almaty,9 Nur-Sultan, and Pavlodar,10 high-speed internet is available in public transport and open spaces.

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

Both mobile and fixed-line internet connections remain relatively affordable, though operators have increased tariffs over the past year. Still, operators offer a range of affordable plans, including prepaid plans with free access to popular social media platforms and messaging applications. According to 2021 data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2 gigabytes (GB) of mobile data costs 0.8 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita, while a 5 GB fixed-line broadband plan costs 0.9 percent of GNI per capita.1 Due to the sharp devaluation of the national currency in March 2022 and subsequent price spikes, the cost of access may increase.2 The World Bank noted same phenomenon in a 2020 report, which partially focused on the overall economic downturn associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.3

Internet access is more limited in rural areas, where about 40 percent of the population resides as of 2022.4 As part of the Digital Kazakhstan program, the government has pledged to eliminate the digital divide between urban and rural areas5 using 5G fixed wireless access (FWA).6 According to May 2020 data, the government reported that rural and urbanized areas in Kazakhstan have the same penetration rate of 92 percent, mainly because of mobile service.7 Mobile service providers have also shared network infrastructure to facilitate wider rural access.8 Provincial governors have also complained about the quality of access.9

Internet access is distributed relatively evenly across Kazakhstan’s ethnic communities.

There is no apparent gender-based internet access divide in Kazakhstan.10

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 1.001 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the government restricted internet access during the January 2022 protests and ensuing violence.

During the coverage period, the government throttled internet connections and halted access to prevent information being disseminated about political protests and violence that took place in January 2022.

That month, nationwide access was disrupted in response to protests, which were triggered by rising gas prices and were marred by violent responses from the authorities and armed groups in Almaty. On January 2, the authorities throttled mobile internet services in West Kazakhstan Province, limiting the spread of information about local confrontations between protesters and law enforcement. The government also blocked mobile access at subsequent rallies in major cities in West Kazakhstan, including Zhanaozen, 1 Aqtau,2 and Uralsk.3 Then, on January 4, users reported trouble accessing messaging applications,4 and internet access was soon lost nationwide5 in a reported effort to prevent the “coordination of actions leading to mass disorders.”6 Some users were able to access the internet through proxy servers (see C4).7 During the shutdown, the government initiated a violent crackdown against protesters and armed groups.

The government justified the shutdown as a means to stop alleged terrorism. Mobile service providers Kcell and Beeline explained that “competent bodies” suspended communications as part of counterterrorist activities.8 Between January 7 and 11, as the protests subsided, the authorities gradually restored internet access,9 beginning with a handful of government-controlled news sites and banking systems.10 The government briefly restored access during Tokayev’s speech on January 7. Later media reports indicated the government initially tried to use Russian deep packet inspection (DPI) technology to filter internet resources in a “more pointed” manner, but when this attempt failed, the authorities decided to block access totally.11

The government had previously restricted mobile internet access at a number of smaller, local protests in 2020 and 2021.12

Certain legal mechanisms allow the government to suspend telecommunications networks at will. According to a 2018 decree, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the National Security Committee (NSC) have priority access to telecommunications networks as well as the right to suspend those networks in an emergency, or the risk thereof. The decree does not specify limits on the duration of network suspensions.

The NSC has controlled the State Technical Service (STS), the main body to centralize telecommunication networks and internet exchange points (IXPs), since 2017,13 assuming the authority to block content and disrupt internet networks for investigative purposes and to “prevent crimes.” However, in October 2020, the government reorganized STS into a state-owned joint-stock company,14 with two independent directors joining its board.15 STS still has the legal authority to censor content and restrict connectivity.16 The NSC can act without a court order, though it must notify other state bodies within 24 hours.17 A 2016 law empowers the NSC to suspend “networks and means of communication and access to the internet” in “urgent cases that may result in commitment of grave or especially grave crimes.” The NSC is not required to obtain prior approval to do so and can subsequently inform the Prosecutor General’s Office and the relevant regulator—the MDDIAI, as of 2020.18 Karim Massimov, the NSC chief through January 2022, was named the main conspirator of that month’s alleged coup plot.19

Since 2014, the Prosecutor General’s Office has also been authorized to issue orders to shut down communications services without a court order if “networks are used for felonious aims to damage interests of individuals, society or state,” including the dissemination of illegal information and calls for extremism, terrorism, mass riots, or participation in unauthorized public gatherings.20 Orders must be executed by either telecommunications companies or STS within three hours.

In 2012, amendments to the Law on National Security allowed the government to forcibly suspend telecommunications during antiterrorist or riot-suppression operations.21

The government centralizes internet infrastructure in a way that facilitates control of content and surveillance. State-owned Kazakhtelecom, through its operations and through subsidiaries, holds a de facto monopoly on the country’s backbone internet infrastructure. The state’s supervision of STS allows the authorities to exercise control over peering centers and international gateways.22 Amendments enacted in 2017 made the management of cross-border IXPs a state monopoly in the name of “information security.”23 In February 2019, KazNIC, the nonprofit registry for the country’s .kz domain, announced the launch of an independent IXP, but it offers peering only of domestic, not international, traffic.24

In December 2020, the MDDIAI and the NSC launched the “Cybersecurity Nur-Sultan 2020” drill,25 which mandated the installation of the National Security Certificate, a root certificate that could allow the government to spy on web traffic and conduct machine-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, for users in Nur-Sultan. Users who did not install the certificate reported problems accessing foreign websites and social media during the six-day drill (see C5 and C6). The government had previously tried to compel users to install root certificates in 2015 and 2019.26 In October 2020, users also had issues accessing Kazakhstan-based websites and international social media platforms (see B1).27

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 2.002 6.006

While the government does not actively keep new players out of the information communication technology (ICT) market, it did little to prevent the merger of Kazakhtelecom with two major mobile service providers in 2019, allowing it to control a large share in the mobile market.1 Kazakhtelecom’s only major competitor is the foreign-owned Beeline.2

There are several significant internet service providers (ISPs) in Kazakhstan, but Kazakhtelecom holds a dominant market position, controlling 75 percent of the fixed-line market and 78 percent of the mobile market.3 It fully or partially owns a number of other backbone and downstream ISPs. The state owns approximately 67.9 percent of Kazakhtelecom through Samruk-Kazyna, its sovereign wealth fund.4 Skyline Investment Company, a Luxembourg-incorporated firm whose owner is former president Nazarbayev’s nepher Kairat Satybaldy,,5 previously owned 24 percent of Kazakhtelecom;6 Satybaldy transferred his shares (including a 3.9 percent share from Alatau Capital Investment LLP) to the state in a donation agreement7 in April 2022.8 In March 2022, Satybaldy was arrested on charges of embezzlement concerning Kazakhtelecom9 and “other crimes undermining the state security.”10

In October 2021, Kazakhtelecom sold 24 percent of mobile operator Kcell’s shares on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange. They were acquired by Jusanbank, which owns mobile service provider KazTransCom.11 In April 2022, the government investigated whether Kazakhtelecom’s sale and privatization of ISP Transtelecom constituted a “violation of state interests.” In August 2021, 75 percent of Transtelecom was sold to Unit Telecom, a company run by former Prime Minister Nazarbayev’s grandson Nurali Aliyev.12 The Prosecutor General’s Office and Financial Monitoring Agency are conducting the investigation.13 Additionally, in April 2022, MDDIAI minister Bagdat Mussin voiced an intention to sell one of the Kazakhtelecom-owned mobile service providers, which include Kcell or Tele2, to private entities market to demonopolize the company.14

All mobile service providers were given the right in 2016 to offer 4G services.15 Since mid-2018, the government and mobile service providers have been moving toward the introduction of 5G services; pilot tests have taken place in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.16 Kazakhtelecom indicated its intention to become the sole 5G provider in Kazakhstan,17 but Beeline had been lobbying for an even field for all operators. Since 2019, operators have been launching 5G trials in Shymkent,18 Almaty, and Nur-Sultan.19

Companies providing telecommunications services require an operating license from the MDDIAI’s Telecommunications Committee under the Law on Permissions and Notifications.20 The Law on National Security limits foreign ownership of companies providing telecommunications services.21 Moreover, these companies are required to purchase and install equipment related to the state’s System for Operational Investigative Measures (SORM), a lawful interception apparatus (see C5), and to bear costs related to data-retention obligations (see C6). These companies are also required to cover costs related to the database of international mobile equipment identity (IMEI) codes (see C4)22 and to pay regular fees to the State Radio Frequency Service, the IMEI database operator. These obligations may deter new players from entering the ICT market.

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

The MDDIAI is responsible for the telecommunications sector (including ICT infrastructure), e-government, and cybersecurity. The Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD) oversees mass media, including online content. Until the first half of 2019, both online content and the telecommunications sector were supervised by the now-defunct Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC).1 Ministers are nominated by the prime minister and appointed by the president. The ministries’ operations are not transparent or subject to independent oversight.

The NSC has increased its power to make decisions about ICT infrastructure and online content. In 2018, a cybersecurity entity called the National Coordination Center for Information Security was launched under the NSC’s supervision;2 its workings remained secret.3

The .kz country domain is managed by the nonprofit KazNIC registry. The Kazakhstan Association of IT Companies administers domain names and regulates KazNIC tariffs. A 2015 law granted the government the power to appoint both the registrar and the domain name administrator.4

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 2.002 6.006

The government has extensive authority to block online content and can compel ISPs to restrict access to “unlawful materials.” If ISPs fail to block content in a timely manner, STS restricts access directly and the ISPs may face fines.

In January 2022, the authorities blocked access to independent news sites prior to a total internet blackout and after it partially restored access (see A3). Only a handful of government-affiliated information agencies were allowed to publish during the state of emergency, and others were allowed to work after internet connectivity was restored. Orda.kz, a critical media outlet, was blocked on January 4, before the general shutdown, and it was not unblocked until January 20.1 With their outlets offline, journalists at independent news sites, including Vlast and KazTAG,2 worked through Telegram channels. According to government officials, blocking was meant to disrupt illegal communications between criminal groups.3 On January 7, the government restored access to some state-owned and private news sites. In late January 2022, news site Kokshetau Asia was blocked for several days following the prosecution of its chief editor Nurzhan Baimuldin, who was accused of provocative actions during the state of emergency for his critical posts on Facebook (see C3).4

In October 2021, HOLA News was blocked for 10 days after the website refused to remove information from the Pandora Papers that implicated members of former president Nazarbayev’s inner circle (see B2).5

In response to an access-to-information inquiry, the MISD specified that in 2021, 10,578 pages were blocked, 90 percent of which were related to pornography, suicide, and online gambling. Through the first five months of 2022, 2,495 pages were blocked.6 According to Internet Freedom Kazakhstan, an independent advocacy group, more than 56,900 international and Kazakhstani domains were blacklisted as of April 2021.7

Users who wish to circumvent censorship still use virtual private networks (VPNs), although most anonymizing tools are blocked (see C4).8 The authorities have confirmed that they can block VPNs using court decisions or orders from the MISD (see B3).9

Archive.org, petition website Change.org, and foreign media outlets, including Kyrgyzstani news site Kloop and Russian-language news sites Fergana and Meduza, remained inaccessible during the coverage period. Issuu was intermittently or permanently unavailable during the coverage period. In July 2021, LinkedIn was blocked because of “violations regarding online casinos and imposter accounts,” according to the MISD.10 MISD officials claimed that the global networking platform failed to take measures following their appeal, but access was restored two days later, after LinkedIn reportedly complied with the MISD.11

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 1.001 4.004

The authorities use various nontechnical means to enforce the removal of content, including direct pressure on outlets to take down specific material and similar requests aimed at international social media platforms. There was a noticeable increase in cases of forced removal, particularly concerning political content, during the coverage period.

According to the MISD, 222,453 pages were taken down at its request, mainly over what it said were concerns related to extremism and terrorism. Through five months of 2022, the MISD requested more than 42,266 pages were taken down by websites.1 The government has not disclosed more detailed statistics.

In June 2021, an Almaty court ruled that activist Zhanbolat Mamay and his wife Inga Imanbay must remove videos that allegedly depicted Baurzhan Baibek, the deputy chairman of the ruling Nur-Otan party2 , engaging in corruption. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit from Baibek; Mamay and Imanbay were also ordered to publicly refute the claims made in the videos.3

In July 2021, the MISD sent a formal takedown request to Mediazona.ca, demanding the news outlet delete a photo of the vandalized mural depicting former president Nazarbayev with a clown nose. The website blurred the image to comply with the Article 373 of the criminal code, which criminalizes “encroachment on the honor and dignity” of Nazarbayev.4

In October 2021, HOLA News said it was blocked with DPI technology5 after it refused to comply with the takedown request that targeted a news article based on the Pandora Papers, an investigation that revealed improper financial behavior of rich and powerful actors around the world; material related to that investigation covered the activity of former president Nazarbayev’s inner circle (see B1). The owners and editors did not specify if the request was formal or extralegal. After 10 days of blocking, they took down the disputed news article and employees left the company in protest. Access to the website was later restored.6 Notably, a number of other media outlets that published the same content were not subject to blocking or pressured to delete it.

Amid the January 2022 protests, at least two major news sites—KazTAG7 and Fergana8 —received takedown requests from the MISD regarding their protest-related coverage and were blocked after they refused to comply (see B1). On January 10, an Orda.kz reporter was also forced to delete photos taken at Republic Square in Almaty.9

In April 2022, Roskomnadzor, the Russian telecommunications and media regulator, requested that Kazakhstani news site NewTimes.kz delete an article about the European Union (EU) sanctions against Russia, threatening to block it in Russia if it fails to comply. The request was sent to the hosting company. The outlet decided to comply.10

According to Meta’s calendar-year 2021 transparency report, Facebook did not restrict any content based on requests from the Kazakhstani government.11 During the same period, Google received 160 takedown requests from the authorities. The requests mostly concerned material criticizing the government or threatening national security—mainly targeting YouTube videos. Google removed 0.5 percent of the requested items in the first half of 2021 and 4.9 percent in the second half.12 The government did not make any removal requests to Twitter during the reported period.13

In 2016, the AKM adopted new rules for the monitoring of media, including social media, using the planned Automated System of Monitoring the National Information Space14 to uncover illegal content online. The authorities have continued to conduct manual monitoring since then.15 The system, which reportedly cost $4.5 million,16 became operational in 2020, according to the government’s response to an access-to-information request.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 1.001 4.004

Extralegal blocking remains a common practice and website blocking and content-removal procedures lack transparency. During the coverage period, the government passed a law that expands its ability to demand the removal of content.

According to the Mass Media Law,1 all internet resources, including websites and pages on social media platforms, are considered media outlets. Under 2014 amendments to the law, the Prosecutor General’s Office is authorized to order ISPs to block content without a court order. ISPs must comply with such requests until the website owner deletes the content in question. The law provides no leeway for an ISP to reject the order or for the website owner to appeal.2 In 2016, the AKM gained the authority to issue takedown and blocking orders until website owners remove specific content. The NSC has the right to suspend access to websites or information they host “in cases of emergency that may result in criminal actions” autonomously and need only notify the Prosecutor General’s Office and regulator afterward.

By equating all internet resources with media outlets, the Mass Media Law makes web publishers—including bloggers and social media users—liable for the content they post, but the law does not specify whether publishers are responsible for content posted by third parties. In 2015, the AKM stated that social media users could be held liable for extremist comments posted on their pages by third parties, as permitting the publication of extremist materials in a mass media outlet is an offense under the criminal code that can be punished with up to 90 days in prison.

Under amendments made in September 2020, websites in the .kz and .ҚАЗ domain names can be suspended if they are physically hosted outside of Kazakhstan, do not have a safety certificate (see A3 and C6), or their software is hosted outside of Kazakhstan.3 In December 2020, the regulator said the amendments were needed to manage domestic data centers’ workload and to pursue “digital sovereignty.”4

Amendments to the Communications Law in 2016 obliged ISPs to monitor content passing through their networks and to decide whether to restrict any problematic material.5 The amendments do not specify how ISPs are to carry out this obligation. The administrative code, in force since 2016, imposes fines on ISPs for not complying with censorship orders.6

In order to avoid having a website or page permanently blocked and to escape legal liability, owners of internet resources must remove content that is deemed extremist or is otherwise banned. Once illegal content is identified, ISPs and STS must suspend access to the entire website within three hours. The party responsible for the content then receives a request for its removal; if the party complies, ISPs and STS must unblock the website.7

Websites can also be blocked by court order, even in the absence of the defendant’s representative. No notification—to the public or the website owner—about the reason for the blocking is required. The courts frequently issue orders to block websites, banning dozens at a time, mostly on the grounds of religious extremism. The appeals procedure is opaque. An individual must apply for judicial approval simply to view court rulings on blocking cases.8

In May 2022, the government enacted the Law on Amendments and Additions to Some Legislative Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the Protection of the Rights of the Child, Education, Information and Informatization, also referred to as the Cyberbullying Law or the Law on Protection of Children’s Rights. The amendments compel websites, messaging applications, and social media platforms to delete illegal content related to cyberbullying in 24 hours, and grants the government the authority to “restrict the activity” of non-compliant platforms.9 Under the amendments, platforms with at least 100,000 daily users are also required to appoint a special representative for direct communication with the MISD to promptly react to content-removal requests within 24 hours of such a request.10

In September 2021, parliamentarians Aidos Sarym and Dinara Zakieva initially introduced the measures in the law, billed as a draft law on “landing” international social media and messaging platforms. The draft law would have compelled these services to directly cooperate with authorities to promptly delete content deemed illegal. The draft legislation used the protection of children and cyberbullying concerns as pretexts, similar to recent Russian and Uzbekistani legislation. If the platform failed to comply with the regulation within six months of the bill’s adoption, it would be blocked entirely.11 The draft law suggested that the MISD could order blocking without a court ruling.12 In September and October 2022, the government reportedly held negotiations with most popular platforms regarding the proposal.13

In March 2022, the Mazhilis, Parliament’s lower chamber, passed a version of the law, which did not grant he MISD the authority to block platforms without a court order.14 However, the government still reserves the right to “restrict [non-compliant platform’s] activities.”

In mid-April 2022, the Senate sent its amendments to the Mazhilis, which removed some of the most controversial provisions. Under the updated version of the law, the MISD is only authorized to seek deletion of illegal content, without the direct authority to block or restrict access to websites, messaging services, or social media platforms. A special expert group would need to confirm cyberbullying incidents against children. According to Senate chairperson Maulen Ashimbayev, this would “strike a reasonable balance between the need to promptly react to cyberbullying that targets children and the public need to access the information.”15 In early May 2022, President Tokayev signed the law into force.16

In April 2022, new draft amendments to the governmental decree that regulates the MISD’s authority were made public. Some provisions in the amendments appear to bolster the MISD’s ability to enforce measures in the Cyberbullying Law. For example, the MISD is authorized to request the number of daily users of messaging apps and social media platforms in Kazakhstan. It is also authorized to restrict the work of these internet resources in cases of noncompliance. Also, the draft regulation commissions the MISD with maintenance of the unified roster of banned internet resources.17

In November 2021, as Parliament considered the Cyberbullying Law, the government was granted access to the Facebook’s internal content reporting system (CRS) following talks with the company. The government announced that they had gained “exclusive access” to the CRS in a “joint” announcement with Meta, which denied this claim; it clarified that CRS is their standard channel for governments to report harmful content.18 Facebook reportedly held a training exercise with Kazakhstani officials on CRS usage and authorized a special representative for communication with the MISD.19

In 2017, the AKM launched a pilot version of a blocked websites roster, which users could check to determine whether a website was blocked. Many blocked websites were not listed.20

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 1.001 4.004

Self-censorship in the media is pervasive, even among independent online news outlets, because existing legislation often contains ambiguity. The climate of self-censorship also extends to private businesses. However, after the resignation of former president Nazarbayev in 2019, many users have visibly become more outspoken in online discussions even as most generally avoid a range of taboo topics. Online media workers continue to test boundaries, despite facing legal harassment and physical violence (see C3 and C7).

The January 2022 protests and the ensuing crackdown sparked a wave of legal and extralegal prosecution of critics and content-removal orders (see B2 and C3). In March 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a statement urging Kazakhstani citizens to refrain from sharing provocative information, information considered false, or inciting hatred while discussing the Russia-Ukraine conflict online.1

A 2017 law prohibits anonymous online comments (see C4).2 Although this ban is loosely observed, it limits the space for free speech on popular news sites that comply.

In September 2021, the Village Kazakhstan outlet published an article that followed up on a 2018 child abuse case in South Kazakhstan. According to author Assem Zhapisheva and the media outlet’s editorial office, they faced a series of informal takedown requests and threats from “undefined individuals from various state agencies.” The website refused to delete the article.3

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 1.001 4.004

Compared with print and broadcast media, the online media landscape in Kazakhstan is subject to less overt forms of restrictions on the free flow of information, such as progovernment propaganda and pressure to self-censor (see B4). While social media platforms remain the most liberal setting for the public exchange of news and opinions, online discourse is prone to manipulation, including by commentators paid by the government.1 According to one analysis, the activities of paid commentators (dubbed Nurbots, after Nazarbayev) serve to distract internet users in times of crisis and to play up the state’s successes.

During the January 2022 protests and ensuing violence, information was scarce and there were instances of unverifiable information spread by government officials. For example, President Tokayev claimed 20,000 terrorists had attacked Kazakhstan. The unsubstantiated allegation that was later said by analyst close to the presidential administration to be deliberate misinformation funneled to the president by conspirators from the National Security Committee leadership.2 Later, president Tokayev himself confirmed this claim.3 Disinformation also spread through messaging services. The government also pledged to “punish those spreading ‘falsehoods and rumors’ online.”4

During the COVID-19 pandemic, President Tokayev called on the MISD, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and other state bodies to “pay close attention to the dissemination of rumors and provocative reports.”5 The pandemic did generate a wave of misinformation,6 as local social media influencers spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19.7 In response, the MISD launched StopFake.kz, a website that aims to verify or rebut information spread online.8

Authorities have cultivated close ties to social media influencers. Some observers alleged in 2019 that Salem Social Media, a video production company in Kazakhstan helmed by a former Amanat spokesperson,9 may receive government funding10 and buy off bloggers.11 Similar practices are reportedly employed at the provincial level.12

Following Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Margulan Akan, an editor at Bugin Media, reported that a government official privately requested he write a Facebook post in support of the Kremlin-helmed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Though he declined the request, he soon began to see government officials and social media users post similar text in support of the EAEU. According to Bella Orynbetova, a journalist who used to work for pro-government media outlets, individuals or entities associated with the government will pay influencers 50,000 tenge ($98) to post in support of government policies.13

In December 2020, Facebook identified a network of 59 accounts, on both Facebook and Instagram, connected to the NSC and an antiextremism unit of a regional police department which became active after a wave of political protests in 2019 and 2020 but was largely inactive by the time Facebook removed it from the platform.14

Officials, civil servants, and employees of state-owned companies are obliged to follow a set of guidelines on their internet use. These guidelines urge them not to post or repost materials that are critical of the government and not to “friend” the authors of such material to preserve the image of the public sector and prevent the dissemination of false information or leaks.15

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 1.001 3.003

Most major nonstate online news media outlets are affiliated with government officials or business figures with ties to the government. These outlets are likely to be recipients of government procurement contracts to produce favorable reporting. Indeed, many outlets, including domestic privately owned blogging platforms, are frequent recipients of such contracts.1 According to IREX’s 2022 Vibrant Information Barometer (VIBE), many media outlets that receive state funding avoid angering the government to ensure more funding and try not to disclose that they are recipients of state funding.2

Shortly ahead of the January 2021 elections, several NGOs, including media watchdogs Medianet and Legal Media Center, were pressured by the tax authorities for alleged violations of foreign funding procedures, which could result in paralyzing fines and potentially total shutdowns.3 The tax claims were repealed in March 2021.4

During the war in Ukraine, independent news outlet Uralskaya Nedelya reported that one of its major advertisers pulled their advertisements from the publication because of its allegedly “anti-Russian” coverage of the invasion and Instagram posts the outlet published advising readers on how to help provide medicine to Ukrainians.5

According to research conducted by the Soros Foundation Kazakhstan, the government spent 41.7 to 47.1 billion tenge ($94.6 to $106.9 million) annually between 2016 and 2020 to implement its information agenda.6 The Legal Media Center, an NGO focused on media rights, sued the AKM to demand information about all media contracts, but a court rejected the case in January 2018, citing “commercial secrecy,” a talking point the MISD repeated when it faced similar questions in October 2020.7 Overall, the volume of state media contracts has exceeded the overall advertising market for several years in a row.8 Although the government made it difficult to trace and generalize data regarding state procurement contracts with mass media outlets, NGOs assert that the total amount of spending may reach 100 billion tenge a year ($226.9 million).9

Online news media are not required to register with the government. There are no serious restrictions on their access to advertising, but periodic blocking discourages businesses from placing ads on independent news sites. Furthermore, the digital media market in Kazakhstan, as in many other countries, is quite small. According to the 2022 VIBE, most media in Kazakhstan depend on state financing or grants from international organizations.10 Online outlets’ ability to remain in business is also limited by certain regulations, including a 20 percent cap on foreign stakes in any company.11

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 2.002 4.004

Despite the challenging business environment for independent outlets, a small number of respected and critical websites continue to operate in Kazakhstan. The restrictions on the online media market remain less severe than those on the traditional media sector.

International social media and communications platforms are accessible and popular, although connectivity is sometimes restricted (see A3 and B1). YouTube, VK, and Wikipedia are among the top sites in Kazakhstan.1 According to DataReportal, which measures aggregate users across various platforms as opposed to unique individuals, there were 13.8 million social media users in Kazakhstan as of January 2022.2

Three of Kazakhstan’s most popular domestic online news outlets are owned by the government, while six more have a progovernment bent, according to 2019 research from the Center for Media, Data, and Society at Central European University.3 A 2021 study showed that media consumption during the COVID-19 crisis was dominated by social media and the total number of Kazakhstani social media users increased 26 percent, amounting to 12 million people.4

Users can freely access most international news platforms, but only a small percentage of Kazakhstanis consume content in English. While there is much more domestic online content available in Russian than in Kazakh, including on news portals and social media, the volume of Kazakh-language content is gradually increasing.

Tools like VPNs are widely used to circumvent sporadic blocking, although the authorities have blocked some VPN services.

All public institutions are required to provide at least Kazakh- and Russian-language versions of their websites, and many private-sector entities follow this example. The country has started transitioning from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet, with the stated aim of making the Kazakh language compatible with most encoding and fonts for digital communications.5

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 2.002 6.006

Social media platforms and other digital tools are used for civic and political organizing in Kazakhstan. Popular platforms are subject to periodic restrictions, particularly ahead of and during demonstrations. Discussions of political or social issues on social media platforms are often eclipsed by sensationalist content that is widely shared online.

During and after the January 2022 protests and the ensuing violence, the authorities claimed they disrupted online communications to prevent the spread of information and use of apps for coordinating “riots.” They also cracked down on individuals who shared footage of the events (see C3). However, shortly after the January 2022 protests, civil society and the general public started to advocate for more significant political transformation that Tokayev had promised when he was elected in 2019. This resulted in a significant activity both online1 and offline2 , including multiple online petitions as well as a number of rallies and humanitarian initiatives that generated participants, mainly through social media. For example, in March 2022, over 2,000 people attended a rally supporting Ukraine.3

In September 2021, civil society representatives created a petition against the Cyberbullying Law (see B3).4 In March and April 2022, people who opposed the bill held protests in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.5

The authorities sometimes block messaging apps or internet access ahead of protests to prevent users from accessing group chats to coordinate protest actions, including those run by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (QDT), a banned opposition party. Informants have infiltrated critical groups on Telegram and other platforms to build cases for prosecutions. At the end of April 2019, the Prosecutor General’s Office warned that organizing “unauthorized” demonstrations on “social networks and instant messengers” constitutes a violation of Article 488 of the administrative code.6

Many online petition websites remain blocked to prevent campaigning. In early 2019, the Ministry of Public Development announced its intention to create an official petition platform,7 but the process was put on hold. In February 2020, the MISD announced it was developing a service called E-petition that would enable citizens to create petitions and sign them with certified electronic signatures.8 In early June 2021, the MISD reported that it drafted relevant amendments to the administrative code and draft law on public oversight, but the law had not been presented to Parliament by the end of the coverage period.9

Police routinely summon activists ahead of planned protests to warn them against holding demonstrations, intimating that they will face consequences,10 or preemptively detain them to prevent their participation.11

C Violations of User Rights

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 1.001 6.006

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but this right is qualified by other laws and severely restricted in practice by prohibitions on defamation, publication of false information, and other speech-related offenses (see C2). During the protests and ensuing violence in January 2022, Tokayev declared a state of emergency, which criminalized “mass gatherings.”1

Although internet resources are deemed mass media outlets, bloggers do not enjoy the same rights as journalists, and even formally employed journalists face numerous restrictions on their work. In February 2019, for example, the AKM said it would further restrict journalists’ already limited access to events at state bodies.2 Police and government supporters who harass bloggers and journalists are seldom punished and enjoy de facto immunity. Nevertheless, the government’s plan for the development of Kazakhstan’s information sphere, adopted in April 2020, envisions raising the profile of bloggers, including by according them the right to be accredited by various government institutions.3

The president appoints all judges, and the judiciary is not independent in practice. The Constitutional Court was abolished in 1995 and replaced with the Constitutional Council, to which citizens and public associations are not eligible to submit complaints.

  • 1Valerie Hopkins, “Kazakhstan Declares State of Emergency as Protests Over Fuel Prices Spread,” January 4, 2022, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/04/world/europe/kazakhstan-emergency-pr….
  • 2" Большая часть журналистов не сможет получить аккредитацию": юрист комментирует приказ министра Абаева [Most journalists won't get accreditation]," Current Time TV, February 14, 2019, https://www.currenttime.tv/a/29770437.html.
  • 3Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Institute of Legislation and Legal Information, “НАЦИОНАЛЬНЫЙ ПЛАН РАЗВИТИЯ СФЕРЫ ИНФОРМАЦИИ НА 2020-2022 ГОДЫ [National plan on development of information sphere for 2020-2022],” Adilet.Zan, April 7, 2020, http://adilet.zan.kz/rus/docs/P2000000183#z13.
C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 0.000 4.004

The government uses a number of provisions in the criminal code and the code of administrative offenses to restrict forms of online expression that may be protected under international human rights standards.1 Vaguely worded legislation leaves ample space for interpreting criticism and opinions as defamation or extremism.

Article 174 of the criminal code prescribes up to 20 years in prison for the incitement of class, ethnic, national, religious, or social hatred.2 Prosecutions under this provision are widespread, and human rights advocates have repeatedly voiced concerns about the lack of clarity in its terminology, especially the concept of “social” hatred.3 Article 179 prescribes 5 to 10 years in prison for “propaganda or public calls” for the seizure of power or “forcible change of the constitutional order,” when made using mass media or telecommunications, while Article 256 prescribes 7 to 12 years in prison for “public appeals to commit an act of terrorism” made through the same means.4 Article 274 prohibits the dissemination of rumors or “knowingly false information that creates the danger of disrupting public order or causing substantial harm” to citizens, organizations, or the state, which is also punishable by up to seven years in prison in the most extreme cases.5

In June 2020, President Tokayev signed into law amendments decriminalizing defamation.6 The amendments move defamation from Article 130 of the criminal code to the code of administrative offenses, which entails a $1,000-to-$3,500 fine or 15-to-20-day administrative detention period. If the act of defamation was made publicly, via mass media, or on ICT networks, the fine increases to between $1,200 and $4,200, and the time in detention increases to 20 to 25 days. Moreover, if the act of defamation contains accusations of corruption against a public official, the administrative detention period can reach up to 30 days. Under these amendments, Article 174 remains in the criminal code, although the word “provocation” was changed to “incitement,” and violators can face fines ranging from $13,000 to $45,000, instead of prison sentences in some cases.7

However, insult remains a crime. The criminal code provides stricter punishments for insulting state officials, judges, and lawmakers. Desecration of the president’s image and insulting the president or the president’s family members are also criminal offenses (Article 373), punishable with a fine and up to three years in prison.8 Government officials and progovernment business magnates have a history of using defamation and insult charges to punish critical reporting.

In 2015, the AKM stated that social media users could be held liable for extremist comments posted on their pages by third parties, an offense under Article 183 of the criminal code that is punishable by up to 50 days in jail.9 Users who post or share such content may be fined for its “production, storage, import, transportation and dissemination,” and in some cases, jailed for up to 20 years under Article 174 of the criminal code.10

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 2.002 6.006

Individuals, including journalists, are frequently penalized for online activities. In 2021, media rights watchdog group Adil Soz recorded 28 criminal, 29 administrative, and 67 civil cases against media and individual journalists.1 The group’s statistics do not differentiate between online and offline authors.

During the protests and the subsequent state of emergency of January 2022, both journalists and regular internet users were detained, arrested, and otherwise pressured by law enforcement bodies. Raids began before the state of emergency came into force. On January 4, Kasym Amanzhol, the acting head of the Almaty bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was detained as he was covering the protests.2 Detentions and arrests continued after the protests had been stopped in a number of cities, including Almaty,3 Aqtobe,4 Uralsk,5 Petropavl,6 Kokshetau,7 and Oskemen.8

Lukpan Akhmedyarov, editor of the UralskWeek.kz news site, was arrested for 10 days on charges of “participation in the illegal gathering” for covering the protests.9 Akhmedyarov was previously arrested in August 2020.

Daryn Nursapar, chief editor of Altaynews.kz, was arrested for 15 days on the same charges,10 but was released on the seventh day following an appeal from the prosecutor’s office. Nursapar’s phone was confiscated during his arrest.11

Similarly, Nurzhan Baimuldin, the chief editor of Russian news agency Kokshetau Asia, was arrested for 10 days on January 12 for Facebook posts questioning the president, which law enforcement agencies considered “provocative in the conditions of state of emergency,” but he was released after 5 days.12

On January 5, police in Nur-Sultan briefly detained,13 and later tried to storm the apartment of, critical blogger Makhambet Abzhan (see C7), who was covering protest rallies in the capital. Fearing for his safety, he went into hiding until January 20, when he resurfaced and told the media that he was tried as a witness in a criminal case14 that involves his interview with Dozhd, an independent Russian television channel.15 In July 2022, after the coverage period, Abzhan was sentenced to two months in prison for allegedly extorting a businessman. Other journalists described it as a ”political hunt.”16

According to Zarina Bayanova, an MISD spokesperson, 18 journalists were arrested and 12 of them were released as of January 18. Reportedly, the MISD collaborated with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to release journalists, shorten the terms of administrative arrests, and reduce their fines.17

In March 2022, bloggers Margulan Boranbay and Danat Namazbaev were sentenced to five years in prison for “incitement of inter-ethnic strife” for their Facebook posts, which called for a change in government and advocated for accountability for corrupt government officials. Both were known as critics of the government, Russian imperialism, and Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Boranbay was previously arrested in October 2020 for similar charges and had been under house arrest since then.18 According to the March 2022 court ruling, he will be denied the right to engage in media-related activities for three years after his release.19 In July 2022, after the coverage period, an Almaty court denied their appeal and added two months to Boranbay’s sentence.20

In May 2022, an internet user in the Akmola region was sentenced to 38 months of probation, marking the first time an individual was sentenced for “disseminating patently false information” about the January 2022 protests and ensuing violence. As of May 2022, 11 criminal cases had been opened under this charge.21

In the same month, Musabaev Marat, an activist in Nur-Sultan, was sentenced to 15 days’ detention because he made a Facebook post encouraging people to join pro-Ukraine rallies and urging the government to leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). He was charged under Article 488.2 of the criminal code.22

In May 2022, Ukrainian citizen Zlatoslava Bliznyuk was charged with sharing a social media post about a pro-Ukraine rally. Bliznyuk deleted the post when she learned that the rally was not sanctioned, but the police filed a suit seeking an arrest and deportation.23 Later that month, she was released and the authorities decided not to seek her deportation.24

In May 2021, Temirlan Yensebek, a blogger who ran a satirical social media account, was arrested by police for allegedly spreading “misinformation and misleading the public,” despite the fact that Yensebek deleted the account several months before he was detained.25 His laptop and mobile phones were confiscated.26 Yensebek was interrogated and released, but he faced charges of “dissemination of patently false information, posing a hazard of significant damage to rights and lawful interests of citizens, society, and state,”27 which can result in fines up to $20,000 or a 3-year prison term.28 In September, after the coverage period, the case against Yensebek was officially closed.29

According to Freedom Now, a human rights group, eight men were arrested in October 2018 for participation in a WhatsApp group where they shared religious materials. They were given five-to-eight-year sentences for inciting religious discord and promoting terrorism, and six of them remained imprisoned as of April 2022.30

The authorities are known to use terrorism and extremism charges, including “provocation of hatred” (Article 174 of the criminal code), to prosecute online activity,31 usually applying “restricted freedom,” or suspended sentences.32 Local human rights advocates have criticized the lack of expertise among judges and prosecutors evaluating extremism or terrorism charges.33

In past years, the authorities routinely arrested and prosecuted individuals for posting critical commentary online, especially QDT-related online activities. The classification of the DVK as an extremist group made it illegal to disseminate its content online, including through private messages.34 In May 2020, a court ruled that the QDT-affiliated Koshe Partiyasy was also an extremist organization, arguing that it was, in fact, one and the same as the QDT.35

There were some positive developments during the coverage period. In January 2022, a court in Almaty rejected a case in which Marat Zhylanbayev, a marathon runner and Guinness World Records holder, was charged with insulting former president Nazarbayev. The lawsuit was initiated by Ar Bedel, a foundation that regularly files cases against those who criticize the former president.36 In January 2021, Zhylanbayev was detained for comments he made about the elections on television.

Also in March 2022, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sotreport, a media outlet that covers the work of the judiciary in Kazakhstan. Tatyana Kovaleva, a journalist at the outlet, had been covering a trial about corruption in the army and was ordered by the Military Court to delete articles from Sotreport’s website. The Supreme Court overruled the Military Court’s decision.37

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 1.001 4.004

The government places restrictions on anonymous communication. Since December 2017, users have been required to identify themselves using government-issued digital signature technology or short-message service (SMS) verification in order to comment on domestic websites;1 failure to enforce the rule can lead to fines.2 Some news outlets and other sites introduced identification functionality in response to the requirement, but more simply disabled their comment sections, inviting readers to comment on social media platforms instead.

The government is cracking down on VPNs and other anonymizing tools with court orders.3 Websites of popular VPNs, including TunnelBear and TouchVPN, are inaccessible. In 2020, the regulator blocked 148 circumvention tools (see B1).4 Encryption tools are not restricted, but most users do not employ them. When internet access was restricted during the January 2022 protests, neither VPN gateways nor other circumvention tools including, the built-in VPNs in the Telegram app, were available. However, some users were able to access as Kazakhstanis living abroad set up proxy servers, primarily for Telegram.5

SIM card registration is required for mobile phone users. The government also requires users to register all devices that use mobile networks with their mobile service providers, linking a person’s government-issued identification, SIM card information, and device IMEI codes. Under 2018 legal amendments, unregistered mobile devices were to be disabled by service providers beginning in January 2019.6 In October 2019, the authorities enabled the IMEI code system, forcing operators to disable numerous unregistered devices (see A3 and A4). By law, operators are prohibited from providing services to clients with unregistered devices.7

Authorities presented the 2018 amendments as a means of fighting mobile device theft, counterfeiting, and terrorism.8 However, human rights advocates warned of their effects on user privacy and their potential to enable surveillance by effectively linking personal ID numbers, SIM cards, and IMEI codes.9 The technical capacity to disable a device was reportedly used to target activists during the protests during and after the 2019 presidential elections.10

Since 2016, users have had to obtain an SMS code to access public Wi-Fi networks, which opens the door to surveillance because of the country’s SIM card registration requirement.11 Businesses can be fined up to 300,000 tenge ($680) for failing to comply with the new rules, while users can be fined up to 30,000 tenge ($68).12 As of 2021, only larger restaurant chains introduced this system.

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

It is difficult to estimate the extent of government surveillance in Kazakhstan, but users in the country have been targeted by spyware. Digital rights groups allege that large-scale surveillance infrastructure is in place. The government employs SORM technology, which originated in Russia and is similar to that employed by other former Soviet countries, for DPI purposes and other functions. An investigation by the news site Vlast published in February 2019 revealed a vast network of ties between Kazakhstan and Russia in the area of cybersecurity.1

In June 2022, after the coverage period, Inga Imambay, who is married to unregistered Democratic Party leader Zhanbolat Mamay (see B2), reported that her phone had been infected with Hermit spyware, which can record audio and extract information from Android devices.2 Imambay’s claim came just days after Lookout Threat Lab released an investigation revealing that the Kazakhstani government had “probably” purchased Hermit from the Italian company RCS Labs and used it to target domestic actors.3

In July 2021, Forbidden Stories, a French nonprofit news outlet, and a coalition of news organizations including the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), identified phone numbers linked to Kazakhstani oligarchs and political figures in a leaked dataset. Investigators described the dataset as a list of people of interest to clients of the NSO Group, which sells Pegasus. According to the investigation, almost 2,000 Kazakhstani phone numbers were selected for targeting during former president Nazarbayev’s rule.4 Numbers belonging to President Tokayev, then prime minister Askar Mamin, prominent political figures, oligarchs close to Nazarbayev, and opposition figures were among them. The government has repeatedly denied the allegations. Additionally, two Kazakhstani journalists identified their numbers on the list.5

In November 2021, six activists from Oyan Kazakhstan, a proreform youth movement, received messages from Apple warning them their devices might have been compromised by Pegasus.6 A forensic investigation conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab confirmed that four activists’ devices had been infected with the spyware.7

In January 2018, new NSC-developed technical regulations for SORM entered into force.8 Telia Company, a Swedish firm that owned mobile service provider Kcell (now a part of Kazakhtelecom), warned in 2017 that the impending new surveillance requirements gave the government real-time access to providers’ networks, threatening freedom of expression.9 Local human rights monitors have since alleged that law enforcement bodies and special services watch and wiretap phone conversations of opposition activists without following proper procedures.10

Various authorities monitor internet traffic. STS is responsible for overseeing cross-border network traffic through a system called Centralized Management of Telecommunication Networks. All telecommunications service providers must be connected to this system and are required to grant authorities physical access to their control centers.11 Kazakhtelecom, which maintains a DPI system separate from SORM, insists that it is used for traffic management and provides no access to users’ personal data.12

In 2019, ISPs urged subscribers in Nur-Sultan to install a root security certificate called the Qaznet Trust Certificate, which had been introduced legally in 2016.13 Users were warned they might have difficulty accessing foreign websites if they chose to not install the certificate.14 The certificate’s introduction was justified as a means of fighting the theft of users’ personal data, fraud, and other online threats, including cyberattacks.15 In July 2019, the NSC admitted the certificate enables it to decrypt secure traffic but said it did not plan to store and view the details of citizens’ online activities.16

In early August 2019, the NSC declared that the certificate’s trial period was over, claiming that the pilot test allowed it to test its cybersecurity systems as well as reveal and prevent millions of cybersecurity incidents.17 It also informed users that they could remove the certificate.18 In early December 2020, one month prior to the parliamentary elections, residents of Nur-Sultan had been advised to install the certificate again, citing the Cybersecurity Nur-Sultan 2020 drill (see A3).

Officials later apologized for the inconvenience,19 denied the link between the drill and upcoming elections,20 and vowed that the certificate is not meant to monitor users, but to exercise targeted blocking of unlawful content.21

In August 2019, Apple, Google, and Mozilla stated that they would ban the certificate from their respective web browsers (Safari, Chrome, and Firefox) to ensure that their users’ personal data were not intercepted.22 In December 2020, these companies, along with Microsoft, followed through and banned the certificate from their networks and software.23

The authorities appear to engage in social media surveillance, including under the auspices of the MISD24 and via contractors like Alem Research and IMAS, a private company that advertises a “monitoring system” that conducts this type of social media surveillance. IMAS’s clients include the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, and various local government administrations.25 In March 2021, the MISD disclosed that it monitors Clubhouse for unlawful content because it is considered a mass media outlet under Kazakhstani legislation.26

In May 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that the Ministry of Internal Affairs had obtained special equipment and software to monitor social networking sites and identify users of social media and messaging applications.27 According to government officials, they obtained this equipment to prevent scams, fraud, and Ponzi schemes.

Activists using social media are occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who have prior knowledge of their planned activities.28 Reports have emerged that authorities penetrated group chats on WhatsApp and Telegram, based on claims by activists that they faced repercussions for material they posted only via those apps. It is unclear how authorities could have gained access to these closed chats, but it is generally understood that either there are informants in critical groups, or that police seize and access the phones of detained activists.29

In November 2020, the NSC adopted the Rules of Operation of the National Video-Monitoring System.30 The system contains hardware and software for collection, processing, and storage of video files for the purpose of national security and public order. The NSC determines if an individual or entity is obliged to connect to the system, defining them as “clients,” and outlines the costs for the installation and service of the equipment.

In June 2020, Tokayev signed the law on digital technologies, which designated the Information Security Committee at the MDDIAI as the body responsible for the protection of personal data. The law also provided for creation of the national video-monitoring system, which lacks precise regulation and public oversight, and biometric authentication of citizens with no guarantee of data protection.31

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

Telecommunications companies have fully implemented SORM technical regulations (see C5), effectively granting the Kazakhstani government real-time access to their subscribers’ data.

The process that governs authorities’ ability to request user data from various companies is not always followed. Security agencies can effectively access user data stored by the companies at will, as firms that wish to operate in the country have no means of resisting their demands. In its “exit report” upon leaving the Kazakhstani market, Tele2, the Swedish mobile service provider whose stake in Tele2-Altel was bought by Kazakhtelecom in 2019, noted that “it was not possible for Tele2 KZ to know how often the SORM system was used and whether the required warrant had been obtained.”1

Legislation obliges both fixed-line ISPs and mobile service providers to retain records of users’ online activities, phone numbers, billing details, internet protocol (IP) addresses, browsing history, protocols of data transmission, and other data.2 Providers must store user data for two years and grant access within 24 hours to “operative-investigatory bodies,” including the NSC and other security agencies, when approved by a prosecutor or “by coordination with the Prosecutor General’s Office.”3 The code of administrative offenses imposes fines on ISPs for failure to store user data.4 Tele2’s exit report revealed that it was not allowed to publish the nature and number of the requests it received from law enforcement.5

Domain names using the .kz and .KA3 country codes must operate on domestic servers.6 According to Kazakhstani communications law, users’ personal data must be stored within Kazakhstani borders.7 In late 2017, the government announced that it planned to negotiate with foreign social media platforms and persuade them to operate local servers that could provide easier state access to citizens’ personal data.8 In September 2020, the government amended domain registration rules, enabling the government to suspend a domain name if the website is physically hosted outside of Kazakhstan or if any of its software is hosted outside of the country (see B3).9

In April 2021, the government adopted the Rules on Examination of Processes Related to Personal Data, which allows STS to access the hardware and software (“objects of informatization”) of “electronic information resources” to assess their “personal data management.”10 Also, according to the administrative code, operators are subject to fines for failure to distribute the National Security Certificate among clients, store personal information of users, or grant law enforcement bodies or special services access to data or equipment (see A3, B1, and C5).11

Domestic website owners are required to retain commentators’ data for at least three months and provide the government with this information upon request.12

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities? 2.002 5.005

During the January 2022 protests and the violence that followed, online users and journalists faced intimidation and violence.

For instance, on January 5, Leonid Rasskazov, a journalist working with online news outlet Orda.kz, was shot in the back with a rubber bullet in Almaty. He was also hit by shrapnel from a stun grenade.1

On January 5, Bagdat Asylbek, a special correspondent at Orda.kz, was thrown into a police car after he filmed soldiers firing at people. He was wearing the standard blue vest and showed the police officers his official ID. The security forces confiscated his phone and ID card.2

Also on January 5, Serik Yesenov, a journalist for independent online news outlet Uralskaya Nedelya, was detained as he recorded military vehicles. The police also confiscated his camera and destroyed his footage. He was released shortly after.3

In January, police encircled the apartment of Makhambet Abzhan, who had been commenting on the protests in his Telegram channel, turned off his electricity, and forced him to remain inside overnight.4 He went into hiding until January 20 (see C3).5

On January 9, police searched the apartment of journalist Ardak Yerubayeva and seized her mobile phone. She was then taken to a police station and asked about the protests.6

In May 2022, investigative journalist Mikhail Kozachkov claimed that he was being followed by unidentified individuals and filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General’s Office.7

In July 2022, after the coverage period, Olesya Vertinskaya, a journalist for independent news site Dorozhniy Kontrol (“Road Control”), which reports on police and traffic officers, was beaten outside of her home. She had received threatening text messages about her stories on a local fish company prior to the attack.8

Members of the LGBT+ community in Kazakhstan frequently face online harassment.9 In a July 2019 incident, a gay man in Nur-Sultan was reportedly catfished over VK and then tortured.10

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

There were no major events of technical attacks against independent media during the coverage period, but online media outlets and government websites have faced significant cyberattacks in the past.

In October 2021, then prime minister’s Mamin’s Facebook pages were hacked and temporarily disabled, reportedly as a result of a phishing attack, and he asked the company to restore them.1

On January 10, 2021, as parliamentary elections took place, news site Vlast reported suffering a persistent dedicated denial of service (DDoS) attack.2 In September 2020, the STS reported that Kazakhstani educational online platforms suffered a DDoS attack at the hands of foreign hackers.3

In July 2020, the Center for Analysis and Research of Cyberattacks, a local cybersecurity association, reported that the personal data from the Ministry of Justice and medical records of numerous citizens had been stolen, but officials denied the claims.4

On Kazakhstan

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    23 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    34 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes