Opponents accuse Kazakhstan of web clampdown as oil money shrivels

ALMATY (Reuters) - Opponents and rights groups have accused authorities in Kazakhstan of clamping down on free speech on the Internet in order to keep a lid on discontent as falling oil prices push down people’s real incomes.

A picture illustration shows a Google page dedicated to Kazakhstan's Independence Day as it is seen through a magnifying glass in Almaty, Kazakhstan, December 22, 2015. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Authorities have charged several political activists with inciting “discord” in Facebook posts, and online media critical of the government say their sites have been blocked.

New regulations have sparked fears some of the Central Asian country’s most popular websites may soon become inaccessible.

“At least four people have faced criminal investigations for inciting national discord for posts made on social media sites, under vaguely worded offences,” human rights group Amnesty International said this week.

A court sentenced blogger Yermek Taychibekov to four years in jail this month for using Facebook to call for unification with Russia. And two nationalist activists, Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev, are due to stand trial on the same “discord” charges for Facebook posts.

Run by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for 26 years, Kazakhstan has previously been relatively liberal towards the Internet. But falling crude prices have hit the oil producer hard.

The tenge currency, down more than 40 percent against the dollar this year, is headed for its biggest annual drop in 20 years, which has fueled a spike in consumer prices. Cheaper oil has also sharply reduced budget revenues.

“Money is running out and the only option is to tighten the screws,” said political analyst Nargis Kassenova.

“Also, it seems like they are preparing for elections and a political transition,” she added, referring to a parliamentary election expected in early 2017 and a potential transfer of power.

Nazarbayev himself said in 2012, in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East, that declining living standards and online social networks were among the factors behind them.

An announcement by government-controlled operator Kazakhtelecom has in particular sparked fears that the country is moving towards something like China’s Great Firewall, the world’s most sophisticated Internet censorship mechanism.

It said that from Jan. 1 Kazakh Internet users would need to install a “national security certificate” to be able to access foreign websites that use encryption. This would affect users of many of the most popular sites, such as Google and Facebook.

“The worst thing is that this is, at the same time, (a tool of) total control, a clumsy attempt to protect themselves from external threats, and a great opportunity for cyber criminals,” said Shavkat Sabirov, president of the Internet Association of Kazakhstan, an industry lobby group.

Kazakhtelecom originally said it would make the certificate available on its site in December, but has not yet done so and has not replied to repeated requests for comment from Reuters.

Reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva and Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Trevelyan