Kazakhstan decriminalizes slander in pursuit of press freedom

Felicity Salina, International Law Officer

Kazakhstan is making headway toward freedom of speech and expression through the signature of its new law on the decriminalization of defamation by President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev. The law formally removes Article 130 of the Kazakh criminal code, which imposes a three-year jail sentence for defamation charges, and replaces it with a new provision within the country’s administrative code.

The move was initiated by President Tokayev in December last year at a session of the National Council of Public Confidence, a forum created to allow the government to engage with civil society, as part of the reformist agenda of his administration. Tokayev suggested that decriminalization is necessary to protect the media against what he described as “troublemakers” in statutory texts.

With the decriminalization in place, a person accused of “spreading knowingly false information which harms the honour and dignity of another person or undermines his reputation” will face a fine of 160 monthly base units (424,000 tenge or $1,100) or detention for 15 days. Public servants may be fined 550 base units (1.48 million tenge or $3,850) or detained for 20 days.

Kazakhstan has long been under fire for having a record of charging and prosecuting journalists on the basis of Article 130. In a 2019 list curated by Reporters Without Borders, Kazakhstan placed 158th out of 180 countries for press freedom. Decriminalizing defamation is hailed by the press as a step in the right direction.
“Too many journalists have been criminally prosecuted or investigated, or have fallen victim to heavy fines, simply for performing their duty of informing citizens,” stated Harlem Désir, OSCE representative on freedom of the media.

A member of Kazakh’s upper house, Andrei Lukin, said that the change would “bring Kazakhstan’s criminal and administrative legislation more in line with international law.”