Kazakh government shuts down internet to control narrative

12.Jan

January 12th, 2022

In the beginning of the year, the normally quiet Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan was rocked by mass protests. What began as peaceful gatherings centred on economic issues quickly turned into country-wide riots, with looting and gunshots on the streets. The regime managed to survive,  mainly on the back of a Russian-led intervention, but also thanks to a complete blockade of information, making it impossible for the world and its own citizens to make sense of the situation.

By the end of the last decade, almost everyone around the world had a smartphone and used social media. Live news feeds and messengers revolutionised mass protests: the participants could communicate and coordinate with each other, while outside observers received videos and bulletins from the middle of the action faster than ever before. Over the past decade, I got used to the fact that you can quickly understand the character and the scale of any mass protest, be it in Algeria or Russia. And the recent events in Kazakhstan have stressed just how important this ability is.

When the situation started to spin out of control on 4 January, the Kazakh authorities attempted to seize the flow of information. As any modern autocracy, they were somewhat prepared to hijack the traffic, and tried to use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to block messengers and independent media. However, the system failed, and the government resorted to a more desperate tactic: pulling the plug.

Between January 4th and 9th, Kazakhstan was completely isolated. Only a handful of Telegram channels somehow managed to upload videos of riots, but it was impossible to understand who was shooting at whom, how many people were out on the streets and how many were wounded or dead. Coupled with closed borders, which prevented foreign journalists from entering, the media blackout gave the authorities the chance to present their own narrative via state television and press releases.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev justified his response with a far-fetched assertation that 20,000 terrorists, trained abroad, had entered the country unnoticed and seized military and police arsenals. The statement, which lacks any justifying evidence, smells of a concocted cover up to legitimise the bloodbath in Almaty and other cities. Unlike an authoritarian regime, journalists and democratic governments cannot resort to unsubstantiated declarations; they need facts to present a counter-narrative. However, in this case, they have been denied access to any verifiable information.

The Kazakh government’s strategy not only attacked its citizens’ and the international community’s right to information, it also struck a blow to its own economy: credit card and online payments did not work for almost a week, causing at least $3 million of damage. 

Lastly, the shutdown exposed a complete lack of understanding of the modern world by the elderly leaders of Kazakhstan. In 2022, shutting down the Internet is the absolute worst way to keep people indoors: left without a supply of information, a normal modern person would naturally worry and leave their home to check on relatives and friends.

In the modern world, shutting down the Internet is a backwards move. However, some regimes are ready for the losses if it gives them the slightest chance to hold onto power for one more day. Autocracies around the world should realise that an internet shutdown is an ineffectual strategy, which only causes more damage and anger. We, on our part, must not take communications for granted and realise how helpless we are without an uninhibited flow of information.

Photo by Markus Spiske

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