Kazakhstan's parliament on Wednesday made a first step toward tightening state controls over the Internet and the media, in a move criticized by human rights watchdogs.

If adopted, the law would allow courts to block websites, including foreign ones, and enable prosecutors to suspend media operations. It would also treat blogs and chatrooms as media.

The parliament's lower house, dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party, approved the draft law in the first reading. Officials said it would help prevent unrest and protect people's rights.

Well-off countries like France, Latvia, Lithuania and Iceland faced shocks when mass riots happened there, Deputy Prosecutor General Askhat Daulbayev told the legislature.

You remember the recent events in Moldova, he added, referring to violent protests in the ex-Soviet nation after a contested election earlier this month.

He said media could play a key role in triggering unrest and it should be controlled.

Kazakhstan's economy has been hit hard by the global crisis. But there have been only small-scale displays of discontent so far in the country where public protests are strictly regulated.

Kazakhstan's opposition is weak and disparate and mainstream media never criticize Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan is playing it safe by tightening the screws at the time of crisis, political analyst Dosym Satpayev said.

Media freedom activist Tamara Kaleyeva said the law would allow for arbitrary crackdowns by officials.

There are very vague definitions ... that may lead to infringements of the right to obtain information and the freedom of expression, she said.

(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov)