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Authorities in Kazakhstan Can’t Take a Joke

Instagrammer Faces Criminal Prosecution for Satirical News

Temirlan Ensebek talks to reporters outside a police station in Almaty, Kazakhstan on May 15, 2021.  © 2021 RFE/RL

Temirlan Ensebek, a 25-year-old from Almaty, Kazakhstan, is under criminal investigation on charges of “disseminating knowingly false information” in connection with the satirical Instagram account Qaznews24, which he ran for a few weeks in April. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.

On May 15, police detained Ensebek for questioning, carried out a search of his home, and confiscated two mobile phones and a laptop. After several hours of questioning, Ensebek was released. His lawyer, Zhanara Balgabaeva, told Human Rights Watch that she and Ensebek had to sign nondisclosure agreements.

A police statement issued that day said that information published on the Qaznews24 Instagram page “caused an ambiguous reaction from the public, as it misinformed the population and misled citizens.” The police noted that users actively reposted stories, sent “fake news” to each other, and duplicated posts on other platforms. They listed several examples, including “Once a year — Kazakhstanis will be restricted from traveling abroad” and “Majilis deputies revoke the law on compulsory declaration of income and property of deputies.” It appears that several regional media outlets republished Qaznews24 posts as actual news, not realizing the account was entirely satirical.

Balgabaeva said that while it was still operating, the Qaznews24 Instagram page had multiple disclaimers stressing that the information was “satirical content” and that any resemblance to actual people or events “was a coincidence.” Ensebek voluntarily deactivated the account on April 30, two weeks before authorities detained him for questioning, Balgabaeva said.

On May 16, the editorial board of the independent news outlet Factcheck.kz issued an open appeal addressed to Kazakhstan’s internal affairs minister entitled “Satire is not a crime.” In it, they urge authorities not to prosecute Ensebek and remind the government that “ensuring freedom of speech is an international commitment undertaken by Kazakhstan.”

Human Rights Watch echoes their call and urges the authorities to drop the groundless case against Ensebek.

Respecting and protecting free speech means allowing people to express criticism and satire without fear of retribution. The Kazakh government should amend or repeal laws that criminalize peaceful expression of critical views, such as article 274 of the Criminal Code, to prevent further arbitrary prosecutions that violate human rights.

The authorities may be trying to send the message that satire has no place in Kazakhstan, but all they have shown is that they can’t take a joke.

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