(New York) - The government of Kazakhstan should rescind a new law that significantly restricts media freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged Kazakhstan's international partners to press the government to repeal the law.
Kazakhstan is due to take over chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an organization grounded in human rights principles, in January 2010.
The law, a package of amendments to laws dealing with the media and the internet, was signed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev on July 10, 2009.
"Kazakhstan's leaders promised to make reforms before they take on the leadership of the OSCE," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But here they are just a few months away, cracking down on free expression. They can still change their minds and get rid of this law - and they should."
Under the new law, all forms of internet content - including websites worldwide, blogs, chat rooms, and the like - could potentially be considered "internet resources." As such, they will be subject to existing restrictive laws on expression, such as criminal libel.
"Unlimited access to the internet is extremely important in Kazakhstan because most other media outlets remain under de facto government control through a variety of direct and indirect means," said Cartner.
The law also broadens banned media content to cover political matters, including "the use of the media in order to interfere with election campaigns; to obtain certain election results; and to campaign when it is not allowed; to force someone to participate, or desist from participating in a strike; and to violate the law on conducting peaceful assemblies."
It also bars foreigners, foreign entities, and international organizations from using the media "to complicate or support the nomination or election of candidates, political parties, party lists."
"The wording of these bans seems to target political discussion, and it is so broad that it could easily give rise to arbitrary interpretations," said Cartner.
Even before the amendments were passed, there had been broad problems with media freedoms in Kazakhstan that create an environment of anxiety for journalists. In particular, government loyalists dominate broadcast media outlets, and independent journalists face harassment and criminal penalties for libel.
In one positive move, a provision that would have allowed the prosecutor's office to suspend the operations of a media outlet temporarily was struck from a draft of the law.
In mid-April, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights sent the Kazakh government a 24-page analysis of the draft amendments produced jointly with the organization's Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media. To the Kazakh government's credit, it granted permission to make the analysis public. The analysis was critical of the draft amendments, stating that they "go beyond the scope of their purpose and do not only restrict freedom of Internet resources but also of traditional media."
In their analysis, the two OSCE institutions recommended that Kazakhstan: "not apply media status to all Internet resources; set up clear criteria [for] which Internet resources are media and which not," and "review all restrictions in the draft law from the point of view of international standards on freedom of expression and limit them according to part  of article 20 of the Kazakh constitution," which guarantees freedom of speech and to freely receive and disseminate information.
On June 25, the day after Kazakhstan's parliament adopted the media law, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, urged President Nazarbaev not to promulgate it.