another wave of arrests targets online news platform

On March 6, police stormed the office of Toplum TV, an online news platform in Baku. While the office was searched, the police questioned some fifteen staff members. Among those detained were interns and the tech team. While nine were released after questioning, at least six other journalists were sent to pre-trial custody on bogus smuggling charges.

Shortly after detention, social media accounts belonging to Toplum TV were compromised. 

As a result, all 3600 videos on Toplum TV’s YouTube channel were deleted.  

Previously Toplum TV’s Facebook page was hacked via SMS interception. 

editor of two websites appears in court

According to local media reports, SalamNews and InterAz founder and editor Matlab Baghirov appeared in court on February 27, 2024. He has been in pretrial detention since January 31, 2023.

According to pro-government media, Baghirov was accused of operating an Iranian spy network. The Ministry of the Interior confirmed these allegations in an interview with Abzas Media in February 2023, saying the arrests were part of the “special operation against an Iranian spy network.”

“They carried out propaganda in favor of Iran through social networks, abused the freedom of religion in Azerbaijan, and carried out the tasks of the Iranian special services in order to undermine the traditions of tolerance formed in the country,” Elshad Hajiyev, the head of the ministry’s public relations department, told AbzasMedia in February 2023. 

In total, some 39 individuals were rounded up, including Baghirov, as a result of the operation. 

The Ministry of the Interior also said the group was engaged in acts of provocation and disruption under the guise of religion. 

The arrests took place at a time, when relations between Iran and Azerbaijan were at their lowest following an armed attack on an Azerbaijani embassy in the capital of Iran on January 27, 2023. As a result, one embassy security personnel was killed and two others were injured. 

Azerbaijan described the attack as a terrorist act and issued a warning to Azerbaijani nationals not to travel to Iran unless necessary. 

The investigation against Baghirov was finalized on February 20, 2024. 

blogger arrested

Arzu Sayadoglu, known as a blogger who often critiques the state officials and the government, was reportedly arrested on January 28, 2024. According to family and friends, the blogger first went missing after an interview with an opposition YouTube channel, AzadSoz. It was announced two days later that the blogger was arrested and sent into pre-trial detention.

Meydan TV reported that the blogger was sentenced to four months in pre-trial detention and charged with extortion.

Insufficient and outdated infrastructure causes internet disruptions [January 15 – 25]

In Azerbaijan’s southern region of Lenkoran, residents complained of power cuts. According to reporting by Meydan TV, heavy snowfall in the area since January 14 caused power cuts and disruptions to access to telecommunications across several villages and in the city itself. In one village, there was no internet for a week after the snowfall, residents told Meydan TV. The disruptions have not stopped the ISPs from charging their customers the usual package rate. Officials, including the state energy company Azerisiq, blamed disruptions and access issues on the heavy snowfall, which damaged multiple electricity cables.

After four days of power cuts, residents of Ürgə village protested, blocking the main roads. One village resident who spoke to Meydan TV said more than 350 homes were left without electricity for four days.

Local officials refuted claims of any protests. According to reports by residents, the power was restored shortly after the residents staged the protest.

A court blocks access to Kanal 13 YouTube channel

A court in Baku ruled to block access to the YouTube channel of Kanal13 on December 20, 2023.

Kanal13’s director, Aziz Orucov, was detained in November 2023. A former political prisoner [he was sentenced to six years in 2017 but released on parole a year later], Orucov, was first detained on bogus property rights violations. The charges against Orucov were changed the following month. According to reports, the journalist was accused of smuggling.

On December 11, the court ordered the blocking of the outlet on the grounds the outlet spread false, insulting, defamatory, and discrediting information about state officials and others. The website of Kanal13 was blocked in 2017 during a wave of blocking that targeted several independent and opposition media outlets’ websites. They remain blocked at the time of documenting this blocking.

The decision to block

The Ministry of Internal Affairs first requested to block access from the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport on December 1 on the grounds the channel violated media law [namely for failing to register with the State Media Registry] as well as the dissemination of discrediting information. The Ministry took the request to court. According to reporting by Meydan TV, “the trial proceeded without the presence or representation of Orujov or any member of the media organization. The court upheld the claim, resulting in the blocking of the outlet.”

Orucov remains in pre-trial detention. He is facing up to eight years in prison if convicted.

On December 2, Rufat Muradli, a news anchor at Kanal13, was also reportedly detained and sent into administrative detention. In addition to his journalism work, Muradli serves as a board member of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare (ADR) party – the party’s chairman, Gubad Ibadoglu, has been behind bars since August 2023.

For further reading on the implications of the controversial Law on Media and the imposed registry, click here.

Editor of an online news site arrested [Updated February 24, 2024]

[Update February 24] The pre-trial detention period of Abzas Media journalist Nargiz Abusalamova was extended by another three months. 

[Update February 21] Kanal 13 director Aziz Orujov’s pre-trial detention was extended by another month.

[Update January 13] Police arrested another Abzas Media journalist – Elnara Gasimova. She was sentenced to pretrial detention on January 15, 2024, for a period of two months and 17 days. She is facing the same charges as the rest of the journalists from Abzas Media, and if found guilty, she faces between six months and eight years in prison and a fine. 

[Update December 4] Following the arrests of Kekalov, Vagifgizi, and Hasanli, three more journalists were arrested. Among them are Nargiz Abusalamova (Abzas Media reporter), Aziz Orujov (founder of online television channel Kanal 13), and Rufat Muradli (the host of the show on Kanal 13). There were also reports of a hacking attempt on Kanal 13’s YouTube channel. At least two videos were removed from the channel before Orujov’s brother could secure access to the account.

Abusalamova was questioned earlier as a witness in the investigation launched against Abzas Media. Still, authorities arrested the journalist on December 1 and sentenced her to three months in pre-trial detention. Speaking to journalists, Absalamova’s lawyer said the accusations were baseless, “The court argued that Absalamova can aid others involved in the case and hence, to prevent that from happening, her arrest was necessary.” 

[Update November 23] Mahammad Kekalov was also sentenced to three months and 27 days on the same charges. Kekalov’s lawyer, Rovshana Rahimli, told Abzas Media she finally had a chance to meet Kekalov on November 23. During the meeting, Kekalov refused to proceed with Rahimli. He told her he had already been assigned a state lawyer and that he had committed no crime and would continue working with the state-assigned lawyer. The meeting took place in the presence of a state investigator. Friends and acquaintances fear Kekalov made this decision under duress. This request was not granted despite the lawyer’s attempts to meet Kekalov without any state representative. “I was surprised to hear Kekalov’s decision. He knows me. And despite me telling him that his family hired me, he pressed with his decision. He was very calm when we talked. And he did not explain the reason why he decided to refuse my services.” In addition, several other journalists were questioned as part of the investigation on November 23 – Nargiz Absalamova, Sahila Aslanova, Mina Alyarli, and Elnare Gasimova. Ulvi Hasanli’s wife, Rubaba Guliyeva, was also questioned. 

[Update] Both Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinc Vagifgizi were sentenced by the Khatai District Court. Hasanli was sentenced to four months in pretrial detention, while Vagifgizi to three months and 29 days. 

[Update] Sevinc Vagifgizi, who was en route to Baku [on the flight from Istanbul] on November 20, was also detained at the airport, according to reporting by independent Meydan TV. Several Azerbaijani activists who were on the same flight with her told Meydan TV she was detained once the plane landed in Azerbaijan. In an interview with Meydan TV at the airport before boarding her flight to Baku, Vagifgizi said she is certain that Hasanli’s arrest is directly related to the investigative work by Abzas media on the corruption among companies owned by individuals related to the ruling family doing business in Karabakh.  Meanwhile, lawyer Zibeyde Sadighova told Meydan TV that Ulvi Hasanli is being charged with smuggling large amounts of goods or other subjects on preliminary arrangement by a group of persons [Article 206.3.2 of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan]. On November 21, Vagifgizi was charged on similar grounds. According to Abzas media, Mahammad Kekalov, who writes about people with disabilities, was also detained on November 20. He was taken from his house against his will by plain-clothed police officers.

Abzas media also released an audio recording of Hasanli explaining what happened: “I was about to get into the taxi leaving my apartment, a car stopped in front of the taxi and a bunch of men showed up. They were all wearing masks. They called my name. I cannot recall at which point exactly I was hit. They took me there and brought me to the police station. We started arguing. Two officers hit me. Then the questioning began. They asked me why we [Abzas] did not write about Karabakh but instead wrote about corruption. “Aren’t there other problems to write about,” they asked me. The money [police claim to have found] was planted there, it is so obvious. Because of the place where they allegedly found it. It was in the hallway of the office, not even inside one of the rooms [clearly someone just dropped it there].” In a statement shared by Abaz media on their Facebook page, the platform said, “As Abzas media we inform you, that Hasanli’s detention, the search at his house and on the promises of the office, are unlawful. All that is happening is directly related to [Hasanli’s] journalism. We demand immediate release of Hasanli.”

The news of the missing journalist and editor of an online news platform Abzas Media, Ulvi Hasanli, started trickling on the morning of November 20. According to colleagues, Hasanli was en route to the airport when he went missing. The platform believes Hasanli’s arrest is over the platform’s series of investigations, exposing corruption within the government. 

In an interview with Turan News Agency, the platform’s editor-in-chief, Sevinc Vagifgizi said, “Ulvi left home at 4.30 AM and was headed to the airport. However, he never boarded the plane and has not been in touch since.” Vagifgizi added she suspected Hasanli was detained at the airport.

Az-Net Watch spoke to Hasanli’s lawyer, Zibeyde Sadishova, who confirmed that Hasanli was indeed detained, except detention took place at Hasanli’s home as he was getting ready to leave. The police searched both Hasanli’s home and the office of Abzas Media. In the latter’s case, police claimed they had discovered 40,000EUR in cash. Hasanli denied having any connection to the money. It is suspected police planted the cash during the search.

Meanwhile, the lawyer also confirmed that the home of Vagifgizi was also searched. The police did not find anything there. According to the lawyer, Hasanli was beaten by the police. 

Hasanli was most recently detained at the US Embassy in Baku when he filmed the flash mob organized by feminist activists in July 2023. A month prior, in June, Hasanli was questioned over a Facebook post that police asked he remove. In the post, Hasanli shared the pictures of two police officers who were in charge of detaining journalists covering an environmental protest outside of the capital. 

Since 2016, Absaz media has been targeted with DDoS attacks. In 2017, the website was blocked from access inside the country, forcing the website managers to switch the website’s extension. In April 2020, the website was hacked and, as a result, lost a month’s worth of published articles, and some of the headlines changed. The platform was targeted again in February 2021. 

hearing in the case of activist reveals, it was his social media posts that had him arrested after all

Afiaddin Mammadov, the coordinator of Azerbaijan’s Alternative Confederation of Trade Unions, was sentenced to two months in pretrial detention in September 2023. Charged with deliberate infliction of bodily harm and armed hooliganism (based on a bogus accusation by an unidentified man claiming Mammadov stabbed him with a knife) originally, based on the hearing on November 15, in which the court extended Mammadov’s detention by an additional two months, turns out it was his outspoken criticism on social media platform Facebook that landed him behind hars. 

Based on the reporting from the hearing by journalist Ulviyya Ali, the judge said, “I have seen your Facebook profile. What have you written there about the “one-day” war?” Mammadov said he wrote nothing about it. The judge then persisted, “Why did you write that President Ilham Aliyev has resolved the 30-year-old problem?” Mammadov after hearing this question told the judge, that he had criticized the president and his decisions a lot, and that he was certain the reason behind his arrest, was these previously written posts and comments on the social media platform and not him stabbing someone.  

Mammadov repeated over and over again that he committed no crime. And that no one, should be put on trial, for wanting peace.

This is not the first time an activist is accused of a crime he did not commit in Azerbaijan. The country has a long-running history of putting its critics behind bars, handing administrative fines, and using various tools of intimidation to silence its state’s critics. 

Mammadov is among several activists targeted since September. 

Internet disruptions in Fuzuli [Update October 24, 2023]

[Update] Reports from Fuzuli confirm, that internet access has been restored as of October 24, 2023. Residents say that despite almost a month-long throttling, they have noticed the cash balance on their accounts has been withdrawn even though there was no internet access. Of the companies providing Internet access in Fuzuli, only Aztelekom has thus far restored access. According to reports, mobile operators continue to resort to throttling.

Azerbaijan throttled internet access on September 19, 2023, during military operations but according to reports from the ground, despite it being more than 20 days since the intervention, internet disruptions remain.

Azerbaijan launched a military offensive into the formerly disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region on September 19, with the aim “to restore constitutional order” and “force the dissolution of the government” in the capital Khankendi [Stepanakert in Armenian]. As a result of the 24-hour operation termed by Azerbaijan’s Military of Defense as a “local anti-terror operation,” the government of Stepanakert/Khankendi surrendered, accepting the truce agreement outlined by Azerbaijan and Russia on September 20.

More coverage of the offensive available here.

According to reporting by independent Meydan TV, an online news platform, the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport, as well as other relevant institutions, have been silent about restrictions placed on internet access in Fuzuli. Users said on the social media platform Meta, that it was not only Fuzuli where restrictions continue but also in Aghdam, and Terter. “Access to the internet is only available at government institutions in Aghdam, Terter, and Fuzuli while the population remains without access,” wrote Khagani Bakshali in a post. 

Screenshot of the post on Facebook.
eydan TV reports that all main providers, Aztelecom, Nar Mobile, Bakcell, and Azercell stopped providing access to the internet in Fuzuli immediately after the military operation started on September 19. Inquiries directed to the press services of mobile operators remained unanswered.

Meanwhile, residents were not informed of planned disruptions according to Meydan TV reporter reporting from the Arayatli village of Fuzuli. 

The disruptions have affected especially students receiving online education.

An employee at the call center at Aztelecom, the main provider of internet access, said the company would investigate the disruptions, while the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport said there was no reason to worry and that the internet would be restored soon. “There is no reason to worry. Internet will be restored. We advise citizens to be patient,” the ministry said according to reporting by Meydan TV.

According to ICT expert and president of Azerbaijan Internet Forum Osman Gunduz, while the decision to restrict access to the Internet can be justified during military operations, once these are ended, access should be restored. In an interview with Meydan TV, Gunduz said, “When the state is conducting an anti-terrorist operation in a certain region, it is understandable that [the state can] restrict [access to] the Internet. An anti-terrorist operation can also be considered a military or emergency situation. But if the operations are over now, if the situation is under the control of the state, it would be correct to restore communications, open the Internet, and activate the mobile Internet service.”

*Fuzuli was one of the seven districts surrounding Karabakh occupied by the Armenian forces following the first Karabakh war. Azerbaijan regained control of the district as well as other six districts during the second Karabakh war

the saga with media registry continues in Azerbaijan [Update November 15, 2023]

[Update] website was reportedly blocked inside the country following the court decision on November 15. The Media Development Agency filed the case with the court on November 10 [see the following update below]. The site’s manager considers the court’s decision unlawful. Zamanov told Meydan TV he will be appealing the decision. In an interview with Meydan TV, media expert Khalid Aghayev said, the court’s decision was baseless, adding, “It should not be possible to stop the work of a media outlet so easily. This is a clear violation of media freedom law.”

[Update] The media development agency takes the first media platform – – to court. The reason, claims the agency, is that failed to apply for registration with the agency. The site’s manager, Mahammad Zamanov, said no longer operated as a media platform. The court case was filed on November 10, according to the reporting by an independent Meydan TV. 

The most recent online platform to join the list of rejected news platforms by the state media registry is Gündəm Xəbər. According to Meydan TV, the website’s admins were informed on September 25, that their application was rejected on the grounds the website failed to meet the requirement of publishing at least 20 articles per day as per Article 60.5 of the new law on Media adopted by the parliament in 2021, and approved by the president Ilham Aliyev in February 2022. 

At the time of its adoption, the new law was heavily criticized by local and international rights organizations who made repeated calls on the government to refrain from adopting the New Media Law given its restrictive nature. Critics of the draft law worried the new legal document would seriously threaten media freedom, including online media resources, as it contains provisions granting a discretionary power to the state, to regulate media excessively, especially online media, as well as introduce further restrictions on journalists’ work, media companies, and relevant entities. Critics were also vocal about the absence of a broad and meaningful public consultation of the law prior to its adoption.

According to the law on media, 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.

*For further reading read AIW’s legal overview and the implications of the new law here.

yet another activist detained over social media posts [Updated January 17, 2024]

[Update] On January 17, Ruslan Vahabov [see the case below] was sentenced to 4 years behind bars on drug possession charges. 

[Update] Authorities continued to target civic activists critical of the state during October. Below is a compilation of some the cases documented by AIW. 

October 27 – Tural Farzili was detained after a post on Facebook in which he questioned the arrest of members of the working group representing the rights of workers. Farzili was released after questioning. 

October 24 – Shahin Amanov was questioned at the police over a spot on Facebook where he criticized the local administrative office. He was also forced to delete all the posts. 

October 23 – Zeka Miragayev was arrested over social media post critical of the Ministry of the Interior. 

October 19 – Ilkin Calilov was questioned, beaten and forced to give a video statement under duress after leaving a comment on a post by Meydan TV on Facebook. In an interview with Abzas Media, Calilov recounted how at the station he was asked to remove the comment he left, which he did. Calilov also told Abzas Media that he was told never to leave any more comments. 

October 18 – Mohyaddin Orucov was detained, and sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention. 

October 16 – Emin Akhundov arrested over hooliganism and resisting police charges, charges Akhundov refutes. The activist is an active critic of the state, online. 

Ruslan Vahabov,  was arrested on drug trafficking charges on September 22. His name is the latest in a series of arrests targeting civic activists over their criticism of the state, online. According to reporting by Meydan TV, at least nine activists have been targeted so far. Many were reprimanded for their anti-war commentary. 

In addition to making anti-war statements, Vahabov, is a representative of the Talysh ethnic group, and throughout his activism, he called to respect the group’s national and cultural rights. In a statement issued by the Public Council of Talyshs of Azerbaijan (PCTA), the group said, “Ruslan Vahabov is a public activist. He criticized the activities of certain institutions of the Azerbaijani government on social networks. At the same time, as a representative of the Talysh ethnic group, he advocated ensuring the constitutional national and cultural rights of his people. For public activity, he was previously subjected to verbal warnings from the police.”

On the social media platform Facebook, Vahabov shared anti-war sentiments. A day before his arrest, on September 21, Vahabov wrote, “What did we gain from the 24 hours and 43 minutes?” referring to the military operation that was launched by the government of Azerbaijan on September 19.