The IPI global network today urges members of Kazakhstan’s Majilis (lower house of parliament) to reconsider sudden changes to a proposed media law in Kazakhstan that would seriously restrict the work of foreign correspondents, as well as require online outlets to register with authorities, among other measures.

Since 2022, authorities in Kazakhstan had been developing a new media law for the country, with civil society actors consulted at various stages of this process. While tensions between lawmakers and civil society over the law were initially minor, these increased suddenly on January 25, when MPs in a dedicated working group voted to add several worrying amendments to the draft law.

Two amendments in particular have been widely criticized among Kazakhstan’s media community. The first concerns the status of online media, which would be obliged to undergo registration, a procedure mentioned as optional in the initial version of the bill. The draft law would also abolish the distinct legal status of news agencies, forcing existing ones to re-register as online or other format media.

Additionally, the new text of the law would only allow the registration of online media whose “information and communications infrastructure” is in Kazakhstan, excluding Kazakhstani media with no physical offices in the country.

The second amendment would create serious obstacles for the legal work of foreign correspondents in Kazakhstan. This would include an outright ban on the work of unaccredited foreign journalists and media, as well as authorities’ right to refuse their accreditation on the vague basis of “risks to national security”, which are not defined by law. Most problematically, the decision to refuse accreditation would be made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only, in practice depriving applicants from contesting refusals in court.

“While IPI supports in principle the efforts by Kazakhstan to modernize its media legislation in a constructive manner inclusive of the country’s media and civil society actors, we are concerned to see sudden changes which these actors say were not consulted with them, and which could seriously harm press freedom in Kazakhstan,” IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said.

He added: “We are particularly concerned by the introduction of vague ‘national security’ rules and new accreditation rules that, together, risk seeing foreign correspondents prevented from working in Kazakhstan in an arbitrary manner or retaliated against for their critical journalism.”

“Moreover, the regulation of online media should follow international best practices. Online media should be allowed to function freely. Their registration with authorities may be offered as an optional service, but it should not be compulsory for those websites which do not wish to benefit from it.”

Among the media potentially affected by the suggested changes would be Radio Azattyq, the Kazakhstani branch of the U.S. Congress-funded media corporation RFE/RL. The outlet manages the largest network of correspondents among foreign media present in the country.

Earlier this month, before the latest amendments were introduced, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied accreditation to 36 Radio Azattyq media workers who had requested it, according to RFE/RL. Radio Azattyq is appealing the decision. Several journalists at the outlet have been waiting to receive accreditation since October 2022, despite local laws requiring that authorities process requests within two months, as well as provide an explanation in case of refusal.

Joanna Lillis, an independent journalist accredited in Kazakhstan, told IPI that regulations would be especially problematic for journalists not affiliated with a concrete outlet, as they would introduce an outright ban on foreign media and foreign journalists without appropriate accreditation, she said. According to her, the new rules “have the potential to curtail foreign media reporting on Kazakhstan”, noting in particular that the national security clause planned by the government is “vaguely worded”.

“[This wording] brings with it the risk that [the law] could be abused and selectively targeted against media doing critical reporting, to shut them out of the country,” Lillis told IPI.

Following the voting of amendments on January 25, Kazakhstan’s media law is poised to be voted on in a second and third reading at the Majilis, after the bill was adopted in a first reading in December. It would then need to be voted on by Kazakhstan’s Senate, before being signed into law by the country’s president, Kasym-Jomart Tokayev. IPI calls on Kazakhstani lawmakers to withdraw the latest, worrying amendments, and engage in a broad dialogue with the country’s media community, to adopt a text ensuring the free functioning of independent media in Kazakhstan.