Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism. This extract is of the executive summary of the report on Kazakhstan, from the series of reports to come out of the research under the Unfreedom Monitor. Read the full report here.
Kazakhstan’s ruling regime surveils and monitors the activities of dissidents and critics. President Tokayev continues the repressive politics of his predecessor in controlling information and cyberspace by applying technological solutions — targeted monitoring, internet shutdowns and coordinated inauthentic behaviour on social media. The press is saturated with proregime propaganda, although critical reporting is tolerated, provided certain lines are not crossed. Outspoken reporters and media outlets are targeted with spurious criminal cases, and sometimes with violence and intimidation. Kazakhstan ranks among the world’s worst countries for press freedom: 158th out of 180. This report analyses the dominant motives, methods, and responses to digital authoritarianism in Kazakhstan, relying on existing advocacy materials, legal regulations, and media coverage on internet governance in the country. It briefly discusses Kazakhstan’s political system and the trajectory of digital authoritarianism before reviewing incidents of networked authoritarianism in 2022, mapping the evolution and transformation of digital space securitisation in Central Asia. The overarching tactic of the state is to censor information that does not synchronise with regime values and aspirations.
This report focuses on the main trends in digital authoritarian technologies used in Kazakhstan from 2017 to 2022. It contextualises the repressive online mechanisms within the changing political landscape. The January 2022 protests tested the grounds of social and political liberties — the seeming political stability failed. The Tokayev government closely monitored attempts to delegitimise his governance and the right to rule. The regime is sending mixed signals of future transition: promising liberal reforms and imposing further restrictions on political liberties. Post-January Kazakhstan fails on the experience of repression and increased securitisation, including in cyberspace.
Two case studies — the arrest of opposition leader Zhanbolat Mamay for disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behaviour in social media during the presidential campaign — illustrate the culture of digital authoritarianism in Kazakhstan. Zhanbolat Mamay was accused of spreading disinformation and insulting a state authority. Human rights organisations and independent journalists believe his detention and trial are politically motivated. The court ruled to jail him for two months as a suspect under two articles of the Criminal Code: on the dissemination of deliberately false information and on insulting government officials. Later, additional charges were included for “organising mass riots” and “spreading false information.” International human rights organisations protested his persecution and demanded his release. Mamay was named the main organiser of illegal mass riots in January 2022. He was selected as a symbolic victim of the regime to demonstrate that any dissent online or offline would be punished.
Tokayev claimed that the early presidential elections were necessary as they ensured the “radical reboot of the entire political system” after the January protests. The government’s justification for unscheduled elections is the urgent necessity of smooth political changes. The information policy, which is being handled by the Ministry of Information and the Presidential Administration in Kazakhstan, uses digital tools for disinformation and promotion of favourable regime data, especially during election campaigns. Internet bots and trolls provide the official opinion of Astana and ensure positive state PR in various social media platforms and regime-affiliated media platforms.
The political regime in Kazakhstan is promoting two dominant narratives in social media and media platforms: “Tokayev is the best leader for Kazakhstan right now” and “National security trumps human rights.” The first narrative allows the current leadership to claim the political legitimacy of acting president despite protests and social discontent. The second narrative justifies the increased securitisation of the digital space and censorship of local media. This indicates the fear and insecurities of ruling elites about the freedom of speech and political competition, leading to the heightened need for democratic reforms and regime change.
Read the full report here.
By Sofya Du Boulay