Activist groups and journalists in Kazakhstan are racing to collect information around the deaths of hundreds of protesters, as demonstrations escalated in early January and the government shut down internet access.
As anger over fuel prices spread and intensified into demands for political change, peaceful marches were met with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and, allegedly, snipers’ bullets. Public buildings were set ablaze. During the protests, at least 227 people were killed, according to the government. Thousands were arrested, some of whom have left detention bearing injuries consistent with torture, legal aid groups have said. Much of that was hidden from the eyes of the world when, on January 5, the government cut internet connectivity across the country for five days.
“We had all the contingency plans for all eventualities,” Vyacheslav Abramov, editor-in-chief of independent news site Vlast.kz, told Rest of World. “But these events, when all communications were cut off and your city was blocked off, have shown that all those plans were useless.” His journalists reported from the field by phone — “back to the old days,” said Abramov — and waited for the internet to be restored.
With the internet down, confusion reigned. On propaganda-heavy state TV, the government said foreign-backed forces were trying to violently overthrow the state. Activists told Rest of World, rather, that they believed people linked to the government had employed criminal gangs to act as provocateurs, to stir up trouble and create justification for a crackdown.
People recorded videos and photos, posting them as soon as internet connections returned, Aina Shormanbayeva, president of the International Legal Initiative, a local NGO, told Rest of World. “We [can see] everything. Now we can restore the situation by minutes, every day of the protest.”
Back online, journalists, digital rights organizations, and legal experts in Kazakhstan and overseas are using an array of technologies to collect, secure, and verify evidence, ranging from Telegram bots to satellite imagery.
The wide-net part of the strategy to reconstruct those missing collective moments is a Telegram bot called Martyn, created by a group of local NGOs and activists, which invites users to submit information about illegal detention or intimidation, using a simple form. Once verified by volunteers, the testimonies, with pictures, are published on social networks, including the Activists Not Extremists Facebook and Twitter accounts. “Since your personal data is already known to the police,” the bot says, “only publicity will help protect your rights.”
The Centre for Information Resilience, a U.K.-based nonprofit organization working on countering disinformation, has been using techniques honed in Myanmar and Afghanistan to support the activists’ work reconstructing the protests in Kazakhstan. The CIR uses Airtable, a database service that employs encrypted forms to collect information securely; it analyzes the metadata of images and footage, cross-referencing it with other evidence to verify and confirm locations, according to Ross Burley, the CIR’s executive director.
International researchers are increasingly able to get information out of autocratic countries, even when governments use their control of national internet infrastructure to impose blackouts and censorship, Burley said. “What they don’t seem to realize is the power of the technology around satellite imagery,” he said. In Myanmar, CIR has been able to use NASA’s fire-spotting satellites to verify eyewitness accounts of villages being burned down by the military. “So in the same way, if there are refrigerated lorries in the streets of Almaty, and we can see body bags, and we can see blood on the concrete, we are able to track this relatively easily. … Even if you have internet blackouts and that sort of thing, there are always going to be ways of people getting data out.”
The Telegram form also includes an option to give the NGOs power of attorney to include the testimonies in a legal submission to the EU and U.N. — essentially, permission to use these individual testimonies in court. Dana Zhanay, executive director of the Qaharman Civil Initiative for Human Rights, which monitors rights abuses and political repression in Kazakhstan and helped create the bot, Martyn, told Rest of World the response from witnesses and protesters in Kazakhstan had been strong, despite threats of retribution from the authorities. “We see how these relatives [of killed and detained protesters] are afraid now,” Zhanay said, “but they are really brave and share with us this information.”
Collecting evidence has been made more complicated, and more urgent, by continued pressure from the authorities. Several local activists, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect themselves from reprisal, told Rest of World that security services were searching peoples’ phones. Local journalists said they had been threatened with prosecution for publishing stories relating to the protests.
Gulnara Bazhkenova, editor-in-chief of independent news site Orda.kz, said that her outlet had been forced to retract one story about a family member of the powerful former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. “We have also received messages that when everything calms down, we would be summoned for questioning, and a criminal investigation would be opened into our work, and I would be a subject of investigation,” Bazhkenova told Rest of World.