Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has signed into law new controls on the Internet that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has called repressive, local activists said Monday.
The OSCE -- an intergovernmental security and human rights watchdog that Kazakhstan will chair next year -- had earlier urged Nazarbayev to veto the bill. The legislation will allow local courts to block websites, including foreign ones, and to class blogs and chatrooms as media.
But Kazakhstan pressed ahead with the new law, with local rights activists confirming the legislation had been endorsed by the powerful president.
Nazarbayev signed it last Friday, Sofya Lapina, a media rights activist, told Reuters Monday.
We had hoped he would veto it and wrote letters to him but that has not been taken into account.
The Central Asian state says the law was aimed at preventing unrest and protecting people's rights.
Several websites, including the popular blogging service LiveJournal.com, are already inaccessible to most Kazakh Internet users.
In 2007, a court gave a pro-opposition blogger a suspended jail sentence for insulting Nazarbayev.
Lapina said there already were signs of increasing self-censorship by local websites where moderators were quickly removing comments that could be deemed offensive.
On some websites, commenting on 'hot' topics has been disabled, she said.
Kazakhstan has been hit hard by the global crisis after a decade of economic boom. Some economists expect the former Soviet republic's oil-dominated economy to shrink this year.
Growing unemployment coupled with falling incomes have caused rising popular discontent with the government, although there have been no large-scale public protests.
The Internet has increasingly become a tool for opposition activists in many countries to voice criticism of their leaders and to organize protests, most recently in Iran following June's disputed presidential elections.
(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Matthew Jones)