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Censorship and control of the internet in Central Asia

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Brussels 28 November 2011. A briefing paper issued today by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and four partner organizations highlights problems of censorship and control of the internet and other new media in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The authorities of these countries closely monitor 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 challenge official policies.

“These Central Asian governments have sought to justify their repressive approach to the internet and other new media with the fight against ‘extremism’ and other vaguely defined security threats. However in reality they use this fight as a pretext for implementing measures that stifle free speech and help preserve their grip on power,” said Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director.

As documented in the briefing paper, the government of Kazakhstan has put in place various mechanisms to monitor and filter online material. Access is regularly blocked to web sites that contain information showing those in power in a bad light. As of October 2011, more than 100 web sites had been blocked for allegedly containing “extremist” propaganda, among them the popular blog community Live Journal. The online video portal stan.tv, which has provided independent coverage of the oil worker strike that is currently underway 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 last month. The online news outlet guljan.org, which reports on corruption and other misconduct involving official figures, has been subject to invasive cyber attacks and one of its reporters was recently convicted on criminal defamation charges.

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, 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 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). A campaign has been re-launched to dismantle private satellite dishes, one of the few remaining means for obtaining independent information in the country.

Uzbekistan is another post-Soviet country characterized by a pervasive regime of internet control and censorship: online 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 state telecom 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 activists 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.

“The EU and other international actors should condemn the sweeping restrictions imposed on the internet and other new media in Central Asia and use their leverage to push for concrete steps to improve the situation,” said Brigitte Dufour. “As we have seen in the Arab world this year, the internet can play a crucial role in empowering citizens to exercise freedom of expression and other fundamental rights,” she added.

The briefing paper published by IPHR and its partners the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan will be presented at a roundtable on Challenges to Freedom of Expression in New and Traditional Media in Central Asia, which will take place in the European Parliament on 29 November 2011.

The full text of the briefing paper is available here.

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