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Why was the internet shut down in Kazakhstan?

Kazakhstan has been making headlines in recent days, after a wave of protests swept across the country. The embattled government has been fighting to maintain control and has even resorted to shutting down large portions of the internet. So why is Kazakhstan in turmoil, and what does the current regime gain by suppressing internet freedoms?

Why was the internet shut down in Kazakhstan?

What is happening in Kazakhstan?

A sudden increase in fuel prices sparked widespread protests throughout Kazakhstan. While that was the first issue that pushed people onto the streets, the discontent soon spread to encompass a wide variety of topics, from living standards to government corruption.

Branding protesters as “bandits” and “terrorists”, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s response was swift and uncompromising. Tensions escalated as reports emerged of police using live rounds against civilians, and videos circulated online of government buildings burning.

Eventually, at Tokayev’s request, Russian security forces were deployed in the country, and as of writing the protests appear to have subsided.

Why was the internet shut down?

For at least five days during the height of the protests, Kazakhstan’s internet was largely shut down. Users were only able to access a limited number of sites for a few hours each day, and it became increasingly difficult for news to travel, inside and outside the country.

This is a classic tactic from governments that find themselves struggling to contain civil unrest. By limiting internet access, officials can make it harder for people to organize large events and share news that might galvanize others to join protests.

Even more worryingly, mass internet restrictions can prevent outside observers from following events in real-time. Even now, it’s not clear how many lost their lives in the last two weeks, and what factions were involved in organizing the protests.

The Kazakhstan government is far from the first to clamp down on digital freedoms in an attempt to maintain power, of course.

Has this happened before?

Kazakhstan is just the latest country to face internet shutdowns. Here are a few examples from 2021:

  • Myanmar. A military coup rocked Myanmar in early 2021, and the unrest escalated from there. In the face of mounting protests and armed uprisings, the new regime locked down the country’s internet. This is easier to do in regions like Myanmar where the government has control of internet service providers.
  • Sudan. The internet in Sudan was entirely shut down after a military takeover — the second coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in the space of three years. This slowed down the circulation of news about the coup, and made it harder for loyalists of the previous regime to organize.
  • Uganda. On the eve of a presidential election, the Ugandan internet went offline. This is not an uncommon event in countries where elections are not democratically sound. Whether the government is involved in voter suppression or is directly tampering with ballots, it’s a lot easier to get away with it if information isn’t flowing freely.

The importance of a free internet

Internet shutdowns usually have one thing in common: they’re meant to limit a population’s access to free news and media, and to stop communication. Kazakhstan is no exception.

When individual citizens cannot read and share news, it becomes much harder to hold politicians and government officials to account. An unrestricted internet is not just a convenience of modern life — it’s an essential part of a functioning democracy.

The details around the Kazakhstan protests and the government response is not yet clear — in part, because of the shutdown — but we’ll be watching closely for any further developments.