Journalist fined over published article

The list of social media users warned or fined as a result of their public posts on social platforms continues to grow in Azerbaijan. The latest case involves journalist and editor-in-chief of an online news platform jamaz.info, Ibishbeyli Fikret (Fikret Faramazoglu).  On January 12, Faramazoglu was summoned to the Prosecutor General Office where he was accused of “disseminating forbidden information on the internet”, an administrative offense under Article 388-1.1.1. The journalist was fined a total amount of AZN 500 [USD 295] following the court decision. The Prosecutor General Office alleged that the article published on jamaz.info website [“Shusha is under fire from Khankendi”] on January 11, caused confusion, and fear wrote the journalist following his release in a post on Facebook. The journalist intends to appeal the decision. 

Previously, AzNet Watch reported on other similar cases. Below is the summary: 

December 21, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan issued a statement that four citizens – Abushov Zamig, Mahmudov Ilgar, Ibrahimov Mehdi, and Safarsoy Rza – were invited to the prosecutor’s office for allegedly disseminating biased information on social networks. All four were warned that in case they repeat the offense, they could face more stringent measures reported Turan News Agency.

December 21, secondary school principal Hikmet Aghajanov was warned by the Prosecutor Office, over alleged online dissemination of prohibited information on suicide according to reporting by Report.az.

December 21, a statement by the Prosecutor Office further urged media entities and users of social networks to refrain from publicizing inaccurate and distorted information, warning that further measures would be taken otherwise.  

December 18, websites olke.az, and manevr.az, were fined in a total amount of AZN 1500 [USD 882] each for violating Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. 

December 18, journalist Sakhavat Mammad, with an online Yenicag.az website, was fined in a late-night trial, on charges of publishing prohibited information on an information resource or information/communication network in violation of Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. 

In a comment to AzNet Watch, an independent lawyer Emin Abbasov said, “Although Article 54.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses stipulates that the prosecutor shall initiate proceedings on certain categories of administrative offenses, the last sentence of that article authorizes the prosecutor to initiate proceedings on any other administrative offense. Apparently, the Code of the Administrative Offences (articles 54.2 and 99.3) empowers the Prosecutor General’s Office with wide powers including launching administrative offenses in any administrative offense cases. The wide discretion of criminal prosecution body beyond the criminal offenses, and in particular over the information distributed online puts huge pressure over freedom of expression and free flow of information.”

In Azerbaijan the parliament is discussing the controversial law on media – the bill already passed its second reading [Updated]

[Update] On December 30, Azerbaijan’s parliament approved a new media law after its third and final reading. The law was passed despite mounting criticism from local journalists and is set to be signed by President Ilham Aliyev and become effective as of January 1, 2022. Hailed by its proponents as a reform bill, critics of the law warn that the new law’s will have an extensive impact on media freedom and independence in Azerbaijan [more here].

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The plans to roll out a new Media Law in Azerbaijan were announced in January 2021 following a Presidential Decree “on deepening media reforms in the Republic of Azerbaijan.” Now, almost a year later, despite local advocacy by journalists and news platforms to reconsider adopting the legal document, the law passed its second reading on December 20, 2021. Although the law has not been finally approved and signed by the president, the local media already reported several citizens fined or warned over the content they have shared online. 

The controversy of the new law

On December 16, two days after the draft law passed its first reading a group of civil society representatives issued a statement urging the lawmakers to reconsider the draft law in its current form. According to the statement, the law “opens up a wide range of opportunities for the state to determine who can engage in journalism and rejects the model of media self-regulation. It inflicts incurable wounds on freedom of media, which is an important component of the right to freedom of expression.” 

According to Eurasianet.net reporting

Among the many new regulations: The state will now create a registry of journalists, who have to fit specific criteria (including lack of a criminal record) to be included. Owners of media outlets will have to live in Azerbaijan, which would effectively ban many of the country’s independent media which are run by Azerbaijanis who fled the country. Online news outlets will be required to publish at least 20 news pieces on a daily basis.

There are also a wide variety of content restrictions in the new law. Journalists will be prohibited from “propagating superstitions.” “Tarnishing a business’s reputation” will also not be allowed. Section 14.1.11 stipulates that “facts and events must be interpreted impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed.”

The intent appears to be to give the government more freedom to block media it deems unfriendly.

Reactions

Media law expert Alasgar Mammadli told Kanal13 in an interview that the law now grants a right to block online content on a whim. Azerbaijan is already blocking a wide range of independent and opposition news websites since 2017. The most recent findings were released this summer by AzNet Watch in partnership with OONI. But media censorship is an ongoing issue according to Qurium Media Foundation that released another report, this summer, documenting a decade of media censorship in Azerbaijan based on the organization’s work assisting targeted, and blocked news platforms in the country. 

In an interview with Toplum TV, journalist Seymur Kazimov said, the new provisions are “backward.”

On December 22, a human rights organization “Defense Line”, said in a statement that the new law was also in violation of the Azerbaijan Constitution: 

Part I of Article 7 of the Constitution states that the Azerbaijani state is a democratic, legal republic, Article 50, Part II guarantees freedom of mass information, as well as prohibits state censorship of the press. However, in recent years, dozens of journalists have been subjected to politically motivated administrative and criminal prosecution, ill-treatment, and illegal interference in the activities of electronic and written publications by administrative bodies.

In its statement, the organization further made calls on the government of Azerbaijani and its legislature to comply with the requirements of Articles 10 (freedom of expression), 47 (freedom of thought and expression), and 50 (freedom of information) of the European Convention.

Gubad Ibadoglu, professor of economics, who manages an online YouTube platform Biz told Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty that the new law aims to restrict the media and increase the risk of blocking critical television programs broadcast from abroad. 

First signs of controlling online content

On December 21, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan issued a statement that four citizens – Abushov Zamig, Mahmudov Ilgar, Ibrahimov Mehdi, and Safarsoy Rza – were invited to the prosecutor’s office for allegedly disseminating biased information on social networks. All four were warned that in case they repeat the offense, they could face more stringent measures reported Turan News Agency.

In addition, several websites were issued a fine in violation of Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. According to reporting by Report.az, on December 18, olke.az, and manevr.az, were fined in a total amount of AZN 1500 [USD 882] each over alleged illegal dissemination of information that promotes suicide as a solution mechanism, “while substantiating, inciting, and explaining the methods of its commission.” 

Lawyer Khaled Aghaly said the decision was embarrassing. In an interview with Meydan TV, Aghaly said that both websites were fined over publishing exact same text. “Manevr.az” website copied the story published by “olke.az.” According to the law on Mass Media, in case, information was shared from another resource [rather than published as an original text], the news outlet republishing the content should be freed from any responsibility. It is unfortunate that even the courts ignored this [when issuing their final decision],” explained Aghaly.

In addition, on December 18, journalist Sakhavat Mammad, with an online Yenicag.az website, was fined in a late-night trial, on charges of publishing prohibited information on an information resource or information/communication network in violation of Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. 

In March 2020, Article 388-1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses was aggravated with the penalty of up to one-month administrative detention with other sanctions against real or legal owners of internet information resources and associated domain names as well as against users of information-telecommunication networks for the placement, or the violation of provisions of the Information Law aiming at preventing the placement, of prohibited information on such internet information resources. 

Commenting on Sakhavat Mammad’s case, media law expert Alasgar Mammadli told Meydan TV that the new law is already being put to use even though it officially enters into force next year. “Calling the journalist to the prosecutor’s office, and then hastily fining him in court [in the absence of an investigation, explicit mentioning of which law was violated, and which secrets were spread], is nothing but a pressure on freedom of speech and is the violation of freedom of expression,” Mammadli added. 

But this is also not the first time that a journalist faced punishment over their work, reported Azerbaijan service for Radio Free Europe. In 2019, Mustafa Hajiyebli, editor of opposition bastainfo.com received an administrative sentence. He was accused of instilling chaos among the public. Around the same time, the editor of criminal.az website, Anar Mammadov faced similar charges. A number of other cases were documented in the most recent Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House. 

Finally, one secondary school principal Hikmet Aghajanov was warned by the Prosecutor Office, over alleged online dissemination of prohibited information on suicide according to reporting by Report.az.

December 21 statement by the Prosecutor Office further urged media entities and users of social networks to refrain from publicizing inaccurate and distorted information, warning that further measures would be taken otherwise.  

In a comment to AzNet Watch, an independent lawyer Emin Abbasov said, “Although Article 54.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses stipulates that the prosecutor shall initiate proceedings on certain categories of administrative offenses, the last sentence of that article authorizes the prosecutor to initiate proceedings on any other administrative offense. Apparently, the Code of the Administrative Offences (articles 54.2 and 99.3) empowers the Prosecutor General’s Office with wide powers including launching administrative offenses in any administrative offense cases. The wide discretion of criminal prosecution body beyond the criminal offenses, and in particular over the information distributed online puts huge pressure over freedom of expression and free flow of information.”

Gag order around “Terter” case

In another warning issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Interior Ministry, and the State Security Service of Azerbaijan, the government institutions warned of spreading false information on the ongoing Terter Case. According to the wording of the warning, “representatives of mass media, users of social media platforms, as well as participants in criminal proceedings [shall be] informed that the dissemination of preliminary investigation information without proper permission creates liability under criminal law.” The government institutions also warned that measures will be taken against those who disseminate biased and distorted information in order to overshadow the activities of government agencies and the victorious Azerbaijani Army, influence the investigation, and deliberately mislead the public.

The Terter Case refers to 2017 events surrounding a group of Azerbaijani servicemen accused of collaborating with the intelligence and security services of Armenia. At the time, the Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan launched a criminal case, under Article 274 (treason) of the Criminal Code on treason and other criminal acts. The faith of these men remained largely unknown until the following year, when “persons who claimed to have been illegally detained, interrogated and tortured” began talking about what happened to them on social media platforms. Since then, the case has been widely referred to as the Terter case. 

According to a statement by the OMCT issued in April 2021, following the investigations, it was possible to identify that at least “78 Azerbaijani citizens [were] detained and sentenced to between 12 and 20 years in prison, with multiple cases of torture, including 11 deaths in custody of Azerbaijani military personnel and civilians.” 

In June 2021, 24 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) signed a motion, requesting to appoint a rapporteur to investigate the reported torture and ill-treatment in the Terter case.

On November 1, Lieutenant General of Justice Khanlar Valiyev, deputy prosecutor general and military prosecutor of Azerbaijan “admitted to local media that more than 100 servicemen were tortured during the investigation of Terter case.” 

On November 5, 2021, the case was discussed during a meeting of the Committee on Legal Affairs of PACE according to reporting by Turan News Agency. 

What’s next?

The new media law enters into force on January 1, 2022. Media law experts and journalists, say instead, the authorities should have focused on decriminalizing defamation and libel, adopting a law on defamation and relying on existing legal structures rather than draft a new law, which was largely kept away from public discussions and despite demands by independent and opposition journalists and other representatives of civil society, refused to open the draft bill for review and recommendation process as has been the case with the Law on Access to Information, passed by Parliament in 2005. In an interview with Turan News Agency, lawyer Khaled Aghaly explained that at the time, “[the bill] was developed with the participation of media law experts, the local and international community.” Unfortunately, this practice was dismissed this time around explained Aghaly. 

Local experts believe it is possible to change the course as long as there is an interest on behalf of the government. Meanwhile, on December 24, the parliament is scheduled to discuss the existing law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information and the list of proposed amendments published on the parliament’s website on December 20. If approved the following changes will be made to the existing bill: 

  • in its present form, the law does not oblige the regulatory body to provide the information resource owners, internet and host providers, or other sites’ substantiated opinion reasoning for the content prohibited. In other words, the regulatory body and other state authorities can request to remove the content or block access to websites without any obligation to substantiate their demands;

    • The proposed amendment calls for clear reasoning behind the content removal request;
  • Previously a whole website could be closed for access for publishing “prohibited information”;
    • The proposed amendment calls blocking specific content; 

Journalist fined in a midnight trial

On December 18, journalist Sakhavat Mammad, with an online Yenicag.az website, was fined in a midnight trial, on charges of publishing prohibited information on an information resource or information/communication network under the law on Information, Informatisation and Protection of Information. The journalist was charged under Article 388.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.

Mammad, who often reports on the army, was invited to the Prosecutor General office on December 18 over his recent reporting published on Yenicag.az website. 

“I explained [at the Prosecutor General office] that the recently published work is the result of investigations I have been conducting for a while now. I was then taken to the court. They had a hearing late at night and fined me in the total amount of 500AZN. It was so late that when the judge asked if I wanted a lawyer, I decided to defend myself because I did not want to bother anyone so late in the evening,” Mammad told in an interview with an online news platform Toplum.tv. 

The controversial law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information was first adopted in 1998. In March 2017, a series of restrictive amendments were added to the law, converting the law from a technical regulation into content regulation. In March of 2020, the law was updated yet again. In a previous analysis of the law, AIW together with a legal expert identified some of the key challenges and loopholes in the law, such as: 

  • In the list of prohibited information envisaged in the Law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information, the definition of what entails prohibited content is described with vague expressions that are open to excessive interpretations. With these terms, the state authorities “enjoy” a broad discretion power to categorize any information as prohibited (Law № 460-IQ); 
  • Amendments to an existing bill on Information provisions, Informatization, and Protection of Information extended the subjects – to users – of responsibilities for placement of prohibited information, including the “false information” on information-telecommunication networks.

    This means that amendments establish the liability over the information-telecommunication network users to place prohibited content on the information-telecommunication networks; 

    The amendments also added an item to the list of prohibited content, forbidding the  placement of false information: thus, prohibited information was considered “false information [yalan məlumatlar] in case it posed a threat to harm human life and health, cause significant property damage, mass violation of public safety, disrupt life support facilities, financial, transport, communications, industrial, energy and social infrastructure facilities or other socially dangerous consequences.”

    In other words, if users placed content on the internet that might be considered false information capable to disrupt the functioning of state bodies or their activities it can be considered on the grounds of violating the existing law.

Article 388 of the administrative offenses 

During the same plenary meeting in March 2020, an amendment to article 388-1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO) of Law No. 27-VIQD was also approved.

Article 388-1 of the CAO was aggravated with the penalty of up to one-month administrative detention with other sanctions against real or legal person owners of internet information resources and associated domain names as well as on users of information-telecommunication networks for the placement, or the violation of provisions of the Information Law aiming at preventing the placement, of prohibited information on such internet information resources.

With the amendments introduced to laws, users of the information-telecommunication network, owners of internet information resources, and domain names might be punished under Article 388-1 of the CAO. The penalty for the offense is a fine between 500 and 1000 manats (about US$294–$588) for real persons and 1000 to 1500 manats for officials, with an option of up to one month of administrative detention for both classes of persons depending on the circumstances and the identity of the offender.

During the first year of the pandemic, the same administrative offense was used to target scores of political activists. 

 

Political activist sentenced to ten years in jail

Member of a political opposition party Agil Humbatov was sentenced to ten years in jail after criticizing the president on Facebook. In a court ruling on November 15, Humbatov was charged with Article 126.2.4 of the Criminal Code – intentionally causing harm with an intent to commit hooliganism. The prosecutor alleged Humbatov, stabbed a man. According to Turan News Agency, the prosecutor said Humbatov stabbed Yaman Mammadov. 

Humbatov was detained on August 11 this year.

In his defense, the political activist, who is a member of Popular Front, said charges against him were bogus. The real reason behind his sentence was his social media posts and videos in which the activist was critical of the government, namely President Ilham Aliyev. 

In his most recent video, Humbatov complained of lack of employment opportunities and that with three children and lack of local government support, he had no other choice but to collect cardboard from waste. 

Previously, Humbatov was confined to treatment at a psychiatric clinic over his criticisms against the authorities online. He was also detained in March 2019 and sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention.

Blogger arrested in Azerbaijan

Sameddin Mammadov was reported missing on October 29. The witnesses said they saw a group of men, took Mammadov from his in Azerbaijan’s Jalilabad district, driving him in an unidentified direction. His son, Nahid Mammadov said the family learned their father was taken by the police days later. 

Mammadov, is a blogger covering developments from his region via his Facebook account. His son, Nahid Mammadov who spoke with Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty said the allegations leveled against his father were illegal and groundless. “My father talked about problems from our district on social media. He was making videos. He was doing it with one purpose – the country’s leadership see what was happening in Jalilabad. My father was intimidated, and warned numerous times.” 

According to the son, his father is currently on a hunger strike. The family in the meantime asked to meet the president but was refused. 

Mammadov is accused of inflicting intentional body harm and hooliganism. Azadliq Radio spoke with the plaintiff, also a resident of the same district, Elshad Jafarov.  Jafarov claims Mammadov, his son, and nephew beat him up on September 27. “I don’t know why Mammadov was arrested. I did not know he was. I cannot say whether he was threatened because of his political activism. But I have testified to the police. I have spent 21 days at a hospital recovering from the beating. There is a forensics report,” Jafarov told Azadliq Radio. 

According to a post on Mammadov’s Facebook, the court dismissed his appeal and that he remains behind bars.  

Toplum TV Facebook page hacked via SMS interception

On November 3, the founders of Toplum TV, an online news platform, said their Facebook page was hacked. Hackers(s) removed several videos, including one Toplum TV shared yesterday, which was a discussion with an opposition politician Ali Karimli. According to the founders who spoke to AIW, the hacker(s) accessed the page through another founder’s Facebook account, deleted videos, page likes, and changed the name of the page. At the time of reporting this story, the Facebook page was recovered.

In a Facebook post, Alasgar Mammadli, one of the founders of the platform explained in detail how the hacker(s) accessed Toplum TV’s Facebook page by compromising his personal account first.

Translation: This morning at 8.54AM local time, my Facebook account was compromised. The compromise was made possible using my personal mobile phone number. The hacker acquired access to personal information illegally. I only learned about what happened half hour later as I was stuck in city traffic, and had limited access both to my mobile phone and personal computer.  The compromise was made possible by intercepting an SMS sent to my mobile sim card. Meaning, messages sent to my mobile number, were used in parallel by technical supervisors overseeing the telecommunication system in accordance with telecommunication law. Having accessed my personal account [the hacker(s)] were able to access Toplum TV Facebook page, changing its name, [only] deleting archived videos of live debates with Popular Front and Musavat party leaders, and removing several thousand Page likes. Clearly, the reason behind what happened is political intervention. The absolute lack of tolerance to public debates on Toplum TV’s platform has reached such a level, that the perpetrators unafraid, have committed a criminal act prohibited by Articles 271, 272, and 273 of the Criminal Code. This compromise is an act of crime and a grave violation of freedom of speech, privacy, and security of personal data. I demand that serious investigation and preventive action be taken by relevant authorities working within the information security space.

Toplum TV encouraged its readers and followers in a tweet to support their page after hacking:

Translation: Toplum TV’s Facebook page was compromised and its name changed to their name “toplan”. To support independent media, like our Facebook page, and help restore deleted followers.

SMS interceptions are commonly used in Azerbaijan. Below, are a few excerpts from a recent report published by AIW in partnership with International Partnership for Human Rights on the topic: 

The interception of SMS exchanges remains an acute problem in Azerbaijan. In recent years, scores of political activists, journalists, rights defenders, and independent media platforms have had their social media accounts compromised. In many of these cases, those affected have had SMS notification enabled as two-step verification (2FA) procedure for accessing their Facebook accounts. As a result, when their accounts were compromised, they were unable to restore access to the accounts relying on traditional troubleshooting steps offered by social media platforms such as Facebook. Thus, they were unable to retrieve password reset codes sent by Facebook by SMS as their messages were intercepted by the operators, only to be passed on to the relevant government bodies. This experience shows that mobile companies have been involved in many of these attacks. However, none of the operators have taken the blame, so far. The earliest example of SMS surveillance goes back to 2009 when 43 Azerbaijanis voted for Armenia’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest through votes cast by SMS. A number of these people were summoned and questioned by the security services. In an interview with Azadliq Radio (the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), one of these televoters, Rovshan Nasirli said that the authorities demanded an “explanation” for his vote and told him it was a “matter of national security”. He told the service: “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like: ‘You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?’ They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go.” The authorities did not deny that they had identified and summoned people who voted for Armenia, and argued that they were merely trying to understand the motives of these people.

Three years after the Eurovision scandal, an investigative documentary aired on Swedish TV called ‘’Mission: Investigate” revealed how the Swedish telecommunications giant TeliaSonera, which at the time owned a majority stake of Azercell, allowed “black boxes” to be installed within their telecommunications networks in Azerbaijan from as early as 2008. These boxes enabled security services and police to monitor all network communication, including internet traffic and phone calls in real-time without any judicial oversight. The exposure of these black boxes explains the type of technology the government was deploying already at the time of Eurovision in 2009. The investigation aired by Swedish TV also confirmed that wiretaps were used as evidence in politically motivated cases.

In 2014, an OCCRP investigation revealed how mobile operators were directly passing on information about their users to the respective government authorities. In a country where the government enjoys unprecedented control over the ICT industry and where some of the key players in the market such as mobile operators and ISPs are affiliated with the government or its officials, the findings of the investigation were not at all surprising. The 2014 investigation quoted the director of the Media Rights Institute, Rashid Hajili as saying that both mobile companies and ISPs were obliged to provide special facilities to the Ministry of National Security (MNS)91 for surveillance purposes in accordance with existing legal provisions as explained earlier. In the case of mobile companies, no court approval was sought to eavesdrop on the conversations and SMS exchanges of their customers – a common practice to this day. One of the first accounts of collaboration between mobile companies and the government is that of journalist Agil Khalil. In 2008, Khalil was working on a story about the alleged involvement of MNS employees in corrupt land deals. After taking photographs for the story, he was approached by MNS agents and beaten. The journalist escaped from his attackers and managed to take photos of them. Khalil filed a complaint with the police, and an investigation was opened but eventually dropped, without the perpetrators having been prosecuted or even identified. Soon after turning to the police, the journalist realized that he was being followed. When he filed another complaint with the police about the surveillance, police again failed to follow up. A few days later, Khalil was subjected to a new attack: this time, an unknown assailant stabbed and injured him. Khalil again turned to the police, accusing both the MNS and the mobile operator Azercell (whose services he was using ) of being responsible for the attack. He argued that the operator had helped the MNS to track down his whereabouts, thereby facilitating the attack. The involvement of Azercell in the case became more evident when the operator provided a local court, which examined the journalist’s complaint, with alleged SMS exchanges between Khalil and a man named Sergey Strekalin, who the MNS claimed was Khalil’s lover and had stabbed the journalist out of jealousy. When Khalil’s lawyer requested access to these SMS exchanges, Azercell refused, which called into question the authenticity of these messages. Khalil left Azerbaijan the same year after another attempted attack against him and the continued failure of the authorities to hold his assailants accountable. He took his case to the ECtHR, as a result of which the Azerbaijani government made a so-called unilateral declaration (an official admission) before this court in 2015 that it had violated Khalil’s right to life, freedom from ill-treatment, and freedom of expression and agreed to pay 28 000 EUR in compensation to him. As the government made this admission, there was no ECtHR ruling on the case.

In September, Toplum TV reported it lost 16k followers on its Facebook page. Facebook failed to explain how and why this took place. 

In Azerbaijan, one man sentenced to ten months over a series of tweets

The 35-year-old resident of Nakhchivan was arrested in April, 2021. He was charged with Article 148 of the Ciminal Code (slander or insult using fake accounts on internet information services). In June, the Nakhchivan City Court sentenced the user to ten months.  According to Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty reporting, the same court, reviewed the motion filed against the court’s June decison on October 24. In its ruling, the court decided to replace the sentence with a fine. Taking into account, the time spent behind bars since April, the court then also ruled to remove the fine. 

The man, whose name is only identified by his initials, K.M., was jailed over a series of tweets from 2020, targeting the head of the Supreme Assembly of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, Vasif Talibov. 

AIW was unable to verify the tweets. Only two tweets with the same text appeared in search results. Both belonged to two different users. 

This is the first case where a user of social media platform, was arrested and then jailed explicitly over a text posted online and specifically on Twitter. Previously reported cases of harassment and initimidation of online activists, including detentions and/or arrests were justified with other offenses listed under the Criminal Code. Most common charges are hooliganism, disobeying authority, and drug posession. 

Azerbaijan renames main Internet regulator

On October 11, the main internet regulator in Azerbaijan – the Ministry for Transport, Communication and High Technologies – was renamed the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport. The move comes following the signing of a Presidential Order that includes “improving management in the field of digitalization, innovation, high technology and communication in Azerbaijan,” according to ABC.az reporting. 

The decree also orders the setting up of the following departments within the rebranded ministry: 

  • The Agency for Information Communication Technologies; 
  • Innovation and Digital Development Agency (which will now combine, National Nuclear Research Center, Innovation Agency, and High Technologies Research Center);

Under its responsibilities, the Agency for Information Communication Technologies will:

  • carry out certification, accounting, control, and regulation of information communication technologies (including quality control) – this means that the new agency will act as the main internet regulator from now on; 

Experts say, the newly set up internet regulator, is unlikely to act independently. Human rights lawyer, Emin Abbasov said, “For many years, regulation in this sector [ICT] belonged to the Ministry [of Transport, Communication, and High Technologies]. And it has been a long-awaited move to set up an independent internet regulatory body. However, the new agency is unlikely to act independently as its head will be appointed by the Minister of Digital Development and Transport.”

Similarly, commenting on the decision, the President of Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Osman Gunduz said while it is a good sign that there is a new agency, its autonomy from its predecessor is yet to be seen. “For many years, the Ministry was the regulator. Basically, the ministry was regulating the ICT market, in which it also had stakes. There was a department within the ministry responsible for regulations and for decades this department favored government operators by creating favorable conditions for them. So it is a positive step that there is now a separate agency. What is interesting however is that according to the order, the head of the Agency will be appointed by the Minister [of Digital Development and Transport]. It would have been better if it was the President. Because it is unlikely that the Agency is going to have it easy regulating a deeply embedded tradition and creating equal conditions for both state and private companies. The question we should be asking is whether the leadership of the agency will have the authority and say in regulating the state operator in accordance with the new rules and procedures? And whether yet again, state companies will hold an upper hand in the market?  

In Azerbaijan, the ICT market is fairly concentrated in the hands of the government – in terms of control, and regulation as well as services – namely the Ministry of Transport, Communication, and High Technologies. In 2016, the President approved a Strategic Roadmap for Telecommunication and Information Technology Development. According to item seven, titled “strategic goals,” the document called for setting up an independent regulatory body by 2020. 

Azerbaijan blocks access to Pro-Iran websites – multiple reports

As of October 23, Azerbaijan blocked access to a number of pro-Iran websites. The decision follows a rift in diplomatic ties between Azerbaijan and Iran over the course of the past two months. 

According to IranIntl website, Azerbaijan blocked access to these websites to prevent Iranian and religious propaganda.  

The blocking was first reported by journalist Elchin Alioglu via Facebook page. Alioglu also said that access to the religious video series spreading Iranian propaganda on YouTube was also blocked.  

In Azerbaijan journalist gets 15 days in prison over a Facebook post

Anar Abdulla was sentenced to 15 days in prison over a Facebook post, according to OC Media reporting. But the charges pressed against the journalist accuse Abdulla of hooliganism and disobeying the police – the most common charges used against civic activists in Azerbaijan.

On September 14, Abdulla wrote a short post on his personal Facebook profile accusing the heads of administrative offices, of deceiving President Ilham Aliyev, while the people pay the price for it.

According to OC Media, the journalist was summoned to the police on October 5 for a “preventive conversation” however Abdulla was handcuffed and detained. The hearing that took place on October 6, where the journalist was sentenced to 15 days was closed to the local press. 

Speaking to OC Media, Abdulla’s lawyer, Zibeyda Sadigova, said, her client denied both charges. During the hearing, police alleged that the journalist disobeyed police orders and used profane language against the officers. Police pressed charges against the journalist as a result.  

In addition to hooliganism and disobeying police, politically motivated criminal charges used against civil society representatives include drug possession and illegal business activity.