Kazakh lawmakers approved Internet legislation Wednesday that media rights activists say will limit freedom of speech in the Central Asian nation.
The bill would subject Internet outlets — such as chat rooms, blogs and online stores — to the same criminal prosecution currently applied to traditional media. Foreign Web sites deemed to be in breach of Kazakh law could also be blocked.
Authorities say the legislation aims to curb the distribution of child pornography, extremist literature and other unsuitable material.
But opponents argue that laws already exist to prevent the dissemination of illegal material and say the proposed new rules are aimed at restricting criticism of the government.
Efforts to tighten regulation of the Internet in Kazakhstan are being closely scrutinized by international observers as the ex-Soviet nation prepares to take up chairmanship of a trans-Atlantic security and rights organization.
"We are deeply embittered by this decision," said Tamara Kaleyeva, head of Kazakh media rights group Adil Soz, which has been fighting against the proposed regulations.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev is expected to sign the bill into law.
Government critics accuse Nazarbayev of quashing all political opposition and seeking to limit the free dissemination of information. He has ruled the oil-rich Central Asian nation of 15 million since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kaleyeva said the legislation would enable authorities to block any media outlet for its coverage of "elections, strikes, demonstrations and relations between ethnic groups, which are the most contentious social and political subjects."
The widely used LiveJournal platform has been inaccessible in Kazakhstan for several months. Telecommunications officials insist that's because of a technical problem, but many observers believe the site has been blocked to cut off access to a blog owned by Nazarbayev's former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, a vocal Europe-based critic of the government.
In bidding for the 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kazakhstan committed to a wide range of democratic reforms, including improving press liberties.
Some minor changes have been made to laws regulating the media, but international rights groups have complained that they do not go far enough.