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COVID-19 and increased state control in the information space

Article by Galiya Azhenova

July 22, 2021

COVID-19 and increased state control in the information space

2020 and 2021 so far has been a time of pandemic and quarantine, starting with an extremely difficult lockdown with restrictions on freedom and mitigation measures changing from time to time.


The media and journalists has been in the worst possible position during this time in comparison to the pre-COVID-19 era. Access to information, its receipt and distribution has worsened due to the transition of officials, responsible persons in ministries, departments and courts, to working online. This has allowed officials to not answer uncomfortable questions from journalists at briefings, interrupt questions and replies from the media, turn off microphones, to be considerably late in issuing press releases in the state Kazakh language and other problems. There are only a few known cases when colleagues were so massively indignant at the turning off of microphones that one of the other journalists demanded that their colleague be allowed to rejoin the online conference on the Zoom platform. This case with the journalist Serikzhan Mauletbai was reflected in the monitoring by the Adil Soz Foundation.


Journalists were deprived of the opportunity to ask questions directly during many of the online meetings with large departments. Journalists were required to send questions to the chat beforehand, and then during a meeting a moderator would read them out. The organisers of the press conferences filtered questions, and often ‘inconvenient’ questions were not included into discussions by moderator or speakers.


The police have also started attacking journalists. The journalists of ‘Astana’ and ‘Informburo’ TV channels (one of them who was Bakhrom Abdullaev) arrived at a fire in the Shymkent region late in the evening and were attacked by the police while reporting on it. After a public outcry, the journalists received apologies from the police authorities explaining that the police had not broken anything and that a mistake was made because the journalists did not have on identification vests. In another case, the same journalists were attacked by the police during the filming of a strike by villagers protesting against the closure of the jewelry factory and the arrest of the head of the factory.


Saniya Toiken, a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, a journalist with a vast experience of work in different and difficult regions of our country, the only winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) award in the nomination ‘For Courage in Journalism’, was repeatedly beaten and obstructed from her professional activities by the police. She told the Adil Soz Foundation correspondent that on: “October 24th 2020 a middle-aged man in civilian clothes took my phone away from me, threw me to the ground. No one helped me, I got up and ran after him to return my phone, because it was [a] corporate phone and I was responsible for it. I asked [for him to] give back my phone. Then people tried to take away my phone from that man. One policeman recognised me from the crowd and asked me to let that man go.” The journalist got her phone in a police station with all the videos and materials she had taken deleted off it. Additionally, the examination confirmed that Saniya was injured in the incident.[1]


In July 2021, the head of the press service of at the Almaty police department, S. Azirbek, called the Saniya Toiken “shameless”, characterised her behaviour as shameful and accused the journalist’s dead mother of badly parenting her daughter. In this verbal skirmish via WhatsApp, the journalist did not receive an answer to her question from either S. Azirbek or their deputy. She was also warned that from now on journalists would receive information via time consuming official channels of communication.


Ordinary citizens think: If officials and the police do not stand on ceremony with journalists, then why should we?

On June 9th 2020, the film crew of the information and analytical portal Azattyq Ruhy, journalist Rishat Askarbekuly and a cameraman, were attacked by a group of women near the house where a family tragedy occurred (a 69-year-old Almaty resident shot his son-in-law and daughter, and then committed suicide). One of the women grabbed the phone from the journalist’s hands and threw it with all her might on the asphalt. Then she pounced on the cameraman to take away his camera. The journalist and crew called the police and wrote a statement about the attack. However, attacks on journalists are rarely followed up on and police attacks on journalists are not punished at all.


During the period of lockdown and quarantine, it was difficult for journalists to move within the cities and regions. Even with an editorial card, assignment, journalist’s membership card, or identity card, they were required to obtain permission from the Akimat, the local executive body. They were not allowed to take any photos or videos of ambulances and patients, even when they were outside the clinics. Society demanded adequate and correct information on the virus, the number of the infected, deaths and recoveries, the availability of equipment, medicines and drugs, but journalists were given very limited or incorrect and conflicting information. Although the Criminal Code contains Article 158 ‘Obstruction of the lawful professional activity of a journalist’ since 2006 not a single complaint has reached the court.


According to, in 2020, incidents related to the lack of access to the Internet became noticeably more frequent in the country.[2] Over the last year the indicator increased more than 2.7 times and reached 2,000 cases. As in the previous year, the Internet was blocked on the eve of and during the period of unauthorised protests.


Legislative changes

The issue regarding the liability for defamation (Article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan) has been discussed for many years in the media and the legal community due to the impossibility of proving intent and meaning, as well as due to the extreme, harsh penalties in the event of a guilty verdict. As a rule, a court decision of this kind was not cancelled and the punishment was often in the form of large fines or even imprisonment. There was also a possibility of recovering millions of tenge as a moral damage in a related civil order. In addition, a person convicted under a criminal article could potentially become restricted to travel abroad and could have trouble being hired. The Adil Soz Foundation asked the President to instruct the Supreme Court to develop a bill on the decriminalisation of defamation in order to include this type of offense in the Civil Code instead of the Criminal Code.


However, contrary to the expectations of society – journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders – ‘Defamation’ has instead been moved from the Criminal Code to the administrative one. The law was developed by the General Prosecutor’s Office. Now journalists face a serious fine and a maximum of 30 days in prison (instead of three years) in case defamation is proven. District police officers got involved in defamation cases, with absolutely no understanding of the linguistic and special understanding of the text, which has resulted in a stream of administrative court decisions against activists and members of their families. For example, in the oil and gas producing region Mangistau, people who expressed their own opinion or assessment in a negative but decent form regarding a civil servant on the Internet, are being obliged to pay a fine in the amount of 180 to 200 MCI (500,000 tenge, which is about $1,200. For comparison: the average salary of workers is about 70,000-80,000 tenge).


The law of the Republic of Kazakhstan ‘On Mass Media’, in force since 1999, and amended in 2020, strengthens bureaucratic control over freedom of expression. The work on a fundamentally new law, adequate to the realities of the digital era, promised in 2017 by the then Minister of Information and Social Development Dauren Abaev (who has been First Deputy to Head of the Presidential Administration since May 2020) is currently in stagnation. By the end of 2020, the Ministry informed the Adil Soz Foundation that the ministry’s specialists had developed a draft concept of the Law on Mass Communication, but never shared its text, citing the need for revision, which usually means the process of coordination with the Presidential Administration and the Government.


An expert group of human rights defenders, civic activists, IT specialists, researchers, journalists and lawyers released a statement that the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan (in short ‘On the regulation of digital technologies’), signed by the President on June 25th 2020, was adopted without widespread consultation with civil society and on a tight schedule during a pandemic. The authors of the statement believe that the law on digital technologies creates the conditions for illegal surveillance and the leakage of personal data, since there is no independence, transparency and accountability of the newly authorised body. They argue that there is no clear wording in the law and that it might cause excessive control over correspondence, traffic in the network, and citizens’ behaviour on the Internet, creating a restriction over it Internet resources, as well as not providing society any civil control over the issue.


All these changes announced by the Government are aimed at strengthening state control in the information space.


Galiya Azhenova is Head of the Public Center for Expertise on Information Disputes at the Adil Soz International Fund for the Protection of Freedom of Speech. She has extensive experience in this position related to the organisation and preparation of linguistic research at the request of lawyers, journalists, individuals and legal entities for submission to court and law enforcement agencies to protect their rights. Together with her colleagues, she also works to monitor violations of the freedom of speech of the media and journalists. Previously she was connected with the state TV channel ‘Kazakhstan’, where for 20 years she worked as a journalist, editor and TV presenter in social programs and the news sector.


[1] CPJ, Kazakh police assault, injure journalist Saniya Toiken covering protests in Nur-Sultan, October 2020,

[2] See

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