#KeepItOn during elections

Open letter: Kazakhstan and ISPs must ensure free, open, and secure internet access throughout the presidential elections

Your Excellency Kassym-Jomart Tokayev,

President of the Republic of Kazakhstan

CC: Alikhan Smailov, Prime Minister of Kazakhstan; Iskakov Kanat, Minister of Information and Social Development; Bagdat Mussin, Minister of Digital Development, Innovations and Aerospace Industry; Marat Akhmetzhanov, Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan; and Major-general Sagimbayev Yermek Aldabergenovich, Chairman of the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

СС: CEO Kuanyshbek Yessekeyev, Kazakhtelecom JSC, CEO Yuri Kharlamov, Kcell JSC, CEO Evgeniy Nastradin, Beeline Kazakhstan, CEO Sergey Konkov, Tele2/Altel Kazakhstan


Nations across Central Asia, and the world, must ensure people can access open, free, and secure internet when they need it the most — during important national events. 

We, the undersigned organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network that unites over 280 organizations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns globally — write to urgently appeal to you, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to publicly pledge your support to maintain free, open, and secure internet access in Kazakhstan before, during, and after the presidential elections scheduled for November 20, 2022.

As the people of Kazakhstan prepare to vote, it is essential that your government adopts and prioritizes measures to ensure that the election process is inclusive, free, and fair by providing everyone with unfettered access to information and avenues for free expression, assembly, and association — both offline and online.

Access to the internet and social media platforms enables people to exercise their right to engage in public discourse, and to hold their leaders accountable — all important tenets of any democratic society. The internet is increasingly essential in delivering access to economic, social, and cultural rights, especially amidst the pandemic. 

History of internet shutdowns in Kazakhstan

Authorities in Kazakhstan have weaponized the use of internet shutdowns including complete internet blackouts, throttling, and social media blockings since 2018, particularly during critical political moments such as elections and protests. Most recently, your government shutdown and throttled access to mobile and fixed-line internet on numerous occasions in January  2022 amidst widespread protests and deadly violence in Almaty and across Kazakhstan. Similarly, in March 2021, authorities hit the kill switch during anti-government protests, and in 2019 and in 2018 aimed at disrupting opposition political activities. 

Internet shutdowns harm human rights, disrupt emergency services, and cripple economies

Research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand. Shutting down the internet amidst already tense situations would add fuel to the fire. Internet shutdowns violate fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and opinion, access to information, press freedom, and freedom of peaceful assembly. Internet shutdowns cut off access to vital, timely, and life-saving information — allowing misinformation to flourish —  as well as to emergency services, plunging whole communities into fear and confusion. By disrupting the free flow of information, shutdowns exacerbate existing tensions and increase the likelihood of protests, and can conceal  violence and human rights violations perpetrated by both state and non-state actors against people. The last shutdown in Kazakhstan made it extremely difficult for human rights defenders and journalists to access information regarding the number of atrocities perpetrated against protesters by security forces. According to authorities, 238 people died in the January 2022 protests.

Additionally, internet shutdowns cause irreparable damage to people’s livelihoods and cost nations billions of dollars. During the January 2022 shutdown, personal banking was hard hit, disrupting use of debit cards, online purchases, mobile payments, and ability to withdraw cash, while the price of Bitcoin tumbling

Furthermore, your government has interfered with the media’s ability to report on recent events, affecting local media websites and blocking independent outlets such as Orda.kz and kaztag.kz, while limiting international media’s ability to connect with people on the ground. 

Internet shutdowns contravene national and international laws 

Internet shutdowns violate fundamental human rights guaranteed by national, regional, and international frameworks including the Republic of Kazakhstan’s constitution (article 20, 32), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kazakhstan has ratified. 

The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the ICCPR, emphasizes in its General Comment No. 37 that “state parties must not, for example, block or hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies. Since 2016, the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council, through several resolutions, has condemned intentional disruptions to internet access in violation of international law. In 2018, the Human Rights Council reaffirmed that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.” 

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in your address to the people of Kazakhstan on January 7, 2022, you established that “free access to the internet does not mean free publication of fabrications, slander, insults, and inflammatory appeals.” However, as the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément N. Voule, has rightly noticed, attempts to tackle problems such as disinformation and hate speech cannot justify “internet shutdowns, which are disproportionate by default, and should strictly adhere to international human rights principles and standards, including those concerning the right to freedom of expression.”

We reiterate UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, that shutting down the internet “is not the answer to a crisis but risks fueling the violence and unrest,” and her urgent appeal for internet access in Kazakhstan to be “immediately and completely restored.”

Telecommunications companies have a duty to respect human rights and provide access to remedy 

Businesses also have a responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to respect human rights, prevent or mitigate potential harms, and provide remedies for harms they cause or contribute to. In the case of state-owned enterprises, “states should take additional steps to protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises that are owned or controlled by the State.” 

According to the Special Rapporteur, Clément N. Voule, “companies should explore all legal options for challenging requests and disclose all relevant information about shutdowns and mitigate the impact of gag orders or other non-disclosure laws.”

Telecommunications providers in Kazakhstan have chosen to not take these obligations seriously during protests. By implementing internet shutdowns and website blocking, Kazakhtelecom, Kcell, Beeline Kazakhstan, Tele2/Altel Kazakhstan, and others abet the government’s unlawful orders and infringe upon the human rights of millions of people in Kazakhstan.

Recommendations to the Government of Kazakhstan:

As organizations that believe in the power of the internet and digital platforms as an enabler of human rights, we respectfully request that you use the important positions of your offices to:

  • Ensure that the internet, including social media and other digital communication platforms, remains open, accessible, and secure across Kazakhstan throughout elections, possible civic unrest, and thereafter;
  • Stop shutting down, throttling, or blocking the internet, and make a firm  commitment to refrain from imposing any unlawful restrictions on internet access and telecommunications in the future, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing conflicts in the region;
  • Repeal and amend any laws and policies that legitimize internet shutdowns, including the Law on Communication, and the Law on informatization, and enact rights-respecting in compliance with Kazakhstan’s obligations under international human rights law.
Recommendations to telecommunications providers:
  • Preserve evidence and reveal any demands from the government of Kazakhstan urging you to disrupt internet access, and any pressure to conceal those demands;
  • Publicly disclose details such as when the internet and related services have been disrupted, their status throughout the shutdowns, and when they come back online;
  • Consult civil society and rally peer companies to jointly push back against government censorship demands, and issue regular transparency reports to ensure open and secure internet access and deter future shutdown orders.

The undersigned civil society organizations in Kazakhstan and worldwide appreciate your swift attention to these recommendations and pledge our support in assisting your efforts to deter future internet shutdowns.



Access Now
Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID)
Africa Media and Information Technology Initiative (AfriMITI)
Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)
African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)
Bloggers of Zambia
Centre for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP)
Common Cause Zambia
Digital Rights Kashmir
Eurasian Digital Foundation
Human Constanta
International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech “AdilSoz”
International Press Centre (IPC)
Internet Protection Society (Russia)
Life campaign to abolish the death sentence in Kurdistan
Miaan Group
MediaNet International Centre for Journalism, Kazakhstan
Media Foundation for West Africa
Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)
Organisation of the Justice Campaign (OJC)
Oxen Privacy Tech Foundation (OPTF)
Paradigm Initiative (PIN)
Ranking Digital Rights
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Sassoufit Collective
Small Media
The Tor Project