Reporters Without Borders is deeply disturbed by Kazakh information minister Darkhan Mynbai's announcement of measures designed to drastically restrict the flow of information in emergencies.
"The information minister is proposing nothing less than to strictly censor coverage of the most dramatic events," Reporters Without Borders said. "We urge the authorities to abandon this project, which is extremely dangerous for the Kazakh public's right to information.
"Controlling the flow of news and information is not the way to end rumours – quite the opposite. The way to stop rumours is for the government itself to provide information in a timely and responsible manner and to be as transparent as possible.
"Kazakhstan already has laws that protect national security and punish inciting violence and hate. What is this proposal's real aim? The government must not use disinformation as a pretext for imposing a news blackout on sensitive events. The news blackout imposed on last December’s riots in the western city of Zhanaozen unfortunately already showed the regime's predisposition."
The information minister unveiled his plans during an 11 September cabinet discussion of ways to improve the public alert system in emergencies. In former Soviet countries, all exceptional events threatening public safety, including natural disasters, transport accidents and terrorist acts, are designated as "emergency situations" that are handled by a "minister for emergency situations."
Although the cabinet's discussion was initially about natural disasters, the scope of the information minister's announcement was much broader.
"In emergency situations, we will reach an agreement with the management of the state media to prevent the dissemination of non-official information or alternative interpretations to those provided by the official information sources," Mynbai said.
"Questioning the veracity of (official) information or the spokesperson's competence (...) criticizing the actions undertaken by the authorities (...) and inciting citizens to act in one way or another" will be forbidden in "all the media – TV, print media and Internet." Similar agreements would also be reached with the privately-owned media, he said.
Officially, the goal is to "cut short rumours" and "provide better information to the public." The government has announced an overhaul of the public alert system by 2015 that will include having a pool of journalists in constant contact with the ministry for emergency situations.
Much of the population of Almaty, the business capital, was gripped by panic in May 2011 when rumours of earthquakes 75 km outside the city circulated on social networks. Local media pointed out that the government's silence only encouraged the rumours.
Traditionally regarded as a pillar of stability in the region, Kazakhstan has for more than a year been confronting unprecedented challenges in the form of violent labour unrest and terrorist attacks that have shaken its image.
Many union leaders and government opponents are currently on trial for their alleged involvement in the Zhanaozen riots, which were crushed with a great of bloodshed.
At the time, the region was cut off from the outside world. Telecommunications were suspended, journalists were banned from going to Zhanaozen and Twitter was blocked throughout the country. Since then, harassment of independent media has been on the increase.
Kazakhstan is ranked 154th out of 179 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and was placed "under surveillance" by Reporters Without Borders in March 2011 because of the increasing use of cyber-censorship.