Azerbaijan’s Media Registry leaves media platforms in limbo

In Azerbaijan according to the new law on media that was adopted in January 2022 and approved by the President in February 2022, all online media outlets as well as journalists working for online media platforms or working as freelance journalists were ought to register with a new media registry system. This media registry system began to operate on October 14, 2022, according to reporting by Turan News Agency. The law itself was heavily criticized by the local civil society prior to its adoption, and many anticipated many of its restrictive features put in practice. AIW published this overview of the law in March 2022 describing some of its most problematic features including the media registry clause.   

According to the new law, Azerbaijan must establish a registry system of online media outlets and journalists working for online media platforms or working as freelance journalists. This and other additional provisions of the law raise a number of questions regarding the compliance of the law with the international standards on media freedom.

Article 62.1 reads that permission from state bodies is not required for setting up online media. But Article 62.2 requires that an online media entity must apply to the relevant executive authority (Media Registry) 7 days prior to the publication or dissemination of the relevant media material.  In other words, while there is no need to apply for creating an online media platform, there is a requirement to apply for a permit once the online resource becomes operational and starts publishing. Article 62.4 requires an additional opinion issued by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations before an online media focusing on religion and religious content is set up. In addition, Article 78.3 obligates online media to apply to the Media Registry within 6 months since the platforms become operational.

Article 60.5 requires online media to publish at least 20 articles per day to qualify as an online media platform.

Article 26 obligates the founder of the online media to be a citizen of the Azerbaijan Republic permanently residing in the Azerbaijan Republic. In case the founder is a legal entity, then the highest share (75 percent) in the authorized capital must belong to a citizen (citizens) of Azerbaijan permanently residing in the country.

The Cabinet of Ministers has been instructed to prepare regulation on the provision of registration at the Media Registry within 3 months as per presidential order “on the application of the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan ‘On Media’ and regulation of a number of issues arising from it” dated February 8, 2022. And Article 60 of the new law requires that online media outlets disclose their organizational information on their respective websites. Article 60.2 also requires online media to register with the tax authorities, and identify and appoint a person responsible for editorial.

Article 26.3 prohibits previously convicted individuals from setting up media platforms. The list of previous convictions is exhaustive including serious or especially serious crimes; crimes against public morality; persons whose convictions have not been expunged or revoked; including political parties (excluding print media); and religious organizations (excluding print media). Prohibiting religious and political organizations from establishing online media is a failure to comply with the international standards on the right to freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.

Importance of registering with the Media Registry for online media platforms

The Media Register is an electronic information resource managed by a Media Development Agency which is managed by the Supervisory Board consisting of the Chairman and 6 (six) members appointed by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In order to be registered at the Media Registry as a media entity (subject), a media entity can apply either as a legal entity or as a sole entrepreneur (Article 74).

Article 74.2 sets out a list of requirements journalists must comply with for their inclusion in the registry. These requirements include a degree in higher education as well as another number of different merit-based criteria. Article 74.2.5 requires that journalists obtain and provide an employment contract with a media entity. Individuals or freelance journalists must have a civil contract with at least one media entity registered at the Media Registry in order to be able to register at the media registry.

Those outlets who succeed at registering with the Media Register are issued certificates (which grant access to government events, press conferences and etc.), and journalists are issued press cards (valid for three years and subject to renewal upon request). Media entities, including online media outlets not included in this registry, will not be considered mass media, and subsequently, unable to hire journalists. Also, in case the online media platform is not registered by the registry, journalists who have contracts with these online media platforms, won’t be admitted to the Media Registry and won’t be issued press cards.

Registration with the Media Register is one of the main guarantees for the free operation of media outlets and journalists. For example, according to Article 72.6 of the Law, only media entities and journalists included in the Media Register may carry on with their work during military and/or state of emergency situations, in special operations against religious extremism, and in operations against terrorism.

In the absence of certificates issued exclusively by the register, journalists may also not be allowed to conduct polls on the streets.

These and other requirements as outlined in the law, create additional challenges for freelance journalists working (on contracts) with international media outlets or local online media outlets not registered with the Media Register.

Now, according to Turan News Agency, at least 15 online news platforms have been denied registry. Among them is 24saat.org – a news website that remains blocked in Azerbaijan according to AIW/OONI measurement reports. To bypass censorship, the founders of the website, created a new URL az24saat.org which according to the website’s director Vugar Gurjanly is still accessible. However, in an interview with Turan News Agency, Gurjanly lamented the registration process and getting it denied. Gurjanli believes the decision was not justified and aimed at eventually stopping the news site from working. “Our website meets all the necessary criteria,” Gurjanly told Turan News Agency. According to Article 78.3 of the new Media Law, active mass media must apply to the Agency within six months from the day the Registry starts working. In the event media fails to do so, or the information provided during the registration process is found incorrect the agency has a right to take the media to court. 

Speaking to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, media law expert, Khalid Aghaliyev said, the currently applied regulations on media platforms trying to register with the Agency are unconstitutional because according to the law, the registration regulations of the new law should apply to the media platforms established after the said law was adopted. “The media that existed prior to the adoption of the law should be registered automatically,” said Aghalyev. 

But this is not the only problem concerning media platforms. The law also demands that the media platform must publish at least 100 news items per week. But the agency already showing a biased approach to this specific regulation. According to Aghaliyev, a number of news sites that were registered have failed to meet the criteria, and yet those that have met the 100 items per week criteria have been denied registry. 

Articles 74.1.2 and 60.5 of the Law, define the criteria of published content as well as what the Media Agency means when it demands a continuity of activities. As such, media platforms applying for registration must demonstrate continuity in their work for at least 20 days a month and publish a minimum of 20 news items per day for their activity to be considered “continuous.” 

Those who have been denied the registry are now planning to appeal in local courts. According to information provided by the Media Agency, it has so far registered 100 media platforms, denied 15, and is reviewing 40 applications.

prosecutor’s general office warns online news platform

On September 22, Aziz Orujov, the director and founder of Kanal 13, an online television platform, was questioned by the Prosecutor’s General office, according to reporting by Meydan TV.  

In an interview with Meydan TV, Orucov said, the Prosecutor’s Office claimed, Kanal 13 published video items damaging the reputation of the Azerbaijani Army, and casting a shadow on the strengthening work of the state’s defense capabilities.

Orujov said the allegations were not true. 

The Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning to the channel’s director, based on the Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information and On National Security laws. The office also said the channel removed the videos in question.  

the tale of blocked websites

In July of last year, in their response to the Government of Azerbaijan, four of the websites that were blocked for access in Azerbaijan in 2017, reiterated their claim that the ban violates their right to freedom of expression. According to EHRAC, this response came following the Government’s [of Azerbaijan] submissions to the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”). 

EHRAC (European Human Rights Advocacy Center) represents four of the websites – Meydan TV, Azadliq Info, Azerbaycan Saadi, and Turan TV and has been working in tandem with local legal partners on the case. 

At the time of blocking these websites in 2017, the Government of Azerbaijan argued “a number of articles published by the four critical news websites included calls aimed at “forcible change of the constitutional order”, “organization of mass riots”, and other illegal activities.” 

In reality, all four websites are considered independent and/or platforms affiliated with opposition parties or their critical position against broader government practices and policies adopted by the ruling government of Azerbaijan. As a result, the decision to block them was based on the legal claims that lacked evidence. This was further reflected in the review process when the decision to block these platforms was implemented. According to EHRAC, “no effective and independent review took place in the first instance decision to block access to the websites in 2017, and in subsequent appeals. The courts simply accepted the authorities’ allegations at face value and made no attempt to adequately consider or explain why the content was unlawful.”

The intentions behind the blocking decision were further reflected in subsequent actions taken by the Government of Azerbaijan against the online platforms. Such that, at the time of the first decision to block these websites for access in 2017, the Azerbaijani Government claimed these websites continued disseminating their content through VPN services or social media platforms and therefore the action taken against them did not cause significant changes to the published content. However, in February 2020, the Ministry of Transportation, Communications and High Technologies “requested the domestic courts to impose a ban on the applicants’ ability to share their content through VPN services and social media platforms.” 

While access to the said websites remains blocked in Azerbaijan further developments signal a consistent pattern of censorship and impunity.

government rolls out an e-permission requirement for journalists

June 20, the Cabinet of Ministers rolled out a new requirement for journalists and mass media resources during the two weeks of strict quarantine regime effective between June 21 and July 5. According to the new regulation, journalists must register with an e-permission platform icaze.e-gov.az  The requirement concerns freelance and full-time journalists. Critics say the new regulation intends to limit the work of independent journalists and therefore access to independent information. 

According to the government website, before a journalist can obtain the permission slip, first, the person with the “seal of authority” of the media platform must apply. However, the majority of independent and opposition news sites operating inside and outside the country, work online and often do not carry the “seal of authority”. They are also likely not to be registered as platforms with the Ministry of Justice. 

Speaking on the issue, the media law expert Alasgar Ahmadoglu told Voice of America that in the absence of the state of emergency [Azerbaijan never declared the state of emergency but only imposed a strict quarantine regime] the Cabinet of Ministers cannot introduce such a requirement. Such regulation may only be possible according to article 112 of the constitution that states, the professional work of journalists can be limited during a state of emergency. 

The same day, Chief of the Public Relations Department of the Main State Traffic Police Department, Colonel Kamran Aliyev added further clarifications to the list of requirements. Aliyev noted that first, the media platform itself must register their journalist online using the e-registration system. If the media platform is registered in Baku, then in addition to the capital, it can dispatch journalists to Sumgayit and across Absheron region. However, the journalists will require a separate permission slip if they intend to travel to other regions in the country during the quarantine regime explained Aliyev. For this, the journalists [in addition to the registering online] must obtain a permission slip from his/her media platform indicating that the journalist is going a business trip on specified dates. The rule also applies to television channels inviting a guest – the gust’s name must also be registered within the system. This will help to identify whether the person was indeed invited to speak in case he/she stopped by the police for control. 

The online permission system was introduced on April 2 for institutions and organizations considered eligible to continue working during COVID19. No further explanations were provided on the storage of the personal data and the duration this platform will keep records of organisations, institutions, and the names of their staff. 

amendments to the legislation raise alarm in Azerbaijan

March 18, members of Azerbaijan’s National Parliament approved proposed amendments to the law on Information, Informatisation and protection of Information during the first reading.

A special clause “information-telecommunication network”  and “information-telecommunication network users” were added to article 13.2. of the law. While there are is no definition of what the “information-telecommunication network [and its users]” clause actually means, some media experts and journalists suggested this referred to social media platforms and the users. In Azerbaijan, the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies already holds broad powers to block websites, without a court order. If these recent suggestions to the law are approved in the final reading, it would further deteriorate freedom of speech online as social media users, posting content the Ministry may deem as misinformation may be arrested and face charges. 

One parliament member, Ganira Pashayeva, even suggested setting up a special unit that would monitor social media platforms, and hold those spreading rumors accountable. 

On March 21, Ilgar Atayev was called in for questioning and charged with article 388.1 of the code of administrative offenses – sharing of prohibited information on the Internet or Internet – telecommunication networks. According to Meydan TV, an independent online news platform, although Atayev was informed that the charges were sent to court, he does not know what he is facing.

Authorities claim, Atayev, shared information on COVID without quoting official sources and that shared information was false.

The Law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information

This law was first adopted in 1998. On March 10, 2017, a series of restrictive amendments were added to the law, converting the law from a technical regulation into content regulation:

  •  article 13.1.3. create conditions for the regulation of the domain names not with participation of the parties of the internet community, but by relevant Ministry, which contradicts international norms, including ICANN recommendations in this regard;
  • article 13.2.3, all legal and ethical issues previously existing in various laws have been listed as prohibited information and it has been stressed that their dissemination is prohibited;
  • article 13.2.4, when the owner of the Internet information resource and its domain name posts the information, dissemination of which is prohibited or receives an application about that piece of shared information, it guarantees the removal of such information from the information resource;
  • article 13.2.5, when a hosting provider reveals in its information systems some information, dissemination of which in internet information resources is prohibited or receives information about it, it should undertake immediate measures for its removal by the owner of the information resource;
  • article 13.3.3, in cases of existence of real threat for the lawful interests of the state and society or in urgent cases when there is a risk for life or health of people, the access to internet information resource is temporarily restricted directly by the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies [restriction is applied without a court order. Although an application is made to the court, the decision to close down the online information source remains in force until the court handles the case or the decision is annulled.]
  • article 13.3.6, describes the List of information resources that are “blocked” which is curated and maintained by the Ministry [to this day, no such resource exists however, AIW has a list of online resources that are regularly monitored relying on OONI for blocking]. Independent legal experts believe, this kind of authority is restrictive in nature. Especially as it forces all host and Internet providers are imposed an obligation to prevent access to these resources.

According to the law, the Ministry of Transport, Hich Technologies and Communication is the executive authority deciding on the type of information that is relevant, which websites get blocked and what information must be removed and so on.