The official flag of the Republic of Kazakhstan

The Republic of Kazakhstan is located in central Asia and shares nearly 5,000 miles of its northern border with Russia (Stratfor). While Kazakhstan is an independent country, Russia has strong influences over social, economic, and political factors of Kazakhstan.

The country is known for its mistreatment of human rights and limitations on free speech and free press. According to Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom ranking, Kazakhstan is number 160 of 180 countries as of 2016 (Reporters). Kazakhstan has achieved one ranking higher on the freedom scale since its ranking of 161 in 2014 and has maintained number 160 since 2015 (Reporters). The rankings of countries are based on evaluations of the level of independence the media has in that country and compared to the number of violent incidents involving journalists and other media professionals (Reporters).

While Reporters Without Borders shows a positive change in Kazakhstan’s free speech and free press, other sources show a decline. Freedom House has given Kazakhstan a freedom score of 5.5 on a 7 point scale, 7 being the worst, since 1998 (Freedom House). However, in 2017 the number rose to 6 on the basis that there was a severe lack of political choice and a rise in government efforts to silence dissenting opinions (Freedom House). It is clear that while Kazakhstan claims to be a republic, civilians have limitations on freedom and expression.


The population of Kazakhstan as of 2017 is 18,053,718 (World).The majority of the country is made up of ethnic Kazakhs making up 63.1 percent and other ethnicities, the majority of them Russian, making up 23.7 percent of the population (World). Muslim is the majority religion with 70 percent of the population and Christianity comes in second with 26 percent (World). The life expectancy is 69 years old and on average a woman gives birth to 2.41 children.

Kazakhstan’s official name is the Republic of Kazakhstan and its government is a republic under Authoritarian Presidential Rule (globalEDGE). Kazakhstan’s constitution declares the country contains three branches of government just like the United States, but the executive branch undoubtedly controls the majority of power.

Kazakhstan covers one million square miles of Central Asia and although it is a landlocked country it touches the Caspian and Aral sea (Lerner-11). Kazakhstan shares a border with Russia in the north, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan to the south and China to the east (Lerner-11).

Kazakhstan is no stranger to political and economic turmoil, and violence has been embedded in the country’s earliest days. In 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. The Hsiung-nu entered Kazakhstan from Siberia. The Hsiung-nu were cattle and sheep herders and later they moved west into Russia. Those who stayed in Kazakhstan were overtaken by Mongolians. The sixth century saw the rise of the Turkish empire leading Turks to flood into Kazakhstan, but over the next 500 years, Arabs frequently attacked the empire. Along with violent outbreaks, the Arabs brought with them Islamic traditions that are responsible for the Muslim majority seen in Kazakhstan today. This was only the beginning of violence in Kazakhstan. Later on, in the 13th century, Genghis Khan united Mongol groups and invaded Kazakhstan. Eastern Kazakhstan became part of the Mongol empire and different groups controlled the area until the 1500s. The clans eventually broke away from the empire and multiple ethnic Kazakh groups lived independently and expanded their territories throughout Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs were separated into three Hordes: Little Horde, Middle Horde, and the Great Horde. The Horde’s biggest enemy at the time was the czars ruling the Russian empire. Tensions grew between the hordes and Russia and many fights broke out. It wasn’t until Russia brought Little Horde to order after it had been under constant attacks from China that the hordes and Russia achieved some sort of peace. By the 1840s Russia had control over the Great Horde and the Middle Horde. Shortly after Russians began to settle in Kazakhstan. The peace between Russians and Kazakhs was short lived because of Kazakhs rebels like Amangeldy Imanov who led an uprising in Kazakhstan in 1916. The rebellion spread throughout Asia and the weak czar of Russia lost control of Kazakhstan. When the Russian Revolution happened Kazakhs took the opportunity to start a self-rule movement called Alash Orda to fight the communists. Over one million Kazakhs died in the civil war and Soviet forces once again gained control over the area. Communist organizations were set up in the region and in 1912 the USSR established Kazakhstan as the Autonomous Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Under Stalin’s rule, Kazakh industry changed drastically. Private property was given to the communist government and the traditionally nomadic Kazakhs were forced to join collectives. In the 1930s Stalin began industrializing territories within the USSR. With the rise of new urban industry in Kazakhstan came a migration of ethnic Slavs and germans eager to work. Most Kazakh leaders tried to resist the changes of the USSR and many of them were executed. In 1936 the Russians officially took over the government in Kazakhstan and the SSR became known as the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. During World War Two  Soviet industry was transferred to Central Asia to keep it safe from the intrusion of German troops. This caused a rise in production and increased investment of Soviet planners in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan also became a place of exile for people Stalin labeled as disloyal to his rule. After World War Two, Kazakh agriculture declined from drought and the Soviet Union was forced to import grain to feed people. By the 1980s food shortages were the biggest problem in Kazakhstan. Around the same time Soviet Leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, appointed Nursultan Nazarbayev as the new leader of Kazakhstan. Protests and public criticism of the government were at an all time high due to the new Glasnost reform that allowed Soviet citizens to openly criticize government officials. The Soviet government declined in power and in 1991 Kazakhstan, amongst other Soviet territories, declared its independence. Nazarbayev was re-elected as president in November 1991 and slowly he dismantled communism in Kazakhstan. All state-owned industries were sold off to private owners and foreign countries have been allowed to explore Kazakhstan’s abundant oil fields. While the country remains independent from Russia, the former USSR, Russian influences still have a tight grasp on Kazakhstan’s economy and politics. (Lerner 25-37).

Free Speech.

In section two, article 20 of Kazakhstan’s constitution, free speech is guaranteed to every citizen and censorship is prohibited; however, Kazakhstan’s government is known to heavily restrain speech and assembly freedoms (Parliament). Harassment and torture are two methods used by officials to punish those who express criticism of government affairs and officials. Kazakhstan’s government is known for its punishment of criticism on social media.

Sanat Dosov, a Kazakh businessman, was sentenced to three years in prison on December 2016 for insulting Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Facebook (The Long). Dosov’s sentence is an example of the government’s attempt to restrain political opinions on social network sites (The Long). Catherine Putz, writer for The Diplomat, writes, “Dosov was charged under the infamous Article 174 of the Kazakh criminal code, which outlaws actions aimed at inciting ‘social, national, generic, racial, class or religious hatred’ as well as the ‘insult of the national honour and dignity or religious feelings of citizens.’” (The Long). Article 174 is notorious for being vague as well as its involvement in free speech cases involving social media.

Another victim of Kazakhstan’s Article 174 is the leader of Algha opposition party, Vladimir Kozlov. Kozlov reported investigations of the violent deaths of 16 people in the Kazakh town of Zhanaozen. Kozlov shared his findings with the European Parliament and the European Commission. Shortly after, he was arrested and found guilty of Article 174’s notion of inciting hatred (Pannier). It was also reported that Kozlov was given an unfair trial, a factor often reported in free speech cases involving Kazakhstan (Pannier). While Kazakhstan claims to protect speech, assembly, and religion, Article 174 is the country’s loophole to control the online conversation.

Another example of this was the August 2015 arrest of Adventist Church member, Yklas Kabduakasov (Pannier). Kabduakasov was arrested and sentenced to seven years of restricted freedom and two years in a labor camp for insulting the religion of Islam in a conversation he had amongst his students (The Victims). Gulmira Shaldykova, Kabduakasov’s lawyer, stated in another article that the trial included little to no evidence (Pannier).

According to the International Freedom of Expression (IFEX), in November 2016 two Kazakh activists were sentenced to five years in prison and fined $1,500 (USD) over a peaceful protest (The Kazakh). Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan were found guilty of inciting social discord, spreading knowingly false information, and violating the law regulating public assemblies (The Kazakh). According to the Kazakh constitution, assembly is an unalienable right; however, members of assemblies are required to have permission from local authorities. In this case, permission was denied and Bokaev and Ayan proceeded forward with their peaceful protest over opposition to the government’s reform of Kazakhstan’s land code (The Kazakh). The two activists were subject to an unfair trial in which the judge denied witnesses the right to appear in court (The Kazakh). Along with the activist’s prison sentences, they will be banned from civic activity for three years after their release (The Kazakh). Erlan Kaliev, a monitor of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, monitored the trial and stated that the trial did not meet international fair trial standards (The Kazakh). In another instance, Maina Kiai, UN rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, stated that Kazakhstan’s government regulation of peaceful assembly “deprives the right of its meaning.” (The Kazakh).

Free Press.

Reporters Without Borders provides a barometer that measures press freedom based on media professionals who were killed or imprisoned in relation to their journalistic work (Reporters). As of 2017, 190 journalists are imprisoned in 32 different countries around the world and two of those journalists are currently imprisoned in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has a long history of abusing journalists and other independent media professionals.

Igor Larra, a reporter for Svoboda Slove (Freedom of Speech) newspaper, was brutally beaten outside his home after producing controversial reports over the Aktobe region administration of Kazakhstan (Interfax). Larra, who died from his wounds, had similar occurrences and it is suspected that officials were punishing him for his journalistic work (Interfax). These attacks on journalists are not uncommon and many journalists face repercussions for their work in media.

In 2012, Lukpan Akhmedyarov was attacked by five men who stabbed him outside of his home (Kates). Akhmedyarov is an editor of the Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper in Kazakhstan and had received threats about his involvement with organizing protests (Kates). The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York criticized the attack and an investigation is underway (Kates). However, like most media involved cases the likelihood of an unfair trial is high.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has raised numerous concerns over Kazakhstan’s behavior towards media professionals. One of the most criticized cases involves the arrest of Seytkazy Matayev, head of the Kazakh Journalists’ Union (Committee). Authorities arrested Matayev on charges of tax fraud and embezzling state funds; however, officials have not released any evidence proving the allegations (Committee). Under the charges, Matayev could face up to 12 years in prison and the confiscation of his assets (Committee). Tamara Kaleyeva, head of local press freedom group, Adil Soz, said that the charges against Seytkazy Matayev were retaliation for previous reports published ahead of parliamentary elections (Committee). Prior to the arrest, Matayev had received harassment from local and city officials over his statements made in various publications (Committee). This is not the first time, Kazakhstan’s government has arrested journalists on financial allegations with little to no evidence.

Kazakhstan’s government officials are known to harass independent news outlets both on a local level and on a national level. The news of the arrest of Zhanbolat Mamay, editor-in-chief of Tribuna, has spread worldwide (Soz). Similar to Matayev, Mamay was arrested on financial allegations. Mamay is accused of laundering money and embezzling from BTA Bank through his connections within Tribuna (Soz). Mamay has also been connected to Mukhtar Ablayazov, opposition leader and former head of BTA Bank (Soz). Mamay has continuously denied the allegations and claims his arrest was politically motivated (Soz). Holes in the investigation have been spotlighted by many news outlets. For instance, the embezzlement occurred in 2009 and Mamay did not become editor-in-chief of Tribuna until 2012 (Soz). Kate Morris, head of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19 said, “His arrest is yet another blatant attack on freedom of expression, and leaves very few independent papers left who can criticize or hold the government to account.” (19). Mamay is currently awaiting trial alleged offenses and has reportedly been beaten to unconsciousness by police while being held in confinement(IFEX). The alleged accusations of Mamay are punishable by deprivation of liberty of up to seven years (19). The case has damaged Kazakhstan’s reputation of free press on an international level. Tribuna is said to be one of the last independent news sources left in the country, which means it does not receive any government funding like most media outlets in Kazakhstan (IFEX). If Kazakhstan continues to harass and arrest journalists of independent news outlets, the authoritarian government will have complete control over the country’s media.

Critical Comparison.

The rankings of Kazakhstan and the United States on Reporters Without Borders Freedom Index is separated by more than 100 countries (Reporters). The United States is ranked in the upper tier of speech freedom coming in at number 41 (Reporters).

According to the constitutions in both countries, freedom of assembly is an unalienable right. However, Kazakhstan has created heavy restrictions on assembly. For instance, in the case of Bokaev and Ayan, the two activists were arrested for not having prior permission from local authorities. Although the protest was peaceful, the men were quickly arrested and removed from the scene. The United States has its own regulations with assembly, but the restrictions are more lenient and justified. For example, some protests require a permit and permit fee; however, the fee must be reasonable and officials cannot withhold a request for a permit because of the context of the protest (Hudson). In the case of Forsyth County v. The Nationalist Movement, the Supreme Court dismissed legislation that authorized a higher permit fee to groups whose protest required more security (Hudson). According to Hudson, the court concluded “free-speech and assembly rights should not become more costly just because marchers may elicit a hostile reaction from onlookers.” (Hudson).

Kazakhstan’s opposition to independent news outlets is internationally known. While Kazakhstan claims to protect the freedom of the press, they censor many news outlets by means of harassment and unjustified arrests. News outlets frequently criticize the U.S. government, but their rights are protected nonetheless. The United States protects the voice of the press, such is the case in New York Times v. Sullivan. The United States voted to protect false information posted in the press on the notion there was no malice involved. Kazakhstan condemns false information and true information that comes in the form of government criticism. If Kazakhstan’s government continues to bully and abuse independent news outlets there will soon be none left and the entirety of the country’s press will be regulated by the government.  


The United States takes a consistent deontological approach, while Kazakhstan seems to take a utilitarian approach to free speech cases. Despite its own regulations, the United States has maintained its values of free speech and free press since 1791. Kazakhstan’s actions in free speech and free press cases are inconsistent with the country’s constitution; perhaps this is because Kazakhstan’s constitution is nearly 17 years old (globalEDGE). The Republic of Kazakhstan will maintain its freedom ranking of 160 out of 180 countries if something is not done to protect journalists in the country. The media and the government must coexist peacefully in order for the country to prosper as a republic. Citizens of Kazakhstan will fear to express themselves if arresting people because of a Facebook post continues to be a common occurrence. It is unclear what the future holds for Kazakhstan’s free speech and press, but from an outsider looking in, there will be nothing free about it.  

This essay was last updated on April 25, 2017

Works cited
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“The Kazakh Reality: 5 years in prison over peaceful protest.” IFEX, 29 Nov. 2016, http://www.ifex.org/kazakhstan/2016/11/29/activists_sentenced/. Accessed 28 March, 2017.
“The Long Arms of the Kremlin?: Kazakh Man Goes to Prison for Insulting Vladimir Putin on Facebook.” Global Voices, 29 Dec. 2016, https://globalvoices.org/2016/12/29/the-long-arm-of-the-kremlin-kazakh-man-goes-to-prison-for-insulting-vladimir-putin-on-facebook/. Accessed 28 March, 2017.
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