Kazakh journalism badly hit by media law amendments

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the press law amendments that President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed into law yesterday because they deal a new series of blows to media freedom in Kazakhstan, especially to investigative journalism and access to state-held information.

As Kazakh press legislation already contained many draconian provisions, hopes were raised by the original announcement that it was to be amended, and again when journalists were consulted about the changes, as this is not customary in Kazakhstan.

But these amendments will just make things worse. After the lower house passed them in late November, RSF joined Kazakh press freedom groups in urging the senate to reject them – but to no avail.

“Far from the announced intentions, this package of amendments obstructs the activities of journalists even more and makes them more vulnerable to pressure,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“We deeply regret that, although media professionals were consulted, their opinions were ignored. The authorities need to understand that journalistic freedom and independence would benefit society as a whole and the country’s development.”

Under one of the most controversial amendments, journalists are required to obtain the permission of persons named in their articles before publishing information involving matters of “personal and family confidentiality.”

Kazakh law already protects the right to privacy and medical confidentiality, among others, and this new form of confidentiality is left undefined, opening the way to the broadest possible interpretation. Investigative journalists fear it could obstruct their reporting, especially coverage of corruption. There is similar concern about a ban on “information violating lawful interests,” which are also not defined.

One of the amendments complicates the right of access to state-held information. The length of the time within which officials must answer journalists’ questions is more than doubled, with the result that by the time journalists get their answer, there is every chance it will no longer be newsworthy. Furthermore, officials are also given the right to classify certain answers.

Under one of the amendments, Internet users are required to identify themselves before posting a comment on a news website, and their information will be stored for three months. This suggests that there could be a further increase in the number of people being jailed because of their online comments, which has already grown sharply in recent years.

The package nonetheless does include a few positive amendments that were the result of the prior consultation with media representatives and NGOs. The right of control over one’s own photographic or video image is restricted during public events and a procedure is established for settling press-related disputes out of court.

Also, the authorities will no longer be able to impose such drastic sanctions as the confiscation of a newspaper issue or the closure of a media outlet in response to minor regulatory violations. It should nonetheless be pointed out that the leading independent media outlets have already been forced to close on the basis of such minor violations.

There have been almost no independent media outlets in Kazakhstan since the simultaneous closure of all the leading national opposition newspapers in December 2012. This dire situation has been compounded by the judicial system’s readiness to cooperate in arrests of outspoken journalists and bloggers.

Kazakhstan is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.