Turan, Azerbaijan’s independent news agency was subject to multiple DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks and was briefly blocked.
The incident took place between May 15 through 18.
The Agency’s Director, Mehman Aliyev said the hosting provider for the news agency failed due to an overwhelming amount of incoming traffic.
In an interview with AIW, Aliyev said the team spotted something was wrong on May 15 and immediately informed the host providers. “We were forced to stall all the work on the website by May 16 as the attacks were very serious. And although the website is operational, it will take time to fully secure the platform,” explained Aliyev.
A DDoS attack makes an online service unavailable as a result of incoming traffic from multiple sources making the hosting server unable to run as usual.
The agency head suspects authorities may be behind the attacks. “The equipment purchased by the authorities is being used not only against independent online news platforms, but also on Facebook, where political activists, journalists, and the news’ social media pages are targeted,” said Aliyev in an interview with AIW.
This is not the first time online news platforms are DDoSed in Azerbaijan
Over the years, authorities have been targeting Facebook pages and profiles of popular political activists as well as media platforms.
Responding to the attacks, Reporters Without Borders condemned the attacks:
#Azerbaijan: independent news agency @TuranAgentliyi is under repeated #DDos attacks! Each time after publishing critical materials on rights’ violation of opposition activists. @RSF_inter calls on the authorities to shed light on these #cyberattacks.
— RSF in English (@RSF_en) May 20, 2020
Meanwhile, on May 21, Investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova wrote that the Ministry of Communication, High Technologies, and Communication has sought court approval to prevent access to online news platforms Azadliq Radio, Meydan TV, Turan TV, and Azadliq newspaper via Facebook and VPN services.
According to detailed reporting carried out in April 2018, by Virtual Road—a secure hosting project run by the media foundation Qurium, the government of Azerbaijan has been relying on Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) since March 2017. This equipment was purchased from an Israeli security company called Allot Communications. Reports by Virtual Road have shown evidence of the denial of service and other attacks against independent and opposition media news sites, that were traced to IP addresses associated with the government. This timeline describes how over the years, the government in Azerbaijan became aware of digital tools, for targeting civil society, especially at the time when much of the conversation was shifting online, amid on-going crackdown.
AIW has been monitoring these and other attacks since October 2019:
- in October opposition movement Facebook page was hacked;
- in November, a political figure’s Facebook page was hacked;
- in December, leader of an opposition party had his Instagram account hacked into;
- also in December, an activist’s YouTube channel was targeted;
- in January, mass phishing attack targeted a significant number of civil society representatives;
- also in January, the political figure targeted in October via her Facebook page was once again a target;
- in February, several social media accounts affiliated with an opposition party were hacked;
- in March, Facebook pages affiliated with an online news platform were targeted;
- also in March, a group of activists was targeted online;
- in April, journalist’s YouTube channel was targeted and videos were taken down;
- also in April, a journalist was targeted online in a targeted online harassment campaign;
- also in April, former political prisoner, parliamentary candidate reported multiple break-in attempts into his social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram;
- in May, political figure targeted in November and in January was yet again, a target;
- and other forms of legal constraints and technical interference.
During C19 authorities paid special attention to social media platforms and targeted several activists calling them in for questioning, arresting them, or imposing fines.
Mehman Aliyev considers these attacks an attempt to suffocate free speech. In an interview with Azadliq Radio in April, the head of Turan News Agency, said, “based on our previous experience we know it is the government behind the attacks. It is just now, they are more serious.” Aliyev believes it is the fear of the looming financial crisis and the social tension that is making the ruling government fearful of any criticism.