Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Persistence of Media Control under Consolidated Authoritarianism: Containing Kazakhstan's Digital Media

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Persistence of Media Control under Consolidated Authoritarianism: Containing Kazakhstan's Digital Media

Article excerpt

Abstract: Citizens of Kazakhstan have greater access to the Internet now than at any time in the past. However, the Nazarbaev regime has systematically cut off the supply of political analysis on the country's web sites while simultaneously shifting popular on-line consumption habits in non-political directions. The result is that the presence of the Internet in Kazakhstan is helping the authoritarian regime remain in power.

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On 5 February, 2014, Nurali Aytelenov, Rinat Kibrayev, and Dmitriy Shelokov--three bloggers operating in Kazakhstan--received 10-day sentences for hooliganism charges after being arrested for publicly protesting their exclusion from a meeting between selected bloggers and Akhmetzhan S. Yesimov--the akim of the Almaty oblast'. (1) A fourth blogger, Dina Baidildayeva, was briefly detained on 8 February, after she had staged a one-woman demonstration in central Almaty to express solidarity with her imprisoned colleagues. On both occasions, (2) police interrogators reportedly demanded lengthy explanations--in some cases provided by the detainees themselves--of the nature and scope of Internet blogging. Almaty authorities (or at least the police personnel tasked to conduct interrogations in these two cases) had apparently never heard of --let alone read--an online blog.

This account of the repressive wave of February 2014 in many ways represents a microcosm of the politics of digital media in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Despite their niche status within the Kazakhstani socio-political landscape, new media--and blogging in particular--have not escaped the repressive attention of the regime headed by Nursultan A. Nazarbaev. The enforcement of government control over the media landscape and, more generally, the limitation of freedom of expression are standard power technologies in authoritarian Kazakhstan. (3) Containing digital media, in this sense, does not represent an instance of discontinuity in the evolution of Kazakhstani authoritarianism.

In early 2014, repressive measures were enforced with the deliberate intention of blocking relatively prominent Internet activists from gaining access to Kazakhstan's limited public sphere. (4) In so doing, Nazarbaev and his associates demonstrated that they had rapidly assimilated the many lessons of Egypt and Tunisia, where digital media were instrumental in "spreading protest messages, [while] connecting frustrated citizens with one another." (5) It was the translation of on-line activity into political activism, and not the publication of controversial or subversive posts, that led the regime to detain the Almaty bloggers.

The visibly exaggerated response to the minor protests of 2014 might suggest that the elite in Astana had ultimately concluded that new media had come to represent a potentially destabilizing force within the Kazakhstani domestic landscape. The government's preoccupation with containing digital media, however, featured heavily in pre-2014 political developments and, in December 2011, characterized decisively the regime's posture throughout one of the most dramatic political crises that erupted in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. In the aftermath of the brutal repression of a workers' strike in Zhanaozen (Mangystau oblast', Western Kazakhstan), the Nazarbaev regime imposed a strict block on phone and Internet services over a radius of 65 km around the city center in order to avoid the diffusion of independent accounts of the government-sanctioned violence through social media. (6) Through the establishment of a suffocating legislative framework and the consolidation of adversarial relations between government and independent digital media, post-Zhanaozen Kazakhstan evolved into an inhospitable milieu for new media. (7) It was against this authoritarian backdrop that the multiple arrests of February 2014 took place.

The logic of regime control, therefore, offers an appropriate lens to analyze the numerous regulatory linkages connecting government policies and digital media in Kazakhstan. …

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