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In bad company: Kazakhstan takes page from Belarus

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, left, and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev at a November economic conference. (AP/Sergei Grits)

Belarus has been termed Europe’s last dictatorship because of its long intolerance of dissent and press freedom. So accustomed is the world to the clampdowns of President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime that neither a recently issued decree on Internet access, which requires that providers record users’ personal data, nor last week’s police raids at a number of independent news offices, came as much of a surprise to anyone. “Belarus—reliably repressive” would be the country’s bumper sticker were press freedom groups to make one.

What is interesting is that a number of other Eurasian countries—notably Kazakhstan, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—are adopting tactics very similar to those of Belarus in order to curb critical media coverage, particularly on the Internet. Recent increases in the numbers of online users in both countries have undoubtedly contributed to authorities’ perceived need to control the Web.

Both Belarus and Kazakhstan have passed restrictive laws that equate Internet publications with traditional media, making the former subject to the same repressive regulations as the latter. Lukashenko signed his country's law in August 2008; Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, signed similar legislation in July 2009. In the case of Belarus, the law demands that all news media, including online publications, be approved by the government. The Kazakh law expanded the definition of mass media to include social networking sites, chat rooms, online forums, and personal Web pages and blogs—giving state agencies broad authority to block or shut them down. The vaguely worded law also allows for the blocking of international Web sites if those are found in violation of Kazakh legislation.

Having passed the new restrictive laws, both Belarus and Kazakhstan created specialized state agencies tasked with enforcing them.

In Belarus, Lukashenko signed a decree giving government agencies muscular authority to block access to online information deemed extremist. The decree also requires all providers to register servers, personal computers, and other “devices used to connect to the Internet,” and to collect the personal details of Web surfers. The decree, ratified in February, will come into force in July. Simultaneously, a new government agency that reports to the president—the Operating and Analytical Center (OAC)—was created with the mandate to monitor the online correspondence and activities of Belarusian citizens, including their browsing history.

The OAC is intended to “protect information containing state secrets of Belarus” from “leaking through technical channels,” the independent news Web site Charter 97 reported. (Charter 97 is one of several news outlets raided by Minsk police last week in apparent retaliation for its critical reporting. The news site issued a call for help on Wednesday after authorities confiscated all eight newsroom computers, severely hampering its work.)

In Kazakhstan, the head of the main state communications regulator, Kuanyshbek Yesekeyev, announced the creation of a new agency—the Service to React to Computer Incidents. On March 1, Yesekeyev told Parliament that the service has already started “a check on destructive Web sites.” He mentioned the existence of “black lists” of “resources that have a destructive character” but failed to clarify who was on those lists or how a site’s “destructive character” would be determined, the local service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Without elaborating, Yesekeyev also said the new agency will be countering “political extremism.” His statements led many Kazakh human rights and press freedom groups to cry foul, fearing that such vague terminology will be used to target critical political journalism, the independent regional news Web site Ferghana reported.

When it comes to the Internet, Kazakh and Belarusian policies are disturbingly similar. But while Belarus has been recognized as a repressive regime, Kazakhstan has been rewarded with the stature of leading the OSCE, the region's leading human rights and security organization. 

Since its assumption of the OSCE chairmanship in January, Kazakhstan’s press freedom and human rights records have come under somewhat greater scrutiny. But the international community has been too cautious in confronting Astana on journalist imprisonments, impunity in anti-press attacks, and politicized prosecutions of the press.

It is time the international community recognizes Kazakhstan’s record, demands demonstrable improvements from Astana, and ensures that the OSCE’s mission of promoting human rights and democracy is not compromised by its leader.

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