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FOCUS March 2012 Volume Vol. 67

Central Asia: Censorship and Control of the Internet and Other New Media1

Brigitte Dufour and Farid Tuhbatullin on behalf of International Partnership for Human Rights, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Other Partner Organizations

Authorities in Central Asian countries in the former Soviet Union closely monitor and restrict the use of the internet and other communications technologies, filter and block access to undesirable online content, and intimidate and put pressure on websites and internet users who publish or share information that is critical of official policies. The authorities of these countries have sought to justify their repressive approach to the internet and other new media with the fight against "extremism" and other vaguely defined threats to national "security" and "stability". However, in reality, this fight is used as a pretext for implementing measures to stifle free speech and help preserve the governments' grip on power.

Developments at the Regional Level

Recently, several joint initiatives have been made by Central Asian and neighboring countries to regulate the internet for the stated purpose of countering "extremism", "terrorism" and other vaguely defined threats to national security. These steps appear to reflect growing fear on the part of the authorities of these countries that the internet may be used to scrutinize the conduct of those in power and mobilize opposition.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an organization founded in 2001 by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to counteract "terrorism", "separatism" and "extremism", has recently paid increasing attention to perceived online security threats. At a SCO summit held in June 2011 draft “Rules of conduct in the field of safeguarding international information security” were adopted.2 In a joint letter dated 12 September 2011, the Permanent Representatives to the United Nations (UN) of China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan proposed that the same rules be endorsed by the UN General Assembly in the form of a resolution.3
The stated purpose of the draft code of conduct is to enhance cooperation among states in addressing "the common threats and challenges in the information space". By adopting it, states would undertake, among others, to cooperate in "curbing the dissemination of information that incites terrorism, secessionism or extremism or that undermines other countries' political, economic and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment."4
"Online threats" are also being dealt with in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military cooperation body consisting of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to media reports, efforts are under way in this organization to create a mechanism to control social networks for the purpose of preventing "extremist" actions in the form of mass riots, such as those seen in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011.5
In connection with a meeting in Minsk in September 2011, the general prosecutors from Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan publicly defended the need to control the use of social networks, as well as the internet more generally. Kazakhstani General Prosecutor Ashad Daulbaev was quoted as saying that this is "a question of the future" and that states "should jointly counteract this evil", obviously referring to "extremism" in the internet. According to him, the Russian- language part of the internet alone has "hundreds of sites that instigate extremism and terrorism.6
The Representative on Freedom of the Media of t he Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Ms. Dunja Mijatovi, has expressed concern that initiatives such as the SCO and CSTO "endanger freedom of expression" and "risk erecting barriers" to the free flow of information and ideas.7 She noted that they rely on broad and vague definitions of terms such as "extremism", as is already the case with the national laws in the countries behind them.8 
International experts have emphasized that restrictions relating to internet use are only permissible if they meet the strict requirements set out by international law provisions protecting freedom of expression (in particular article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

Developments in Three Central Asian Countries

In spite of its proclaimed commitment to promoting information technology, the government of Kazakhstan has created different mechanisms to monitor and filter online material. Access is regularly blocked to websites that contain information that shows those in power in a bad light. As of October 2011, more than one hundred websites had been blocked for allegedly containing "extremist" propaganda, among them the popular blog community Live Journal. The online video portal stan.kz, which has provided independent coverage of the oil workers strike that is currently under way in the country, has been sued by authorities for allegedly violating health and safety regulations. Its journalists have reported intimidation and two of them were brutally attacked in October 2011. The online news outlet guljan.org, which reports on corruption and other misconduct involving official figures, has been subjected to invasive cyber attacks and one of its reporters was recently convicted on criminal defamation charges.
In March 2010, the head of Kazakhstan’s State Communications Agency informed members of parliament that a new “center for computer incidents” had been set up to review and compile blacklists of  “destructive” websites.9 While the official referred to concerns about “political and religious extremism,” no details have been made public about how the work of this center is carried out, to whom it is accountable or on what grounds websites are singled out for review. Civil society activists have expressed concern that the center may be tasked to censor websites that do not please the authorities.10 An existing presidential Security Council has already been regularly compiling lists of websites that should be blocked.
Turkmenistan is one of the world's most hostile countries for internet users, with its monopoly state-run provider offering only a highly censored version of the internet. All online activities in internet cafes are recorded, while rates for private internet connections remain excessively high. New repressive measures have followed the July 2011 explosions at an ammunition depot in Abadan, whose destructive impact the authorities wanted to hide. Security services have tried to track down internet and cell phone users suspected of reporting on the accident to the outside world; the website of Austria-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights was hacked after it published a set of stories about the explosions; and a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent who blogged about the events was imprisoned on trumped-up charges (even if later amnestied).
While official media initially did not report anything about the Abadan events, and foreign-based internet sites that provided coverage about them were not accessible in Turkmenistan, many residents received information about the blasts and their impact through satellite TV channels. Such channels are among the few remaining means for obtaining information that is independent of official propaganda inside the country. In what appeared to be an attempt to choke off also this source of information, the president issued an order in August 2011 to dismantle private satellite dishes because they allegedly “spoil the appearance” of residential buildings.11 A similar campaign was initiated in 2008, but gradually subsided.
Aside from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is the most repressive country for internet users in the former Soviet Union. It is characterized by a pervasive regime of online control and censorship: material that does not please authorities is systematically filtered and blocked. Email and cell phone correspondence by "suspicious" individuals is subject to surveillance, and participants in online discussions on politically charged issues risk facing harassment, as did a number of arbuz.com forum users, who were arrested in early 2011. The recent launch of a new social networking site by the statetelecom monopoly has raised concerns about growing control in this area of the internet. Internet users who openly speak up on social problems are highly vulnerable to intimidation and harassment. Recent victims include two women human rights defenders who published online articles about shortcomings in waste management, the care of old people, as well as the implementation of a reform to promote non-cash transactions.
In a step that appeared aimed at muzzling online debate on inconvenient issues, a new governmental oversight body was set up in August 2011. This ”committee of experts” was charged with tracking down material distributed on the internet, satellite channels and other media resources that does not “correspond to the requirements of the law”, has a “destructive and negative” impact on the “social conscience of citizens” or undermines “national cultural traditions and heritage”. It was given powers to identify and propose measures to address the “violations” it identifies, as well as to elaborate new media legislation.12 The broadly worded mandate of this body makes it possible for it to single out any internet material that does not please the authorities for control and sanction.

Recommendations

The following are recommendations to the authorities of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan:

a. Respect freedom of expression in the internet and other new media and refrain from imposing any restrictions on the use of these media - by law or in practice - that are not consistent with the strict requirements of international human rights law, in particular article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.

b. Do not misuse national security concerns to restrict the use of the internet or other new communications technologies, keeping in mind that restrictions on these grounds only are permissible in exceptional circumstances and if they are shown to be a necessary and proportionate response to a direct and imminent threat of violence.13

c. Refrain from systematic filtering, censoring or blocking of online content, and do not restrict access to online content simply because it contains information that authorities do not like or agree with.

d. Ensure that any measure to prevent access to online content deemed illegal is strictly limited to that specific content. The measure must also be fully consistent with international human rights standards, proven to be absolutely necessary, and sanctioned through a court decision, which provides justification for the measure and is subject to appeal.

e. Put an end to existing schemes for systematic monitoring of email and other online communication, tapping of phone conversations of journalists, human rights defenders or others known to be critical of authorities, as well as surveillance of the activities of visitors to internet cafes.

f. As a matter of priority, take effective measures to promote universal access to the internet, ensuring that internet access is widely available, accessible and affordable to the population.14 

g. Do not subject internet or other electronic communications service providers to strict licensing regimes or other requirements that are not compatible with international freedom of expression standards, and promote free competition in this area;

h. Implement recommendations relating to freedom of expression and the use of the internet and other new media made by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media, as well as other UN and OSCE human rights bodies.

The following are recommendations to international telecommunications companies:

a. Uphold international standards on freedom of expression when doing business in the Central Asian countries and act with due diligence to avoid infringing protected rights in any way.15 

b. Provide full transparency on company policies and terms of service in Central Asian countries, implement ethical codes of conduct, and seek advice from international human rights bodies when relevant.

Brigitte Dufour is the Director of the International Partnership for Human Rights, while Farid Tuhbatullin is the Chairperson of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.

For further information, please contact: International Partnership for Human Rights, Blvd. Bischoffsheim 11, 8th Floor 1000 Brussels, Belgium; ph (32 475) 39 2121; e-mail: IPHR@IPHRonline.org; www.IPHRonline.org; and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), P.O. Box 13, A-1016 Vienna, Austria; e-mail: turkmen.initiative@gmail.com; www.chrono-tm.org.

Endnotes

1 This is an edited short version of a briefing paper jointly published by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) and the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan in November 2011. The full report is available at websites of IPHR and TI HR, at www.iphronline.org/ca_internet_20111128_e.html, as well as www.chrono-tm.org/en/archives/207.
2 Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom, "Russia's approaches to cooperation in the sphere of international information security," 28 October 2010, at www.rusemb.org.uk/press/297 (in Russian at www.rus.rusemb.org.uk/press/168).

3 Letter dated 12 September 2011 from the Permanent Representatives of China, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General. Available at http://blog.internetgovernance.org/pdf/UN-infosec-code.pdf (in Russian at www.rus.rusemb.org.uk/data/doc/internationalcoderus.pdf).
4 Ibid.
5 Izvestia, «ODKB voz'metsja za social'nye seti» ("CSTO takes on social networks"), 12.08.2011, www.izvestia.ru/news/500269; The Moscow News, "CSTO wants to monitor the internet to prevent a repeat of Arab revolutions," 13 September 2011, at http://themoscownews.com/society/20110913/189040987.html; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Russian-Led Security Body To Monitor Social Media In Wake Of Arab Spring," 15 Sept ember 2011, at www.rferl.org/content/russian_led_security_body_csto_to_monitor_social_media_in_wake_of_arab_spring/24329629.html.
6 Lenta.ru, «Jurij Chajka potreboval kontrolja nad socsetjami» ("Yuri Chaika demands control of social networks"), 14.09.2011, http://lenta.ru/news/2011/09/14/chaika/.
7 “Proposals to regulate Internet could threaten freedom of expression, warns OSCE media freedom representative,” 28 Sept ember 2011, at www.osce.org/fom/83112 (in Russian at www.osce.org/ru/fom/83135).
8 Ibid.
9 Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, Weekly Bulletin of Events in CIS Countries, 23 February – 1 March 2010, at www.cjes.ru/bulletins/?bid=3744&country=SNG&lang=eng&PHPSESSID=3278f0f7cdfce970184b4058459938e7; Committee to Protect Journalists, “Disdaining Press Freedom, Kazakhstan Undermines OSCE,” 14 Sept ember 2010, at www.cpj.org/reports/2010/09/disdaining-press-freedom-kazakhstan-undermines-osc.php.
10 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, «V Kazahstane sozdaetsja chernyj spisok «destruktivnyh» veb-sajtov» ("A black list of "destructive" websites is being created in Kazakhstan"), 1 March 2010, at http://rus.azattyq.org/content/Kuanyshbek_Esekeev/1971451.html?page=2
11 See Chronicles of Turkmenistan, “Wandering Aerials,” 13 September 2011, at www.chrono-tm.org/en/archives/60.
12 Postanovlenie Kabineta Ministrov Respubliki Uzbekistan 5 avgusta 2011 g. N 228 O dopolnitel'nyh merah po sovershenstvovaniju sistemy monitoringa v sfere massovyh kommunikacij ("Decree No. 228 of the government of the Republic of Uzbekistan on additional measures to enhance the system of monitoring in the sphere of mass communication, 5 August 2011"), http://norma.uz/publish/doc/text64561_o_dopolnitelnyh_merah_po_sovershenstvovaniyu_sistemy_monitoringa_v_sfere_massovyh_kommunikaciy.
13 See par. 73 in Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue (A/HRC/17/27), 16 May 2011, at www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf
14 Ibid., par. 85.
15 Ibid., par. 76.


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