This is part five and the final installment, in a series of detailed legal reports and analyses on existing legal amendments, and new legislation affecting privacy, freedom of expression, media, and online rights in Azerbaijan and their compliance with international standards for freedom of expression.
This final report, “The State of Internet Freedom in Azerbaijan, a legal overview” was prepared in partnership with human rights lawyer, Emin Abbasov. It is a comprehensive overview, of the existing legal framework in Azerbaijan on internet freedoms.
The following report identifies gaps within the legislation, policy, and practice that fail to comply with international legal standards in the field of internet freedoms.
As such, the aim of the report is to:
- identify and report key developments concerning internet freedoms covering the period between 2020-2021;
- analyze and review legislation, policies, and practices in line with international standards;
- provide recommendations to strengthen and develop legislation, policies, and practices already in place;
Azerbaijan’s track record on freedom of expression and freedom of the media has been on a steady decline according to a number of key reports by international media freedom watchdogs. This has been the case especially since 2014.
The most recent rankings by the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index in 2020, place Azerbaijan at the bottom of the index, where the country ranks 169 out of 180 countries monitored. Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report ranked Azerbaijan in 2020 as “Not Free.”
From a legal perspective, despite routine calls on the government of Azerbaijan to ensure the domestic legislation and its application comply with international standards, particularly in line with the ECtHR case-law requirements on freedom of expression, media, and internet rights, the legislative authority, continues to adopt restrictive new bills that further deteriorate fundamental rights and freedoms.
During the reporting period, the parliament in Azerbaijan adopted several amendments to existing national legislation, imposing further restrictions and increasing state control over the internet. In the meantime, relevant authorities failed to carry out effective and prompt investigations and prosecution into the cases of blackmailing and online sexual harassment against activists and politicians. Further, the government prepared a draft law on the media, with proposals to license Internet televisions and radios, and a new media registry with strict requirements for journalists, media owners, and media platforms.
The report also identifies the government’s failure to present, sufficient mitigation policies to remove the infrastructural barriers related to internet access when switching to online education during country-wide restrictions imposed in March of last year as a result of COVID19. These barriers were more profound in remote areas of the country where access to the internet is poor due to inadequate infrastructure and among economically vulnerable populations.
Finally, this report concludes that domestic legislation in Azerbaijan does not provide effective safeguards for the protection of the rights and freedoms of people online. On the contrary, it gives law enforcement a wide range of powers while failing to provide an independent review mechanism neither by the courts nor by other independent institutions over the exercise of those unlimited powers.
In response to these challenges, the report offers a number of recommendations for the government to improve its domestic legislation in line with international standards with the view of better protection of individuals’ rights and freedoms online. The full PDF report can be accessed here. Below are some of the key findings.
Key Developments between January 1, 2020 – June 31, 2021
- The Cabinet of Ministers adopted a decision No.22 on January 29, 2020, approving the “Rules of the organization of operation of the information system on activity against foreign technical intelligence,” and “Level of access of information resources of state bodies within the information system on activity against foreign technical intelligence.” However, the specifics of these rules and what they entail were not disclosed;
- Azerbaijan tightened control over online content, specifically the definition of “prohibited information”. On March 17, 2020, the parliament amended the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan On Information, Informatization and Protection of Information (30-VIQD). According to the amendment, “prohibited information” includes false information endangering human life and health; causing significant property damage; mass violation of public safety; disruption of life support services; and of financial, transportation, communication, industrial, energy, and social infrastructure facilities; or leading to other socially dangerous consequences.”
- During the reporting period, the number of attacks and direct targeting against activists, politicians, and their family members with intimate photos, videos, and personal messages that were leaked online, increased significantly;
- On June 29, 2020, the Parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Telecommunications and appointed the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies as an administrator of domain name registration in Azerbaijan;
- On September 27, 2020, authorities in Azerbaijan imposed restrictions on access to the internet by limiting the speed of the internet, blocking access to social media platforms and messenger services such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and others during the second Karabakh war;
- On January 13, 2021, the government established Azerbaijan State Agency for Media Development, according to the Presidential decree “On deepening media reforms in the Republic of Azerbaijan” [signed on January 12, 2020]. The agency was given broad powers to control the online media landscape;
- The Government announced a new draft law on media with provisions to license Internet TV channels;
- Azerbaijan parliament members announced plans to draft a new law on Hate Speech.
- The regulation of the internet in Azerbaijan is controlled by the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies, (MTCHT). The MTCHT is a government agency, in charge of regulating communications and the development of information technologies. It also controls the internet telecommunications infrastructure.
- Despite the Law on Telecommunication obligating the state, to ensure healthy competition and antimonopoly activity in the field of telecommunications, the import and distribution of the internet in the country is mainly distributed through state companies or private companies under strict government control. According to the Law on Telecommunication (Article 6) regulation of telecommunication activity in Azerbaijan is carried out by the state through broad powers, notably, through the licensing and certification of telecommunication activity, the application of tariffs for the use of telecommunication services, and radiofrequency, and etc.
- The activities of internet service providers (ISPs) and operators are required to register with the MTCHT. According to the “Rules of registration of operators and providers of Internet telecommunication services” approved by the Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan [No. 427] and dated October 12, 2017, operators and providers of internet telecommunication services must register for a license by applying through the MTCHT, within 15 (fifteen) days of the start of the service. The Rule further states that in accordance with the Presidential Decree No. 507 dated June 19, 2001 “On the division of powers of search operations’ entities while carrying out search operations,” ISPs are required to have a copy of the guarantee, on the installation of special equipment that provides access to information, for search operations. The Rule also requires that the operators and providers submit, approved copy (copies) of the agreement (contracts) concluded with the first subscriber (subscribers), to the registration authority namely the MTCHT.
- The State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are authorized for the organization of search operations within the communication networks in accordance with the Rule approved by the Presidential Decree № 638 dated October 2, 2015 “On approval of the Rules on information security during search operation activities on communication networks”. This respective rule was never published. According to the Constitutional Law “On normative legal acts” laws and presidential decrees signed by the President must be officially published within 72 hours after the signing. The Constitutional Law also allows that certain provisions of normative legal acts reflecting state secrets are not published.
- On June 17, 2021, the National Television and Radio Council (NTRC) announced the provisions in the draft law “On Media” concerning television and radio broadcasting. According to the draft law a number of restrictions on freedom of expression and information, as well as regulation of media activities is envisioned. For the purpose of this report, only those restrictions that concern and impact freedom on the internet are considered here.
- The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers recommendation CM/Rec(2007)16 to its member States to promote the public service value of the Internet indicates the importance of diversification of competitive market structures in internet resources and ICTs. According to the Recommendations, member states should develop, in co-operation with the private sector and civil society, strategies that promote sustainable, economic growth via competitive market structures in order to stimulate investment, particularly from local capital, into critical Internet resources and ICTs, with particular reference to: developing strategies which promote affordable access to ICT infrastructure, including the Internet, promoting technical interoperability, open standards and cultural diversity in ICT policy covering telecommunications, broadcasting and the Internet. Azerbaijan has so far, failed to meet these recommendations.
- In the context of its Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)1 to member States on media pluralism and transparency of media ownership, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers refers to the term “online media” and stresses its importance for media pluralism. It further notes that states have a positive obligation to foster a favorable environment for freedom of expression, offline and online, in which everyone can exercise their right to freedom of expression and participate in public debate effectively, irrespective of whether their views are received favorably by the State or others. Moreover, in 2012, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a key resolution on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, “calling upon all States to promote and facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation aimed at the development of media and information and communications facilities in all countries.”
- So far, the relevant government institutions have failed to offer such assurances in Azerbaijan. The extent of government control and monopoly, as well as poor internet infrastructure, are reflected in numerous international reports. The 2021 Inclusive Internet Index, ranked Azerbaijan 84th globally in the “readiness category,” and the country’s overall performance scores have deteriorated year on year. According to June Speedtest Global Index, (results are updated mid-month for the previous month), Azerbaijan ranked 122nd out of 181 countries in the category of fixed internet speed. The country’s score improved in the category of mobile internet speed, scoring 66th place out of 137 countries ranked in this category.
- The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights also recognize the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights, independent of State obligations or the implementation of those obligations (see A/HRC/17/31, annex; and A/HRC/32/38, paragraphs 9- 10). They provide a minimum baseline for corporate human rights accountability, urging companies to adopt public statements of commitment to respect the human rights endorsed by senior or executive-level management; conduct due diligence processes that meaningfully “identify, prevent, mitigate and account for” actual and potential human rights impacts throughout the company’s operations; and provide for or cooperate in the remediation of adverse human rights impacts (see A/HRC/17/31, annex, principles 16-24).
- These internationally recognized standard-setting instruments are usually not legally binding but elaborated from different binding human rights treaties and standards. Such documents set out a number of recommendations, standards, and commitments on the regulation of Internet infrastructure, as well as the regulatory role of states in accessing the Internet. However, none are implemented in the context of Azerbaijan.
- During the period of martial law, access to the Internet remained blocked to the public, in the absence of any administrative decisions or justifications, the guarantees associated with the decision, and clearly stated reasons for such restrictions in place.
- Azerbaijan signed the Budapest Convention – the Council of Europe Convention against Cybercrime – in 2008 and has ratified it, in 2010. The Budapest Convention is a treaty on crimes committed on the internet and on computer networks. In Azerbaijan, regulation of intelligence services and online policing online, including investigation and prosecution of offenses committed online, are regulated by the Criminal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, Law on Search and Operation, Law on Police, and Law on Prosecutors office, including other normative legal acts of the Republic of Azerbaijan. However, there is no dedicated strategy or other specific policy documents on cybercrime currently available or being developed in Azerbaijan.
- In the absence of such policies, the law enforcement agencies, especially the police, which do not have significant capacity to investigate and prosecute crimes committed online, often interferes with the freedom of expression of the social network users.
- In recent years, the police increasingly play the role of an arbitrator in resolving public conflicts and disputes between internet users. By complaining to the police, individuals can force others (whom they are in conflict with) to delete their status and comments from social network accounts. In return, police promptly identify those who complained about/against or people who criticize the government, and especially the law enforcement agencies on social networks, forcing them to apologize to the public on camera. Police then share the apology videos with the media.
- Local civil society activists suggest that during the quarantine period, a large number of people who were held administratively or who were criminally liable for organizing and/or participating in wedding or funeral ceremonies were brought to the police stations, where their forced confessions of repentance were filmed and later broadcasted on national television channels. According to credible reports received by the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, an Azerbaijani NGO, most people did not give consent to such video recordings. As such, the broadcast of the videos took place against Article 51 of the Code of the Administrative Offenses, which prohibits the dissemination of materials (audio, video, photo) in the mass media without the consent of the person against whom the administrative proceedings are conducted.
- Such practice was also used against LGBTQI+ people at least on one occasion. In July 2020, police shared the testimonies of two persons, who were accused of allegedly promoting drug use via their TikTok accounts. The video of their forced confession was shown on state media (Azertag), to discredit LGBTQI+ people and to create a negative public image.
- Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Declaration on Freedom of Communication on the Internet (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on May 28, 2003 at the 840th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies), contains ten principles. According to the seventh principle, “In order to ensure protection against online surveillance and to enhance the free expression of information and ideas, member states should respect the will of users of the Internet not to disclose their identity. This does not prevent member states from taking measures and co-operating in order to trace those responsible for criminal acts, in accordance with national law, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and other international agreements in the fields of justice and the police.”
- But in the case of Azerbaijan, and following the decree on amendments, no such measures were taken into account. Moreover, at the time of writing of this report, there is no information on whether this mechanism was finalized.
Conclusions & Recommendations
The analysis of the domestic legal framework shared in this report demonstrates that the current legal framework provides law enforcement authorities with unlimited powers to operate in online spaces. The analysis also explains, how this framework empowers the state to exercise full and unchecked control over telecommunication infrastructure.
In such an environment, internet and mobile operators as well as the ISPs have no power or independence to challenge the unlimited powers of the state. Further, our analysis indicates that the legal national framework is designed in such a way, that it fully disregards or undervalues the rights of individuals online while granting authorities ambiguous powers to control everything online in the absence of an independent review of the regulatory authorities’ decisions and actions.
The most striking example of such unlimited powers is an obligation placed on the ISPs to allow law enforcement authorities to set up special technical devices on the ISP’s infrastructure, in order to monitor users online and collect information about them. This is done in the absence of explicit legal provisions which normally would require a court order to carry out such activity, as well as in the absence of independent oversight by a regulatory body, that Azerbaijan failed to establish since 2016. As a result, the lack of an independent regulatory body in the field of telecommunications, as well as the lack of an independent judiciary that is capable of providing effective protection and independent judicial review against the government’s interferences, leaves citizens without any remedies to pursue.
Finally, this report also illustrates the weakness of the legislation on emergency powers, which at the moment fails to indicate the exact limits of government bodies during a state of emergency or war. Such loopholes allow the state authorities to exercise their exclusive powers in a way that can exceed the needs created as a result of such circumstances.
Based on the overview presented above, the following set of recommendations can help improve the overall environment of internet freedom in Azerbaijan:
- Amend the legislation, notably the law On Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information, including the Code of Administrative Offences and Criminal Code to remove restrictions on content, such as false information, insult, and slander. Consult with the independent civil society groups to amend the legislation on content regulation in order to strengthen the national legislation and make it in line with international standards. Provide self-regulation opportunities for providers and private companies to regulate inapplicable content in online spaces;
- Consider wider consultation and public discussions when reviewing new legislation and policy to ensure the voices of all key stakeholders are heard;
- Avoid adopting the draft law on media, that currently requires licensing of the Internet TVs and radios. Instead, ensure the provisions of journalistic activity online is not subject to specific authorization;
- Establish an independent National Regulatory Authority in line with international standards including, civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders;
- Provide effective and prompt investigation and prosecution of online harassment, and blackmailing against activists, politicians, and/or their family members;
- Amend the Law on Telecommunications, the law on Information, Informatization and Protection of Information and Law on Private Information, including other normative legal acts to indicate what specific measures and in what circumstances the government is undertaking to exclude the anonymity of the internet users, including installing special software and hardware systems for the provision of blanket surveillance in online spaces.
- Amend the legislation to provide effective safeguards against abuse of power of law enforcement authorities, notably, amend article 10 of the Law of The Republic Of Azerbaijan On Operational-Search Activity to ensure that a respective court decree is required for conducting online tracking, interception, and seizure of private information from the telecommunication channels about individuals;
- Ensure that the Martial Law and the Law on Emergency Situations contain explicit provisions, notably safeguards, against the abusive application of emergency powers online. In doing so, amend the respective laws to include clear procedures of imposing any limitation over the internet and provide that such decisions are subject to effective safeguards;
 Azerbaijan Internet Watch, Targeted harassment via telegram channels and hacked Facebook accounts, March 9, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/targeted-harassment-via-telegram-channels/
 Azerbaijan limits internet access to prevent Armenia’s large-scale acts of provocation – short notice from the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies, available (in English) at: https://mincom.gov.az/en/view/news/990/azerbaijan-limits-internet-access-to-prevent-armenias-large-scale-acts-of-provocation-
 Article 11.1 of the Telecommunication law. “Operators, providers, other legal and physical persons operating in the field of telecommunication, as well device producers and suppliers are equal subjects in the creation and development of telecommunication services.”
 Article 3.1.8, article 11.2, and article 11.2.1 of the Law on Telecommunication
 Presidential Decree On the division of powers of search operations entities in the implementation of search operations, June 19, 2001, available (in Azerbaijani) at: http://e-qanun.az/framework/3569
 Article 3.3.3 of the Rule of registration of operators and providers of Internet telecommunication services.
 Presidential Decree “On approval of the” Rules for ensuring information security in the implementation of search operations in communications networks ” 2 October 2005, available (in Azerbaijani) at: http://e-qanun.az/framework/30840
 Article 82.7 of the Constitutional Law (№ 21-IVKQ) “On normative legal acts”
 Azadliq Radio, Internet TV channels may require a license, June 17, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/internet-tv-lisenziya/31313244.html
 Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on November 7, 2007, at the 1010th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies, https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectID=09000016805d4a39
 The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)1 to member States on media pluralism and transparency of media ownership, (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 7 March 2018 at the 1309th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies), https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=0900001680790e13
 The Readiness category examines the capacity to access the Internet, including skills, cultural acceptance, and supporting policy.
 The Inclusive Internet Index, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/AZ/
 The Speed Test global Index, https://www.speedtest.net/global-index/azerbaijan#fixed
 Report by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, para., 45.
 Council of Europe, the status of the ratification of the Budapest Convention concerning to Azerbaijan, https://www.coe.int/en/web/octopus/country-wiki-ap/-/asset_publisher/CmDb7M4RGb4Z/content/azerbaijan?_101_INSTANCE_CmDb7M4RGb4Z_viewMode=view/
 On June 3, 2020, Baku residents Tatyana Ulankina, Ramin Bakhishov, Allahverdi Imanguliyev, Shirzad Shirzadov, and Taleh Bakhshiyev were detained in the Baku Metro for allegedly resisting police. Police asked that the detained individuals comply with the lawful demands relating to the rules of the special quarantine regime. A video was shot and broadcast on the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in which each of the detainees apologized and regretted their actions to the police department. Afterward, a criminal case was launched under Articles 139-1 (violation of anti-epidemic, sanitary-hygienic or quarantine regimes when there is a real threat of the spreading of the disease or the actual spreading of the disease) and 221 (hooliganism) of the Criminal Code, and the investigation was launched. The CCTV footage from the subway that appeared on social media showed there was a minor dispute between one person and two police officers over the wearing of a protective mask, which the person in the video claimed he had and others joined to support him, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBC-l9EuiCQ&t=136s
 Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS), Briefing Document, Measures against the COVID-19 pandemic in Azerbaijan: Deepening pressure on freedoms and Political Crisis, https://smdtaz.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/EMDS-briefing-22.09.20.pdf
 Azertag,az, People who registered on the social network “Tik-Tok” under the names “Maya” and “Banu” and posted videos promoting drug use were detained, July 23, 2020, https://video.azertag.az/video/98901
 Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Declaration on freedom of communication on the Internet, Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on May 28, 2003, during the 840th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies, https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectID=09000016805dfbd5