Wed, 19 Jun 2019

Kazakhstan's state information czar has swatted away concerns that the government is censoring the internet by impeding access to Facebook. The social media platform is not being blocked, Information Minister Dauren Abayev told reporters on December 10 - it is just that Facebook is not popular anymore.

"The popularity of Facebook is on the wane. I think that Instagram is more popular now. Maybe that is the problem," Abayev was quoted as saying on December 10 by the local edition of Forbes magazine.

Online users may need a little more than this illogical take to be convinced.

The blocking of popular websites is recurrent gripe in Kazakhstan. Accessibility issues with resources like Facebook, YouTube and the Telegram messaging app typically occur a few hours every evening. The situation was first noted after a court ruled in March to designate a marginal exile-based opposition movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, or DVK, an extremist group. In line with that ruling, authorities have taken measures to impede the availability of that group's content, including occasional Facebook live sessions by DVK founder Mukhtar Ablyazov.

This ban was given further formal sanction in October, when the government adopted a decree authorizing the General Prosecutor's Office, the National Security Committee, the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry to bar access to online resources during what the document loosely described as "emergency situations."

Free speech advocates have also raised the issue of an ongoing government initiative requiring all phone users to register the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of all their mobile devices. The rule will in effect greatly simplify state surveillance - a fact that authorities insist is needed to combat terrorism.

Abayev also dismissed concerns that phone users would now become increasingly prone to snooping.

"This does not mean that any law enforcement agency will be able to just undertake surveillance as part of its functions. For that to happen, they need to get permission from the courts," Abayev said.

The minister also said creating the IMEI database would help clean the slate of unused accounts and fight against tax evasion.

Abayev was on the receiving end of multiple technology-related questions from journalists because he was in parliament to talk about the government's digital development program, which is being cast as a way to add dynamism to Kazakhstan's economy.

Abayev's ministry was created in May 2016 with the ostensible aim of improving access to official information, but critics argue that things have only got worse for the media since that time. As Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a correspondent for independent newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya, told RFE/RL's Kazakhstan, the Information Ministry has, instead of protecting the media, defended authorities increasingly bent on controlling society.

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