Special Report
“Qazaqstan Shutdown 2022”
Access to Information
Access to Information
Article author
Diana Okremova
Legal Media Center Public Foundation
In the time of the total shutdown, which all Kazakhstani residents had to deal with, the access to public information was quite difficult. However, the government understood that keeping people in the information vacuum is not a good idea as it could produce more problems. That is why, in the midst of the events (on January 5-6), when internet was blocked throughout the entire country, citizens of Kazakhstan received actual information through TV (channels Khabar 24, Qazaqstan, and Atameken Business were operating). Mainly, they showed news on what was happening in Almaty and other regions, President's addresses, and warnings on the possible administrative and criminal liability for incitements to extremism and terrorism as well as for spreading knowingly false information and staying outside during the night-time curfew.
On the 8th of January Akorda informed that people could now read fresh news at inform.kz, qazaqstan.kz, tengrinews.kz, 24.kz, baq.kz, baigenews.kz, and stopfake.kz without an internet connection. On the same day, they made it possible to use bank services of Kaspi and Halyk even if no internet was available. The rescue authorities continued to send regular text messages on the imposition of the night time curfew.
As to the official web resources, they regularly updated their contents. Thus, on the 5th of January, the website of the Ministry of Information and Social Development published the material dedicated to the liability of mass media under a state of emergency. Later on, the website provided immediate information on air flights, imposition of the state of emergency, situation in various regions of Kazakhstan, internet connection restrictions, and many other topics.
Akorda.kz continuously posted official statements, starting from the 3rd of January. For the convenience of Kazakhstanis, they arranged hotlines to answer questions on air flights, search of missing persons, prices on food and fuel products, and also to provide psychological and legal assistance.
On January 7th, Kazakhstanis received an SMS-notification from Akorda that news would be delivered via text messages. The following messages contained information that the Head of the State would make a speech, and also that all entrepreneurs who had suffered from riots would receive support from the State.
Access to information was promptly arranged for the benefit of businesses that incurred losses during the events of January, including a special hotline and a permanent contact with the specialists of the Atameken Chamber.
Since mass media resources were blocked, many people were restricted in their access to political information. It led to the situation when some citizens of Kazakhstan had no idea that the CSTO forces had arrived in the country.
As to the access to information in the regions, their situations were different under the state of emergency. Thus, Zhenis Kassymbek, the akim of Karaganda oblast, held a meeting on the 7th of January, where he tasked his department heads to provide prompt and precise information on the ongoing events and himself answered all questions of the journalists. However, it was not like that in all regions
The situation also showed that not all governmental authorities were ready to work in a well-timed and well-orchestrated manner under the state of emergency. For instance, up to now police has not provided clear and specific data on the number of victims, offenders, or reasons of why law enforcement agencies were on the losing side on January 5-8. Journalists and citizens keep asking for this information, but it seems contradictive and carries little credibility. Civil activists Asem Zhapisheva and Bella Orynbet organized petitioning “For the disclosure of the names of those who died or got injured”.
Besides, one of the hottest topics remains the location of the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Official messages of his press-secretary state that the first president stayed in the capital, and yet starting from the dawn of the tragic events and until his 4-minute TV speech as of January 18th, Nazarbayev never showed in public and made no appeal to the nation. That is why the majority of the population thought him to leave the country or be dead.
In general, it may be concluded that the access to information under the state of emergency was restricted on various levels and in various spheres. Such restrictions were mainly focused on the information regarding the grounds and authors of the tragic events, as well as the number of those dead and injured. That said, article 6 of the Law “On Access to Information” contains a provision that prohibits any restrictions of information on emergency situations that threaten the safety and security of people, on the facts of terroristic activities, on the state of fire safety, and so on.
So, the right of the citizens to access to information was partially restricted and violated.
International provisions that regulate access to information also envisage the maximum access, except for the absolutely extraordinary circumstances. Thus, the Johannesburg Principles indicate the limits of restrictions deemed allowable for the interests of the national security and under a state of emergency.
Taking into consideration all above said, one can say that Kazakhstanis did not have an objective possibility to evaluate the degree of the “extraordinary necessity”, and the government provided no clearly-stated grounds to that extent. The assessment of the degree of the “extraordinary necessity” was performed by the governmental authorities only, who later used this justification to decide on which information might be published, and which not.
During the state of emergency, international organizations made their statements on the freedom of information in Kazakhstan.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet urged the authorities of Kazakhstan “to ensure that Internet services are immediately and completely restored”, reminding on their vitality “for emergency health services during the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Recommendations
The Government of Kazakhstan should:
● Strictly adhere to the provisions of the international and national legislation in the field of access to information;

● Conduct transparent and objective assessments of the degree of necessity to restrict access to information during a state of emergency, providing a very detailed information in each case;

● Contribute to the maximum disclosure of the information, especially if it is of a high public concern.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Teresa Ribeiro, stated that “unrestricted access to information, offline and online, represents important elements of public security and should always be respected. I call on the authorities of Kazakhstan to preserve, protect and advance media freedom in the country for the benefit and comprehensive security of the country and the OSCE region at large”.
“By manipulating internet access — shutting it off one day, allowing limited access the next — the government of Kazakhstan is exerting its authority over the country,” Access Now noted. “That’s not how things are allowed to work. Governments should empower people through access to information and communication, not threaten to ‘shoot to kill,’ then disconnect a population exercising its right to protest.”.