11 января 2024
Olga Loginova, photo from Astana city government

A Disinformation Epidemic

The government targets its critics, but ignores fake news that impact public health

A Disinformation Epidemic

Speaking about the measles outbreak across Kazakhstan, prime minister Alikhan Smailov said this week that vaccination coverage remains low, despite the availability of vaccines. He then said the government will monitor the circulation of false information about vaccination on social networks and promptly respond to it. In recent years, however, the government’s track record shows that such publications have not triggered a single criminal case. The provision against the spreading of false information is mostly being used against political activists.

The government, in fact, is more inclined to restrict freedom of speech to those who criticize its actions than to those who pose a real threat to society and its health.

Over the past two years, the ministry of internal affairs has only processed six criminal cases related to the dissemination of deliberately false information about vaccination or its consequences. All of them were dismissed before reaching trial due to lack of evidence.

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the midst of the conspiracy theories about it, the most high-profile use of the disinformation criminal provision was the case of Alnur Ilyashev, an activist who criticized the ruling party’s action during the lockdown. He was sentenced to three years of restriction of freedom. Last year, civil activist Nazim Tabyldiyeva also received a suspended sentence under the same article for criticizing the president’s policies on social networks.

Activists are punished for expressing opinions, despite the fact that freedom of speech is guaranteed by Article 20 of the Constitution.

At the same time, in 2021, when many fakes about COVID-19 vaccination were spread on social networks, not a single case about them was brought to court.

Disinformation cannot be called “freedom of speech.” The state should not protect the right of people to spread lies that are dangerous to public health.

Nevertheless, posts about the dangers of immunization continue to spread, unnoticed by law enforcement agencies, although they obviously could cause much more harm than critical comments about government policies.

According to international and local data, the incidence of measles is increasing in Kazakhstan. In 2023, there were around 30,000 cases across the country. This is more than the total number of infections over the past seven years combined.

According to the World Health Organization, whose website was blocked in Kazakhstan for three months in 2022, vaccination is the only way to protect against measles. Measles has no cure, and the disease can lead to serious consequences, including death.

According to the ministry of health, the most infected demographic is unvaccinated children. Because of parents refusing to vaccinate their offspring, around 800,000 children in Kazakhstan could not build immunity against such dangerous infections as diphtheria, polio, tuberculosis, and other diseases that were long-defeated precisely due to vaccinations.

Concerned primarily with the stability of the political regime, the government has clearly neglected public health and failed to protect its people from the lies of anti-vaxxers.

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