Freedom of the Press
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The Kazakh government sustained its multiyear media crackdown in 2014, prosecuting journalists for defamation and other offenses, issuing new laws to enable outlet closures and suspensions, and imposing harsh penalties for content violations and minor technical infractions. Analysts argued that the authorities were especially defensive during the year due to tensions surrounding the conflict in Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s agreement to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and economic weaknesses marked by the drastic devaluation of the tenge in February.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and the press, but the government severely restricts these rights in practice. Defamation remains a criminal offense, with specific provisions for defaming the president, members of Parliament, and other state officials. In July 2014, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed amendments to the criminal code that increased the penalties for defamation, with fines of up to 5.556 million tenge ($31,000) and prison terms of up to three years. Among other new restrictions, the amendments criminalized dissemination of false information, which can be punished with fines and up to 10 years in prison.
Such laws are regularly used against independent and critical journalists. The press advocacy group Adil Soz documented 38 criminal cases against journalists and media outlets in 2014, including 15 defamation cases. There were also 106 civil suits, of which 97 were for defamation. While the courts frequently rule in favor of media outlets, the threat of substantial penalties and protracted court cases may contribute to self-censorship. Truth is not a defense in libel cases, there is no statute of limitations, and the law automatically targets both the writer and the publication in which the article is published.
A court charged journalist Natalya Sadykova with criminal defamation in March 2014 for allegedly writing an article under a pseudonym that falsely accused a former lawmaker of corruption. Sadykova fled the country and denied writing the article, which had appeared in December 2013 on a website of the independent newspaper Respublika. The paper and its affiliated outlets had been banned in 2012, but survived online. In November, shortly after the independent weekly ADAM bol was shuttered in another case, the outlet’s parent company was ordered to pay five million tenge in defamation damages to an Almaty imam over a February article about the conflict in Syria.
In addition to the criminal code amendments, the government advanced legislation in 2014 that strengthened its ability to control media content and shut down outlets at will. A decree approved in January and effective in April imposed new regulations under an existing law on “emergency situations,” which can include forms of social unrest like mass protests. The decree requires all media outlets in areas under a state of emergency to submit their content to the authorities for approval prior to publication. Outlets that fail to comply can be suspended. Separately in April, Nazarbayev signed amendments to a communications law that allow the prosecutor general to temporarily shut down—without a court order—websites and entire communication networks based on vaguely worded criteria, such as potential harm to the interests of individuals, society, or the state, or incitement of extremist or other activities “carried out in violation of the established order.”
Kazakhstan lacks a freedom of information law, despite years of discussions on developing such legislation. A 2012 law requires foreign broadcast media to register with the government, and rules for the accreditation of foreign journalists include vaguely worded restrictions barring hate speech and speech that undermines national security and the constitutional order. A law that took effect in 2012 requires owners of internet cafés to obtain users’ names and monitor and record their activity, and to share their information with the security services if requested.
The government and its allies dominate the media landscape, and the few independent print outlets and news websites have been under severe pressure from the state since a deadly police crackdown on striking oil workers in 2011. In 2012, the courts banned dozens of leading opposition outlets for “extremism,” including those affiliated with Respublika, and further closures were reported through 2014. In February, a court in Almaty ordered the closure of the independent Pravdivaya Gazeta, which had been accused of a series of minor breaches of publishing regulations since it launched in 2013. Another independent paper, Assandi Times, was shuttered in April for its alleged links to Respublika. In November, the weekly ADAM bol was closed on the grounds that it had published illegal “war propaganda” in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict.
Separately, the chief editor of the popular magazine Anyz Adam was ordered to pay multiple fines for an April edition that was devoted to Adolf Hitler. Although he was accused of technical violations and insulting World War II veterans, observers noted the Russian government’s public complaints about the issue, arguing that Moscow may have been angered by its comparison of Hitler’s actions with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
State censorship efforts extended to the internet during the year, with 25 cases of unjustified blocking reported by Adil Soz. The website of Radio Azattyk, the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was partially and periodically blocked inside Kazakhstan, particularly in the first half of the year. The newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya reported that its website was inaccessible for several days in April, allegedly in connection with its critical coverage of Kazakhstan’s EEU accession plans. In November, Kazakh authorities pressed the Kyrgyzstan news site Kloop.kg to take down a video that claimed to show Kazakh children training to fight with the Islamic State militant group in Syria. Regulators in Kyrgyzstan then tried unsuccessfully to block the site.
Independent journalists and outlets continued to face physical attacks and other obstacles to reporting in 2014. According to Adil Soz, there were 16 attacks on media workers and staff, 13 threats, and 8 arbitrary detentions during the year. In April, police tried to prevent several journalists from covering a peaceful protest outside the prosecutor general’s office, assaulting them and injuring a cameraman for the online television channel 16/12. In May, two journalists with 16/12 and one with Radio Azattyk were briefly arrested near Astana while covering a gathering of anti-EEU activists. In June, police searched the Astana office of 16/12 and confiscated equipment, citing a money-laundering investigation.
Major broadcast media, especially national television networks, are partly or wholly owned by the state or by members or associates of the president’s family. According to the government, there are 250 television and radio stations in the country. Television remains by far the most popular source of news, and it is also the most tightly controlled. Government oversight extends to the country’s broadcast transmission facilities.
Kazakh law limits rebroadcasts of foreign-produced programming to 20 percent of a station’s total airtime, burdening smaller stations that are unable to develop their own programs. Nevertheless, Russian television and radio broadcasts are popular and influential in Kazakhstan, reaching viewers partly through cable and satellite services.
There are well over 1,000 daily and weekly newspapers in Kazakhstan. As with the broadcast media, many of them are either run by the government or controlled by groups or individuals associated with the president, and do not carry critical content. The government controls all of the country’s printing presses, and with advertising revenue in short supply, private print media are often forced to rely on state subsidies. The Soviet-era practice of compulsory subscriptions to state-run newspapers still exists in parts of Kazakhstan, further extending government influence over public opinion.
Internet use in Kazakhstan continues to grow, reaching almost 55 percent of the population in 2014. The government holds a majority stake in the largest service provider, Kazakhtelecom, which is especially dominant in the fixed-line market but also offers mobile services.