ministry of education wants to censor teachers and academics

According to local media reports, the ministry of education adopted a series of amendments to the “Rules of ethical behavior of educators” document on May 15. According to the changes, educators (as in all teachers and academics employed within the institutions under the Ministry of Education) must adhere to the principles of lawfulness, honest behavior, loyalty, cultural behavior, impartiality, and public trust.

The document, specifically addresses the educators behavior on the social media and while speaking with media platforms, calling on them to follow the rules set out by relevant institutions where they are employed when sharing content on these platforms. Specifically it calls on the educators to abstain from sharing audio and video content that would otherwise result in personal and institution’s reputational damage.

In the previous iteration of the document these warnings did not exist.

The amendments also warn educators to refrain from sharing content critical of state institutions and their directors. Commenting on the amendments the chief adviser of the Regional Education Department, Elshan Ammadov said, “such content [on corruption and poor conditions of educational establishments] spread by individual teachers and other employees of these institutions which has led to criticism in society and damaged the [public] image of [other] employees is wrong. Such content violates the principle of subordination. Instead, it would be approrpriate to share our best achievements in the field of education on social media platforms.”

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. 

authorities arrest another blogger and block access to a public forum

Farid Suleymanov was arrested on January 8, 2024. He was sentenced to 30-day administrative detention. And although Suleymanov was scheduled for release on February 7 – the day of snap presidential elections – he was instead taken back to BandOtdel – the department for combating organized crime at the Ministry of the Interior. 

Suleymanov is an activist, lawyer, and blogger from Azerbaijan. Active on a number of social platforms, Suleymanov ran a TikTok channel called “I saw it, I showed you.” Through his videos, Suleymanov raised awareness of the illegal activities of the traffic police, exposing their unlawfulness. For this, he has been questioned several times but let go. He also informs his audience via his social media channels of other challenges and issues in the country. 

According to this video on Suleymanov’s YouTube channel, he was approached by a group of unknown men, who, without introducing themselves, shoved him into a white Mercedes and took him to BandOtdel.

Separately, Az-net Watch received an anonymous email from a reader informing the platform of the blocking of a Russian-language forum  www.baku365.com. According to the information shared in the email, all three main mobile operators and local ISPs have blocked access to the website. On what grounds remains unclear. Earlier, Suleymanov’s daughter shared a post about her father’s unlawful arrest and detention. 

editor of an online television channel disappears, then handed arrest [several other journalists detained]

Kanal11 editor Teymur Karimov first reportedly went missing on December 11. But the same day, the Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed Karimov’s whereabouts in a statement saying Karimov was detained and charged with extortion. The founder and director of Kanal11, Karimov, was sent to four months of pre-trial detention. 

If convicted, Karimov will face five years behind bars or fifteen with aggravated circumstances. 

Karimov was among scores of journalists rounded up in November and December, ahead of the snap presidential election that is taking place on February 7, 2024.

According to Kanal11, the real cause of Karimov’s arrest was his previous reporting on corruption in one of the regions of Azerbaijan.

Also on December 11, police arrested two more journalists – Ibrahim Humbatov of Azerinfo.az and Arshad Ibrahimov of Dunyaninsesi.az – on alleged extortion charges. Both journalists were sent into pre-trial detention pending trial.  

Separately on December 13, authorities arrested investigative journalist Hafiz Babali and sent him into three-month pre-trial detention on smuggling charges. 

The journalist was arrested as part of an ongoing investigation against Abzas Media.  

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. 

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

[Update] Dia.az 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 – Dia.az – to court. The reason, claims the agency, is that Dia.az failed to apply for registration with the agency. The site’s manager, Mahammad Zamanov, said Dia.az 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.

Court in Baku blocks access to an online TV channel

On September 13, the court in Baku ruled in favor of blocking access to the YouTube channel of an online news site “Hürriyyət” [Hurriyyet]. The decision was based on the request from the General Prosecutor’s Office. 

The court in its ruling said the news site violated the law on Information, informatization, and protection of information, by publishing prohibited information. Specifically, the court referred to a guest on the show, Elnur Mammadov, who is a reserve colonel and who allegedly shared untrue information about the leaders of the Azerbaijan Army and the Ministry of Defense, thus damaging their reputation. 

Earlier, on July 24, the General Prosecutor’s Office requested the arrest of the editor-in-chief of the news site Vugar Mammadov and Elnur Mammadov. Both were sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention for spreading prohibited information online. 

Mammadov in his interview discussed cases of corruption and nepotism within the Ministry of Defense as well as raised allegations against the Minister of Defense Zakir Hasanov. 

journalist removes social media posts under duress

A confession from journalist Elmaddin Shamilzadeh about the forced removal of social media posts under duress is a testament to persistent violence and intimidation used in Azerbaijan against civic groups. According to the reporting by Voice of America, Shamilzadeh was severely beaten by law enforcement during his detention last month. After the journalist agreed to remove all his social media posts on Facebook where he was critical of the police violence he was finally let go.

Shamilzadeh was filming protests in the village of Soyudlu. He was also able to take photographs of several police officers who used disproportionate force against village residents which were then published by Mikroskop Media.

Once the photographs were out, the journalist received a call from the state service for mobilization and conscription. The same day, he was taken from the courtyard of his home by two plain-clothed men. When the journalist tried using his phone, the two men grabbed his phone and taken to a local police station.

At the station police demanded Shamilzadeh to share the phone password which he refused to do. “When I said that I would not give them my password, one of the policemen punched me in the face,” the journalist recalled in an interview with Voice of America Azerbaijan Service. The beating continued despite the journalist’s requests to stop. “When I told them not to hit me in the face, they started cursing. From the blows, I fell to the floor.” The journalist was beaten by at least three officers. The violence was recorded by another officer in the room.

The physical violence forced the journalist to agree to remove all of the posts on Facebook about the police involved in the protest. Shamilzadeh used the opportunity when handed the phone back and posted “Torture” on his profile. Now, his friends and colleagues knew he was missing. According to the journalist, this also prevented the police from using further violence against him.

Instead of force, finally, the police started talking to the journalist. “They said that I can delete my posts myself. Then they will let me go. I thought it might be true, I picked up the phone and deleted the post with the word ‘torture’ and other posts about the police.”

But it did not stop there. After keeping the journalist for about an hour in some dark room, they brought him back to the officer of the operative who then threatened Shamilzadeh with rape.

The journalist caved and gave away his phone password. “When I handed over my phone the battery was almost fully charged, after two hours, when they finally returned my phone, the device was almost out of power. I don’t know what they did with my phone during those two hours,” said the journalist.

Shamilzadeh was also forced to sign a letter of confession where he apologized for his actions and vowed not to repeat the same mistakes. He was released afterward.

the trickery behind blocking news websites in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan started blocking access to independent news websites in 2017 [more on how this blocking has taken place here]. At the time, the state argued the reasons for blocking these websites were, calls aimed at “forcible change of the constitutional order,” “organization of mass riots,” and other illegal activities. In reality, these websites were considered independent and/or platforms affiliated with opposition parties. As a result, the decision to block them was based on 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.”

In a report published in February 2023, in partnership with OONI, we identified the blocking not only continued but expanded to blocking news websites from other countries as well as social media platforms [OONI measurements collected from Azerbaijan between January 2022 to February 2023]: 

  • Blocking of news media websites. Azerbaijan continues to block access to several independent news media websites. OONI data also suggests that some ISPs in Azerbaijan may have started blocking access to the Guardian on 25th December 2022.
  • Azerbaijan and Russia block each other’s news media. In early June 2022, Azerbaijan started blocking access to Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti media website. Since (at least) 7th June 2022, Russian ISPs have been blocking access to Azerbaijani news media websites (`haqqin.az`, `minval.az`, `oxu.az`, `ru.oxu.az`, `ru.baku.ws`). These blocks remain ongoing.
  • Temporary blocking of TikTok amid border clashes with Armenia. During the September 2022 border clashes, both Azerbaijan and Armenia blocked access to TikTok. While the TikTok block was lifted in Armenia by 21st September 2022 (only lasting about a week), the TikTok block remained in place in Azerbaijan until November 2022 (lasting about 2 months). 
  • Blocking of circumvention tool sites. Azerbaijan continues to block access to numerous circumvention tool websites, potentially limiting the ability to circumvent internet censorship in Azerbaijan. However, most OONI measurements suggest that tested circumvention tools (Tor and Psiphon) appear to be reachable.
  • Variance of censorship across networks. While most ISPs in Azerbaijan appear to adopt similar censorship techniques (as we continued to observe connection timeouts in most anomalous measurements across ASNs), different ISPs block access to different websites over time.

The intentional blocking and total control in the hands of the state in implementing these blocks were once again highlighted in June 2023 when co-rapporteurs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Jan Liddel-Granger and Liz Kristoffersen visited Azerbaijan. According to reporting by Meydan TV, throughout the visit of the co-rapporteurs access to blocked websites was restored. 

In the past, a similar temporary lifting of restrictions was observed in Azerbaijan during visits of international organizations.