Bloggers in Kazakhstan recently staged a mock funeral for the internet to protest about a draft law they claim will smother free speech in the central Asian country’s virtual chat rooms. The deceased, a computer mouse, was delivered in a cardboard coffin to Kazakhtelekom, the state telephone company, followed by mourners carrying flowers.
The theatrical protest was the latest skirmish in what internet users have taken to calling the battle for “blogistan” as authoritarian governments in central Asia try to extend their control over conventional media to the untamed internet.
Kazakh officials claim the law, which criminalises online libel and allows prosecutors to shut down websites, is intended to protect people’s rights and stop the spread of terrorism, religious extremism and pornography. But it has drawn fire from international human rights organisations and prompted a rare political outcry in Kazakhstan. Internet activists argue the law’s real purpose is to prevent a feud in the ruling family from spilling on to the internet.
Since its publication in Germany last month, Kazakh censors have been scrambling to block distribution of a book about Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president, penned by a disgraced family member.
Embarrassing revelations about Mr Nazarbayev have nonetheless trickled on to the web since Rakhat Aliyev, his former son-in-law and secret police chief, fled Kazakhstan where he was convicted in absentia in 2007 for violent extortion and plotting a coup d’état.
Mr Aliyev’s book, The Godfather-in-Law, marks an escalation in a carefully crafted media campaign to settle scores with his enemies. The cover pictures a pistol-wielding official who bears a striking resemblance to Mr Nazarbayev. The book, meanwhile, claims to reveal embarrassing secrets about the president’s private life and dealings with foreign companies.
Kazakhstan’s prosecutor immediately banned the book and warned that journalists and newspaper editors found publishing extracts would land in jail.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of Kazakhstan’s International Bureau for Human Rights, says the book is already circulating online. As he points out: “If you managed to get hold of the Gulag Archipelago in Soviet times you can easily get hold of The Godfather-in-Law in the age of the web.”
Kazakhstan has in recent years sought to harness the power of the internet. Government ministers were this year ordered to launch interactive blogs, an unprecedented step in central Asia. Karim Massimov, the prime minister, even sought to champion internet free speech, posting an edition of Respublika, the Kazakh opposition newspaper, on an early blog after readers complained its website was blocked.
Mr Nazarbayev also told parliament recently that the computerisation of schools was among the greatest achievements of his 20-year rule.
But Mr Massimov and his fellow cabinet bloggers have maintained a stony silence on The Godfather-in-Law as Mr Aliyev is a hated figure in Kazakhstan and even mentioning him is taboo.
There are signs that Kazakhstan is fighting back online. Chatroom monitors at US-funded Radio Liberty’s Kazakh website say they have noted a surge in pro-regime postings that could signal the launch of a more sophisticated assault on dissent using methods perfected in China.
Opposition websites in Kazakhstan have also come under a barrage of attacks since The Godfather-in-Law was published while Mr Aliyev stopped chatting online altogether last week when he went into hiding.
The new law may, however, prove the most powerful tool for Kazakh officials.
Yuri Mizinov, editor-in-chief of the zona.kz website, says the rules will allow the government to impose an “information blockade”.
The bill is also a snub to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe which has asked Kazakhstan to ease media restrictions before it chairs the human rights watchdog next year.
Media experts say central Asian leaders, schooled in the communist era, are overreacting to the threat posed by the internet age. Private internet access is expensive and, although growing rapidly, is still limited to less than 10 per cent of the region’s 60m people.
Edil Baisalov, the Kyrgyz opposition leader who campaigns by blog from exile, says internet chat rooms are fast becoming hotbeds of grassroots debate.
“The future is coming. Authoritarians know it and they are scared to death by it. They want to be there, but they want to control it,” he says.
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