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The long arm of Roskomnadzor How Russia’s federal censor extends its power into Central Asia
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Roskomnadzor, the country’s federal censor, has gone into overdrive to limit Russians' access to "undesirable" media. A recent investigation from Mediazona, however, found that the Russian authorities feel threatened by Russian-language news outlets abroad as well — and not only outlets that publish media for Russian audiences, like Meduza, but also Kazakh and Kyrgyz outlets writing primarily for Kazakh and Kyrgyz readers. Undeterred by national borders, Roskomnadzor has been sending warning letters to Central Asian news outlets demanding they remove articles on the war in Ukraine — and threatening to block them in Russia, where millions of Central Asians live, if the outlets refuse. In English, Meduza explains what Mediazona learned about Roskomnadzor’s power abroad.
Russia’s federal censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, has long been in the business of restricting citizens’ access to media that doesn’t jibe with the Kremlin’s official line. In February and March of this year, just days after Moscow launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, the agency took media suppression to a new level, blocking hundreds of websites in days, including social networks like Facebook and Instagram as well as remaining independent news outlets such as Dozhd and Meduza. By early August, authorities claimed to have blocked roughly 138,000 sites on Russian territory.
As a new report from the independent media outlet Mediazona (blocked by Roskomnadzor in March) makes clear, however, the Russian authorities’ censorship ambitions extend beyond Russia’s borders. In recent years, Rosomnadzor has sent content removal demands to media outlets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan — sovereign countries that, despite having their own problems with media freedom, all now rank higher on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index than Russia. Since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, the watchdog agency has sought to restrict content related to the war published by outlets in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
According to Mediazona, the first Kazakh news agency to get a notification from Roskomnadzor was an outlet called NewTimes.kz. On April 14, the Russian censor sent a letter to the outlet claiming one of its articles contained “inaccurate, socially significant information about the special military operation being conducted by the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”
The story in question was about EU sanctions against Russia. Roskomnadzor gave NewTimes.kz’s editors 24 hours to delete the article; if they didn’t, the agency threatened, their entire site would be blocked in Russia.
While Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Information and Social Development maintains that Roskomnadzor’s demands have no jurisdiction in Russia, legal ramifications weren’t the only factor NewTimes.kz had to consider. Russia’s 2010 federal census found that more than 640,000 ethnic Kazakhs lived on Russian territory, while in 2019 alone, over 760,000 people from Kazakhstan registered with the Russian migration authorities. With less than 20 million living in Kazakhstan, the journalists at NewTimes.kz knew that having their site blocked in Russia would mean losing a non-negligible portion of their readership base. They saw little choice but to take the article down.
The next Kazakh outlet to receive a warning from Roskomnadzor was one called Exclusive.kz. This time, the censor took issue with a report about Russian and Ukrainian casualties that the site reprinted.
Exclusive.kg’s article consisted of statistics published by the Ukrainian Armed Forces' General Staff and the Russian Defense Ministry. “The ‘prohibited’ information was taken from open Russian sources,” a statement from the site said. The journalists decided to ignore the demand. Soon after, editor-in-chief Karlygash Yezhenova said, the site’s viewership numbers in Russia plummeted.
On August 10, the outlet Ratel.kz received a demand from Roskomnadzor to take down an article about how support for Russia’s war against Ukraine was declining among young and middle-aged people. The author cited data from the Levada Center, the Chronicles project, and an independent investigation from the BBC and Mediazona about Russian military losses.
Marat Asipov, director of Ratel.kz’s parent company, SAPMAR, accused Roskomnadzor of interfering in Kazakhstan’s domestic affairs and applying “information pressure.” He called on Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry to “remind Roskomnadzor that Kazakhstani citizens live under Kazakhstani laws.” Ratel.kz refused to bow to the agency’s demands, and, for reasons unknown to Asipov, Roskomnadzor appears not to have blocked the site.
The forbidden word
In late April, according to Mediazona, the Russian NGO Roskomsvoboda reported that Roskomnadzor had blocked the Kyrgyz independent news site Kloop on Russian territory following a court order by the Russian Attorney General.
Unlike Ratel.kz and NewTimes.kz, Kloop was given no warning. The outlet’s editor-in-chief, Anna Kapushenko, told Mediazona that she suspects the blockage was a response to Kloop’s use of the word “war” rather than “special military operation” to refer to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“We speak openly about what’s happening rather than omitting the Ukrainian position like Russian state media does,” Kapushenko said. “We call the war a war and use the word ‘invasion.’”
But this was far from the first time Roskomnadzor had interfered in Kloop’s work. In November 2021, the agency demanded Kloop delete a story about a Bishkek woman who died by suicide when she jumped out of a ninth-story window. According to the Russian authorities, the story contained information about suicide methods — a prohibited topic in Russian media. When the outlet refused, according to Kapushenko, Roskomnadzor blocked the site. They later unblocked it, though now it’s blocked again.
Mind your Zs and Vs
In March, Ratel.kz and the government-owned newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda were attacked by hackers. The attackers filled the homepages of both sites with pictures of the Russian flag, St. George’s ribbon, and the letters Z and V.
In June, sites with URLs similar to those of popular Kazakh news outlets, such as “inbussines.kz” and “newtiimes.kz,” began appearing online. The articles posted on the sites highlighted the “neighborly and brotherly” relations between Russia and Kazakhstan.
Kazakh journalists identified the sites’ owner as Vladislav Korablin, a Russian man from the city of Belgorod. When they contacted Korablin, he told them he was located in Ukraine and that he bought the domain names at the request of an anonymous client. Soon after, the sites were blocked.
Though Ratel.kz director Marat Asipov said he’s aware that Rosomnadzor’s interference in the Kazakh media space is low on his government’s list of priorities, the authorities do seem to have taken note of the issue. On the day before Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s August 19 meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry requested that Ratel.kz send them the original letter sent to the outlet by Roskomnadzor. Immediately after the leaders’ talks, Asipov’s outlet received a response from the Foreign Ministry. The letter said that Kazakhstan does not comply with rulings made by foreign government agencies — in other words, Roskomnadzor’s demands are not legally binding on Kazakhstan’s territory.
But Asipov was underwhelmed by the response. “The [Kazakh] Ministry of Information and Social Development didn’t react at all,” he told Mediazona, suggesting the government should have done more to address Rosomnadzor’s coercion attempts.
Still, he knows the ministry's inaction should come as no surprise: Astana has its own history of restricting citizens’ access to foreign independent news outlets. In October 2014, the Kazakh authorities blocked Meduza’s site in response to an article about the Kazakh city of Oskemen. The following month, they blocked Kloop’s site for an article about Kazakh children learning to handle weapons in ISIS camps.
As Mediazona noted, there’s no formal agreement between the Kazakh and Russian governments allowing them to interfere in journalists’ work in each other’s countries, but Moscow and Astana are parties to an agreement on “media cooperation” whose purpose is to guarantee that each country have free and equal access to information published in the other country. Kazakh authorities found no violations of Kazakh law in the articles published by NewTimes.kz, Exclusive.kz, or Ratel.kz that caught Roskomnadzor’s attention, the Kazakh Ministry of Information and Social Development told Mediazona.
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Diana Okremova, director of the Kazakh Legal Media Center, an NGO focused on media rights, told Mediazona that Roskomnadzor’s attempt to censor Kazakh media outlets can be understood as part of Russia’s information war. “On the Russian side, this is an attempt to keep the amount of information that doesn’t conform to its official narrative to a minimum. The editorial staff [of the Kazakh outlets] are making their decisions based on whether they want to keep their Russian readership. But in the 21st century, demanding that a site delete articles is absurd,” she said.
According to Mediazona, as of October 3, Roskomnadzor had not responded to the outlet’s request for comment. In its own official comment, the Kazakh Ministry of Information and Social Development reiterated that it blocks foreign sites that don’t comply with its demands.
English-language version by Sam Breazeale
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