- - Friday, December 30, 2011

BERLIN — Kazakhstan’s crackdown on independent media and social networking sites this month has sparked a debate about censorship in this Central Asian nation.

The Kazakh government shut down Internet access and mobile phone coverage early this month in the western region of Mangistau after ongoing protests there by oil workers on strike turned violent and police killed 15 people. Journalists were denied access to the region, and media coverage of events there have been restricted.

“This strike has been a focal point for censorship,” said Johann Bihr, director of Reporters Without Borders’ European and Central Asia desk. “The situation regarding freedom of speech in Kazakhstan has never been good, but this year especially has seen a violent crackdown. Since it began in May, the independent media that reported this strike have been severely repressed.”

For two days following the violence in Mangistau, the government blocked the social networking site Twitter across the country.

Aleksandr Danilov, a blogger in the city of Almaty in eastern Kazakhstan, said that many voices in the Kazakh online community actually support such restrictions.

“Kazakh [Internet users] actively discussed the blocking of Internet resources and opinions were divided. There were those who argued for a complete blockage of social [networking] resources in order to prevent provocations,” he said. “Many argue that by [instant] notifications from Twitter, unrest could well have been coordinated through this social network.”

Several days after the initial crackdown, Kazakhstan’s government has allowed journalists some access to the region. But Reporters Without Borders says they have been subject to tight restrictions by security forces as to what they are allowed to see and report.

The government also invited a group of bloggers to visit the region, and Mr. Danilov said their coverage has provoked fierce debate online.

“In my opinion, no one would expect much out of it because they can cover only that part of the situation which will be shown to them,” Mr. Danilov said.

“The trip has divided Kazakh [Internet users] into several camps — those who are outraged by selected bloggers and blamed them for the violence, those who fully support their work, and those who sought through these bloggers access to information other than [that from official sources].”

The media accounts authorized by the government have blamed the unrest in Mangistau on “hooligans” and opportunists who took advantage of the strike to provoke political instability — and not the oil workers, who have sympathy from much of population for their demands for better working conditions and fair pay.

Mr. Danilov said that while official media sources have come under fire for lack of coverage of the recent unrest, independent media sources are often characterized as having been “bought” by foreign interests or opposition political groups.

Timur, a 22-year-old student from Almaty, says he feels sorry for the oil workers but tends to believe the official version of events.

“The information about events … is available both in government and independent mass media, but they differ a lot,” Timur said. “It is disturbing that independent media is making hasty conclusions. We need to investigations into events and only after that can we really tell the reasons.”

T. Umaraliev reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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