Kazakhstan has set the clock running on stamping out anonymous commenting on the internet. As of April, any locally registered websites will be in trouble if they allow visitors signing off as jigit_krutoi1989 — or any such faceless combination — to post their messages.
The deadline was announced by Mikhail Komissarov, a spokesman for the Information and Communications Ministry, who sought to reassure reporters on February 1 that this did not mean authorities intend to embark on a punitive hunt of internet resources that do not fall in line.
This strict anonymity rule is part of a broader set of restrictions on the media that were approved by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in November. Critics of the legislation have cried foul, insisting it will severely limit the freedoms of journalists to do their jobs.
Under the new rules, journalists are required to receive consent from the subjects of their reports in the event that they intend to reproduce information about their banking details, commercial dealings or their medical records.
Where government bodies were once required to respond to media enquiries within three days, that has now been increased to 15 days. Also, officials have now been equipped with a greater range of justifications for declining to provide journalists with information. In practice, Eurasianet’s experience has been that state bodies rarely met the three-day rule. Performance under the new, relaxed requirements has also been subpar.
A lawyer for media training organization Internews-Kazakhstan, Olga Didenko, has said the tightened-up legislation hands the government yet more power to control news outlets and heavily constrains the scope for investigative journalism.
Some of the provisions are intensely subjective.
The revised legislation dwells heavily on “propaganda,” although quite how such content is to be identified has been left open to interpretation. Anything describing facts or opinions contributing to instilling positive attitudes toward illegal activities is deemed illegal propaganda. This provision ostensibly appears aimed at controlling the appearance of materials promoting radical Muslim beliefs, drug-taking and suicide, but it could be applied to any number of other areas.
As to the anonymity rule, the Information and Communications Ministry has given websites time until the end of March to work out a way to prevent people from writing comments without providing some means of identification. The law requires website operators to make it mandatory for users to enter into a formal agreement before they are permitted to post comments. Information provided in the agreement will then have to be retained by the website, which can then be relied on to hand it over to the authorities whenever asked.
Komissarov said that officials will first inform offending media outlets of a violation of the anonymity rule and that only if there is no response will the authorities take action. Failure to abide by the rule will incur fines of $750 and upward.
“There are two points of view on the issue of anonymity. In the European Union they are strengthening anonymity as the inalienable right of citizens. The second is that freedom of speech cannot be anonymous. If a person wants to say something, he can do it openly and not hide … We incline toward the second view,” Komissarov said.
Legal experts have argued, however, that the law is not likely to apply to websites based abroad. But as they have also noted, Kazakhstan’s policy in such instances is simply to block the offending websites outright.
Shortly before President Nazarbayev definitely approved the new law, Adil Soz, a media rights group, complained that parliament had “ignored the views and proposals of the general public.” The group described the law as being, in effect, a charter for corrupt officials.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.