ARTICLE 19 welcomes the commitments made at the UN by the Government of Kazakhstan to undertake essential legal reforms, including to decriminalise defamation and amend overbroad incitement laws, to protect free expression. It is deeply disappointing, however, that the authorities failed to commit to the wider programme of reform required to meet its obligations under international human rights law, and protect civic space in the country.
‘We call on the Kazakh authorities to commit to implementing their UPR recommendations through a timeline for legal reform including amending overbroad incitement laws, in a fully transparent process, ensuring the full and effective participation of all concerned stakeholders, including civil society,” said Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia for ARTICLE 19. ‘While we support the plans to decriminalise defamation announced by the Government of Kazakhstan at the end of 2019, we are concerned that fines proposed in draft legislation to move defamation to an administrative offence are disproportionate and would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the country.’
The commitments came as part of the adoption of Kazakhstan’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) in Geneva. The UPR is a mechanism through which the human rights records of all UN Member States is regularly reviewed by other States, who make targeted recommendations aimed at improving the human rights situation in the State under review. The Government of Kazakhstan accepted 214 recommendations, of the 245 it had received.
In advance of Kazakhstan’s third UPR, ARTICLE 19 and Adil Soz raised concerns that the situation for freedom of expression had markedly deteriorated over the last five years. The authorities actively applied an overly restrictive legal framework to harass and obstruct the work of independent, and critical voices in the country, including media outlets, and civil society organisations. Powers to block online content were regularly being used against online media, or to restrict Internet access entirely, in clear violation of international human rights law and standards.
These concerns found support in the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights whilst countering terrorism, who raised her serious concerns at the misuse of article 174 of the Criminal Code to the activities of civil society activists and religious minorities, concluding that “the broad formulation of the concepts of “extremism”, “inciting social or class hatred” and “religious hatred or enmity” in national law are used to unduly restrict freedoms of religion, expression, assembly and association.”
Against this backdrop, the government’s commitment to repeal or amend several provisions incompatible with its obligations to protect freedom of expression are an essential first step towards reversing the shrinking of civic space. The government must urgently commit to a timeframe for the reform of the penal code in line with international standards, in particular to repeal provisions criminalising “false information” (article 274) defamation (article 130), insult (article 131), insult of public officials, including the President (articles 373, 375, 376, 378), and incitement to hatred (174) and terrorism or threats to national security (articles 256 and 180).
Urgent legal reform is essential for Kazakhstan to meaningfully implement the UPR recommendations and uphold its international human rights commitments. We will be closely monitoring authorities’ progress.