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07 Jun 2010

Azerbaijan Grapples With New Media Freedom

Baku media freedom protest
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Baku media freedom protest

With elections coming up, the government of Azerbaijan may have reason to fear new freedoms provided by the internet's social networking tools, Karl Rahder writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Karl Rahder for ISN

International journalists’ groups and Azerbaijani opposition figures are speaking out against what they see as government plans to intensify efforts to curb press freedom. Among the recent developments are a possible new law designed to regulate internet content, amendments passed by the Parliament in April that limit reporters’ ability to cover the news, and what may be increasing pressure on Radio Free Europe’s Azerbaijan office. 

On 6 May, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) reacted to news out of Azerbaijan of possible new legislation supposedly designed to curb freedom of expression on the internet. The pending legislation, which as of press time had not been introduced in the Parliament, comes on the heels of statements by the likes of Communications Minister Ali Abbasov, who in April reportedly expressed concerns regarding "illegal activities” on the internet and called for the “licensing” of Azerbaijani websites, including online TV and radio. 

RSF characterized the government’s alleged efforts to control internet content as an attempt to maintain its monopoly over news and information: “They already control TV and the most part of print media and now they are staging a shameless offensive against the Internet.”

Fiction or fantasy?

A figure often mentioned as a leading proponent of the new legislation is Zahid Oruj, a lawmaker from the pro-government Ana Vatan (Motherland) party. In a telephone interview with ISN Security Watch, Oruj maintained that any pending legislation is designed to combat cybercrime and terrorist activities rather than to curb freedom of speech. 

Oruj, a member of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee, said that he had recently paid an official visit to the UK, where he and his colleagues conferred with British officials on combating extremism and terrorism on the internet. 

Oruj recognizes that some people have interpreted the legislation as a threat to press freedom, “but this is a very tricky issue,” he said. “They don’t really understand what we are trying to do.  On the internet, you can be in a Russian village, start an internet site, start your propaganda, recruit people and threaten people. We discussed these issues in Britain, and I admit that our legal code in Azerbaijan doesn’t address these issues.”  

Armenia, he said, poses the most serious challenge: “Our biggest threat is from Armenia. Our experience shows that on the internet, it is easy to recruit young Azeris, and use them [against us].” 

Internet resources in Azerbaijan, he asserted, “are always being targeted by Armenian terrorist groups. And the Armenians don’t even hide the fact that they have terrorist plans against Azerbaijan. 

“Some people started saying that we are trying to license the media, to take control of internet media, to limit media freedom on the internet,” Oruj said. “This is not our intention.”

In any case, Oruj said that the new legislation has not yet been written and will have to wait until the next session of Parliament, which will begin in 2011, after November 2010 parliamentary elections: “The truth is, we really don’t have time to discuss and debate any new internet legislation in the current session of parliament […] it’s impossible.” 

On the sly

But Arastun Orujlu, chairman of the Baku-based East-West Research Center, believes that plans are already in the works for quick and quiet passage of the legislation, the purpose of which will be to squelch social networking and independent media: “I think they are preparing in the Milli Majlis [parliament] draft laws on the regulation of activities of web resources, social networks. But they are doing this quietly. They no longer talk about it, because if you start to discuss it in society, there would be some reaction from the international community, different international organizations like the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the State Department of the United States. But they will start to discuss it in Parliament […] and they will implement the law after two or three days [of discussion].”

The argument that Azeri youth should be protected is a cover for curbing free speech via social networks such as Facebook or websites such as Radio Azadliq, Orujlu thought: “The fantasies of Azeri legislators have no absolutely no boundaries,” and they can easily find alleged examples of internet material that is “against national interests” or that “could be used […] by Armenians […] or enemies of democratic development in Azerbaijan.

“Today, more and more young people are communicating with social networks. And the government understands this. Especially if you look at the statistics where the number of young people using Facebook is growing by 50 percent [over] two or three months. It is increasing very fast. The government is in trouble […] so now they want to regulate this by law.”

Top 40 predators 

On 3 May, RSF released its 2010 “Predators of Press Freedom”, which lists the top 40 “politicians, government officials, religious leaders, militias and criminal organizations that cannot stand the press, treat it as an enemy and directly attack journalists.”

Among those cited on RSF’s list were presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, as well as the Columbian terror group FARC. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, was also included. 

The listing for Aliyev cites the arrest and imprisonment of well-known reporter Eynulla Fatullayev and two young pro-democracy activists, Adnan Hadjizadeh and Emin Milli. 

Fatullayev, former editor of the weekly Russian-language Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language weekly Günd…ôlik Az…ôrbaycan, has been serving a long prison term for, among other things, “inciting ethnic hatred” and tax evasion. The charges followed investigative pieces Fatullayev had authored on corruption as well as a speculative article in 2007 on what targets in Azerbaijan Iran might attack in the event of a US strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. 

Fatuallyev, still in prison, has once again been charged with a crime – this time for possessing heroin, which allegedly was found in his cell during a search on 30 December of last year.  

As of late April, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously that Fatullayev’s rights had been violated and said that the Azerbaijani government should release him and pay €25,000 ($29,800) in damages. The Azerbaijani Supreme Court rejected the Strasbourg Court’s decision.

Radio Free Europe reported on Wednesday that Fatullayev will go on a hunger strike at the prison in order to demand that the Azerbaijani government comply with the Strasbourg Court’s ruling to release him. 

Also cited by RSF is the case of the two “donkey bloggers.” Emin Milli and Adnan Hadjizadeh, two pro-democracy activists, were sentenced to prison terms of two and a half years and two years, respectively, last November after they were convicted of starting a fight in a Baku restaurant. Many international organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the OSCE, have interpreted their convictions as punishment for a satirical video press conference (with a pantomime “German” donkey) the two posted on Youtube which ridiculed the Azerbaijani government. 

“Hooliganism” was the actual criminal offense the two men were charged with – a throwback to the Soviet period, when it was often used against dissidents and social undesirables in the USSR. Hooliganism was also used in 2008 by the Azerbaijani Prosecutor’s Office to convict Genimet Zakhidov, editor of the opposition daily Azadlyg (Freedom), after a similar scuffle that many observers believe was a set-up.  

Safe in cyberspace…

ISN Security Watch talked to Hadjizadeh’s girlfriend, Parvana Persiani, who is currently a graduate student at Central European University in Budapest. She agreed with Arastun Orujlu in her assessment of social networking as a powerful tool for critics of the government.  

“People feel very safe in cyberspace, because they can post whatever they want under any nickname, and the technology allows you to escape. Even if you are followed in cyberspace, you can change your IP address, you can use proxies. The best example of that is Iran – people are really, really very active in cyberspace in Iran. They feel free to disseminate information, to share their values, to share their views.” 

The Azerbaijani government, she said, is aware of the threat posed by social networking and other internet media, and in her view is taking steps to thwart their use: “It’s really the thing that they should be afraid of. Because they have these different policy tools, and they use these tools for the censorship of freedom of expression.”

Adding to concerns that Baku is clamping down on independent media are recent amendments to previous laws passed by the Parliament that set tight limits on press coverage of public figures, as well as what may be a series of coordinated signals being sent to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijan bureau. The new amendments prohibit journalists from photographing, or making audio or video recordings of anyone without their subjects’ permission.

RFE/RL Azerbaijan (Radio Azadliq) experienced a mysterious interruption of access to its web site in March shortly after it reported on the now-famous Washington Post article that detailed the apparent purchase of over $75 million in deluxe properties in Dubai by President Ilham Aliyev’s three children, including his 11-year-old son. Radio Azadliq has also, since 12 May, been under official scrutiny over its tax records, according to Khadija Ismayilova, the RFE/RL Baku bureau chief.   

Early last year, Baku took RFE/RL’s radio service off the air as part of its enforcement of a law that bans foreign broadcasters from using national FM frequencies. Since then, Radio Azadliq has been limited to its website to provide news coverage. 


Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.

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