Kazakhstan police have dropped their investigation into a satirist whose fake Instagram-based news account acted, they said, as a platform to knowingly spread false information.
Temirlan Yensebek, the creator of the Almaty-based page Qaznews24, told Mediazona on September 14 that the police had decided that his actions did not constitute a crime.
The investigation lasted an entire year. Yensebek, 25, an activist in the pro-democracy reform Oyan youth movement in Qazaqstan, was arrested and questioned by police last May and has lived under the cloud of possible prosecution ever since.
Explicitly comedic content on Qaznews24 usually made officials the butt of jokes. Pretending that the news was clearly labeled as fictional, though given the stories in question, even that disclaimer must have seemed redundant to many.
Despite the investigation, Yensebek maintained the Instagram account.
A recently published article falsely announced that a shoe store for lawmakers had opened in the capital, Nur-Sultan. The accompanying image was a photo of an actual billboard with the slogan “It’s time to change your shoes”.
The joke requires some explaining, but it’s clear to anyone who follows the news in Kazakhstan that the intent is satirical.
The Russian expression in advertising carries the meaning of changing sides or changing coats. It’s a hint that lawmakers once sympathetic to former President Nursultan Nazarbayev have since earlier this year, after a period of deep political turmoil, decided they don’t like him that much after all. . In a recent demonstration of this change of heart, a group of lawmakers recently backed a proposal to change the name of the capital from Nur-Sultan to Astana, as it was known until 2019.
It turns out that Kazakh officials don’t appreciate sarcasm. Almaty police said last year that they believe Qaznews24’s posts “provoked a mixed reaction from the public, as they misinformed the population and misled citizens”.
“Despite the absurdity of these messages, users were actively reposting them, sending false news to each other via instant messengers,” they said in a statement after Yensebek’s arrest.
The Instagrammer’s lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva, told Mediazona that as part of the investigation, police conducted a two-part investigation, to examine both the linguistic and political aspects of Yensebek’s posts. After subjecting the Instagram account to this analysis, they determined that the humorous content could not be properly characterized as knowingly false information.
While this may have been a case of police overreaction, there may be grounds for sympathy. The phenomenon of spreading wild rumors on social media resources is indeed very strong in Kazakhstan. Unlike Yensebek, broadcasters of unproven claims claim plausibility.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a boom time for these counterfeits. Claims that the government was sprinkling crops with the coronavirus or that officials were pushing vaccines as a ruse to force people to be microchipped were circulating freely. This trust-sapping misinformation may have played a major role in undermining the vaccination campaign, thus likely causing loss of life.
The fact that the information ecosystem is so weak, however, is to a large extent a legacy of government action. A cocktail of repression and harassment has, over the years, driven many journalists and independent media outlets out of the industry. Most of what remains are innocuous websites and broadcasters who, on the whole, closely toe the pro-government line.
News consumers hungry for more compelling content than these outlets are able to offer are the primary prey of fake news providers.
Almaz Kumenov is a journalist based in Almaty.
This article was originally published on Eurasianet here.