Azerbaijan after the Internet Governance Forum, and before Elections
At least eight journalists and three human rights defenders are serving their terms in the prisons of Azerbaijan, according to a recent Human Rights Watch briefing. That should tell you a lot about the country’s crucially limited freedom of expression.
This year Azerbaijan hosted the annual UN–sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which brings together governments, civil society, and others to discuss public policy issues related to the internet. The theme for 2012 was the role of internet governance in promoting development.
As a panelist in a couple of sessions during the event, I had a great opportunity to engage with the audience and with highly active human rights defenders. My panel, “Freedom of Expression Online: Key Challenges and Best Practices,” assembled stakeholders from academia, civil society, and governments to discern the most serious obstacles to freedom of expression (FoE) globally, and also to review the best practices that have emerged from legislative and activist engagement over the past year—and as outlined in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report.
Bloggers, activists, civil society, businesses, governments, and policymakers from around the globe were invited to the forum, creating conditions for exuberant discussion. But the most striking feature of this event was the host country’s severe hostility to freedom of expression on the internet. Azerbaijan is a signatory to many international human rights treaties, but instead of respecting and protecting those rights, the government uses the laws to silence and repress dissent. This hypocrisy came into stark relief when President Ilham Aliyev chose to visit the Bakutel Telecommunication Exhibition—which was being held at the same venue—and be photographed with glossy satellites and machines, totally ignoring the IGF event and sending a clear anti-FoE message.
The country’s political powers were quite blunt even during this high-level event: EU officers’ machines were hacked inside their hotel rooms after European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes adopted a tough stance against the Azerbaijani government’s FoE policies. In addition, speeches were disturbed by audio and other logistical problems, and we often felt as though these were not so much managerial issues as an effort to intimidate the attendees and distract their thoughts from more critical matters. One of the most disturbing violations of free speech occurred when UN officials warned local groups and Freedom House against distributing reports about the freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan both on and offline, because they constituted an “attack” on the host government.
A local nongovernmental organization called the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) produced an in-depth report highlighting its concerns for freedom of expression and violations of that right in Azerbaijan. One of the most significant violations has been violent attacks against journalists and media workers, and impunity for the attackers. In 2005, Elmar Huseynov, a symbol of courage for investigative journalists in Azerbaijan, was gunned down after receiving a number of death threats. In 2008, journalist Agil Khalil was assaulted multiple times after he attempted to report on alleged land-grabbing schemes in Baku. He was then permitted to leave Azerbaijan for his own safety, and instead of investigating his attackers, authorities pinned the crime on a man claiming to be Khalil’s homosexual lover. In 2011, journalist Ramin Deko was abducted and questioned about his online activities and his criticism of the president. After he disclosed this to the media, he was attacked again and severely beaten “as a reprisal.”
There have been more than 200 attacks on journalists since Huseynov’s murder, and the authorities never could figure out who was responsible, though they did not try very hard.
A protester is arrested by local police in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Another critical issue is the way the Azerbaijani government curtails freedom of expression through different restrictive laws. Defamation is a criminal offense and is used to constrain independent and opposition papers. Lawsuits are frequently filed against highly critical newspapers like Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, and Khural by members of parliament and government officials, and the cases have dire consequences for the outlets’ finances. Charges of hooliganism, drug possession, inciting hatred, and supporting terrorism are also used against outspoken journalists and activists to make them examples for others.
This year, Azerbaijan hosted two major international events: the Eurovision song contest and the seventh annual IGF. In the wake of international access to the country, authorities have already started detaining and persecuting critical individuals. Nine journalists, including Nijat Aliyev (editor-in-chief of AzadXeber.com) and Faramaz Novruzoglu (a freelance journalist who was accused of mass disorder after he used social media to criticize the government and call for protests), are currently in detention or in prison.
Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who actively participated in the IGF, was targeted with a sex video of her that was filmed secretly and posted on the internet. She is a very well-known and outspoken journalist who has in the past exposed official corruption.
With the increase in internet use globally and locally, technological advancement has made it easier for people to voice their opinions in cyberspace, and that is where the government has also started taking measures—such as content blocking and data filtering—to restrict access to information.
This becomes even more serious when authorities target individuals who voice critical opinions on the internet. Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade served 17 months in prison on charges of hooliganism after they posted a satirical video on YouTube that criticized the government for importing donkeys from Germany. I interviewed Emin during the IGF. He rejected the president’s mantra that the internet is free in Azerbaijan. He said that, yes, we can go on the internet and use whatever we want; yes, we are free up to that point. But when we criticize the president or the government, our freedom ends there.
At present, five bloggers and activists remain in detention in connection with the expression of opinions online. As the presidential election is only a year away, opposition, antigovernment, and other critical online spaces are being censored and blocked. Statements by top government officials also suggest that new legal mechanisms for internet control might be forthcoming, which is worrisome given the fact that the print and broadcast media have already been hit hard by this autocratic government.
As we move on from discussing what happened at the IGF, we shouldn’t leave the dissidents of the host country alone in these dreadfully autocratic conditions. International media, communities, and organizations should force the government to comply with international human rights treaties and respect the basic rights of its own citizens.
* Nighat Dad is executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan. Digital Rights Foundation is a research-based, not-for-profit advocacy organization focusing on information and communication technologies to support human rights, democratic processes, and digital governance.