Limited Freedom on the Net in Azerbaijan

September 18th, 2011   Theme: Internet Freedom

Next spring, the Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Baku in Azerbaijan, a country unknown by most and ruled by an authoritarian president. Azeri opposition politicians hope that the increased interest for the country and the presence of international media will give them a stronger voice in a country where freedom of speech is significantly restricted.

“The regime has raised their Potemkin coulisses but behind them lurks poverty. The pension of a retired teacher is about 120 USD per month. And Baku is an expensive city! We believe the increased interest due to the Eurovision Song Contest will help us,” the party management from the National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (NIPA) argued at a meeting in Stockholm. The Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation has cooperated with NIPA since 2003.

Being an opposition politician in Azerbaijan is not easy and daily life could be both difficult and
dangerous.
“We are used to working under a totalitarian reign,” the NIPA politicians told. Gaining its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has kept an authoritarian Presidential rule with dynastic tendencies. There are severe problems when it comes to the rule of law. Violence, torture and arbitrary arrests of dissidents are frequently reoccurring. In reality, human rights are significantly infringed. Freedom of speech, for instance, is severely limited due to traditional media being put under strict control. Libelling is illegal and journalists criticizing the regime are now and then arrested and sentenced to prison. It should be noted that these unfree traditional media constitute the major news source for most Azeris while the relatively free Internet only reach a minor part of the population.

“We have no possibilities to run a free campaign,” the NIPA representatives commented and explained that the opposition does not get any television time. Neither has the opposition any possibility to finance their newspapers through advertising since any companies that advertise would be closed down by the government or subject to other negative consequences. “We believe that Internet is also controlled by the government. However, we don’t actually see that a lot,” the NIPA representatives argued and added. “We invest a lot in young people and they are active online, for instance on Facebook”. In its annual report on internet freedom, “Freedom on the Net 2011”, Freedom House reports that the amount of Facebook accounts have doubled in 2010. In December 2010, more than 300 000
Azeris had such accounts.

So who is the typical internet user in Azerbaijan?

We know that only 12 percent of the population owns a computer but many use computers at work, in school and in Internet cafes. According to Freedom House, almost 30 000 people have their own blogs, the majority of them being
young people who write in Azeri. And it was two young bloggers who were the first to be affected by the regime’s thrive to control this area. Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade were arrested in 2009 and convicted of hooliganism after a restaurant fight. This was most likely a provocation, as the regime very seldom accuse people for violating their right to freedom of speech. Instead, they use regular crimes as an excuse. The true reason for Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade’s arrest is
thought to be a satiric film posted on YouTube. According to the film, donkeys are treated better than Azeri citizens. In November 2010, the two were released following both national and international protests. However, they are not allowed to leave Azerbaijan.

At the same time, the regime announced that the state controlled Press Council will start to monitor online news. The given reason is that they too must follow the ethical guidelines set up for journalists working within traditional media.

So, what has happened? Nothing so far, but, as the NIPA representatives put it:
“The government normally realizes its threats”. NIPA has a webpage and the party newspaper is also available online.

How does this work?
“There are no problems for known dissidents to make statements, at least not at the moment. No one would believe it if the party’s managing board was accused of hooliganism and it would be noted in the international community. The problem is worse for young and less known activists.”

What could happen to young people who are politically involved, online or IRL.
“Students are threatened by expulsion from universities. Their families could also be threatened, and have problems at work. Of course, the cause of the harassment is never political activity…”

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