Azerbaijan not free in Freedom on the Net annual report

Azerbaijan ranked “not free” in this year’s Freedom House, Freedom on the Net report. Among key factors are the overall infrastructural challenges, a monopoly over ISPs, and distributed Internet traffic, state control over the information and communication technology, blocked access to most websites that host unfavorable news coverage, and new forms of restrictions introduced during COVID-19. 

According to the report, there is an overall decline in internet freedoms across the world:

Global internet freedom has declined for the 10th consecutive year: 26 countries’ scores worsened during this year’s coverage period, while 22 countries registered net gains. The largest declines occurred in Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan, followed by IndiaEcuador, and Nigeria. A record number of countries featured deliberate disruptions to internet service.

On the bright side, countries like Sudan and Ukraine experienced the largest improvements, followed by Zimbabwe find the report. And while Iceland was the top performer China was found to have the worst conditions for internet freedom. 

The report highlighted some new trends that have emerged globally: 

[…] this year Freedom on the Net observed intentional disruptions to connectivity in a record 22 out of 65 countries. Many of these disruptions, including Iran’s November 2019 countrywide blackout and shutdowns in Moscow in August and September 2019, were directly precipitated by protests. Such practices are an ultimate expression of contempt for freedoms of association and assembly, as well as for the right to access information.

Azerbaijan was ranked partly free last year. 

activist accused of intentionally spreading coronavirus [updated]

On July 20, activist Nijat Ibrahim, posted on his Facebook, that he was going to protest outside the Presidential Apparatus in the capital Baku. The main message of his one-man protest was calling on the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev to resign. The activist also said he demands that the government demolish all of the monuments of Haydar Aliyev. 

However, shortly after leaving his home, Ibrahim was detained by the police and charged with Article 139.1.1 of the Criminal Code (Violation of anti-epidemic, sanitary-hygienic, or quarantine regimes) specifically with spreading the virus. On July 21, Ibrahim’s wife, received a phone call informing her, her husband tested positive despite him never taking the testOn July 22, Nasimi district court found Ibrahim guilty and sentenced the activist to three months in pre-trial detention.

On July 28, Ibrahim’s lawyer filed a motion requesting the Center for Dangerous Infections at the Ministry of Health to provide information about the date Ibrahim was tested, and the results were made available to him. The court dismissed the motion.

According to the legislation, Ibrahim is facing 2500-5000AZN [1500-3000USD] fine, jail up to three years, or up to three years of restricted freedoms. 

Scores of political activists have been accused of a similar crime over recent weeks. 

member of an opposition party fined over social media post [Last update July 9]

July 6, Gachay Gafarov, member of the opposition party Popular Front, sentenced to 15 days in administrative detention according to Azadliq Radio. Gafarov is accused of disobeying police. According to party headquarters, Gafarov was detained over his social media post critical of the police that Gafarov posted on the day of the police. 

July 5, member of an opposition party Popular Front, Alikhan Rajabli, detained over social media posts say party headquarters. Rajabli was detained on July 4, in Masalli region by the local police. According to family members, Rajabli was taken from his home and taken to the police.

June 29, member of an opposition party Musavat, Jeyhun Mammadli was fined in a total amount of 200AZN. Mammadli was accused of disobeying police. However, party members believe Mammadli was fined over his posts and comments often critical of the authorities on social media. 

Mammadli was taken from his home on June 27  to the Zardab Regional Police department. At the station, police prepared a protocol, where Mammadli was accused of disobeying police according to Article 535.1 of Administrative Offenses. He was let go until the court hearing.

On June 29, Zardab Regional Court found Mammadli guilty and fined him in a total amount of 200AZN [approximately 120USD].

political activist detained over social media post

June 27, member of an opposition party Popular Front, Faig Rashidov was sentenced to ten days in administrative detention on charges of violating the Code of Administrative Offenses Article 388.1 (placing online or on information/communication networks information otherwise banned).  

Rashidov was previously subject to pressure for his activism and political views.

Popular Front members have been regularly persecuted in recent months. Currently, at least 10 party members are behind bars. All are accused of various crimes, none however are legitimate, claim the party headquarters. 

government rolls out an e-permission requirement for journalists

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

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

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

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

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

Opposition activist, Instagram account hacked [updated]

May 9, Azerbaijani politician, Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Instagram account hacked and taken down. Instead, a fake profile impersonating Hajibeyli was set up, with her private mobile phone number shared publicly in the profile description. Hajibeyli, was targeted online previously.

Such attacks are common in Azerbaijan, where opposition politicians and independent activists are targeted online. Account “break-ins”, impersonations, blackmailing posts, content takedown requests on YouTube for alleged copyright violations are among some of the popular harassment tactics in practice.

Unlawfully obtained personal information of intimate nature, including photos, videos, and email exchanges are commonly used to target women activists. A most recent example is an online harassment campaign launched against political activist and former political prisoner Ilkin Rustamzade’s wife, Amina Rustamzade. Leaked personal pictures were shared on Facebook and Instagram by various accounts.

On May 12, the account impersonating Hajibeyli was successfully removed from Instagram.

On May 13, a new fake Instagram profile was created.

political activist’s partner harassed online [Last update June 17]

June 17, Amina Rustamzade, wife of activist Ilkin Rustmazade attempted suicide after numerous posts violating her right to privacy [see below]. Rustamzade overdosed herself with sleeping pills. She was taken immediately to a clinical center where doctors were able to stabilize her condition. While her condition is stable, the perpetrator behind the harassment against Amina remains at large. Ilkin Rustamzade wrote on his Facebook, that his wife, received yet another message from the same user with the message “If Ilkin is not silent, then what happened earlier will happen again.”

***

Ilkin Rustamzade is a former political prisoner and activist who spent six years in jail on bogus charges. He was arrested in May 2013 on alleged hooliganism charges. Additional charges – inciting violence and organizing mass disorder in connection with a peaceful protest in 2013 – were added during his pre-trial detention period. Rustamzade was sentenced to eight years in jail in 2014. He was recognized “prisoner of conscience” by International rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Authorities released Rustamzade in March 2019 following a presidential pardon decree. But threats and harassment against him continue.

On April 7, Rustamzade was contacted by this profile on Facebook. The person behind the profile introduced himself as an officer working for the Special Security Services in Azerbaijan. In the brief exchange this person had with Rustamzade, he kept removing all of the messages after they were sent. As a result, there are few screenshots that actually contain any evidence of this person threatening Rustamzade.

In one message, the user tells Rustamzade to stop the campaign the activist started on change.org. The campaign calls on the Azerbaijan authorities to allocate funds for families who have been affected by the global pandemic that has also reached Azerbaijan. When Rustamzade refused to remove the campaign, that is when the person threatened Rustamzade to humiliate him and his family.

Shortly after, a Facebook page (that has now been successfully removed) was set up, with intimate pictures of Rustamzade’s wife Amina Rustamzade and posts using humiliating language.

On April 8, a new Facebook page was set up with similar content. There is also, an Instagram post, that was shared by this account on the social media platform. In addition, his fiance’s profile appears to have been added to an escort website with personal information including phone numbers.

Also on April 8, Rustamzade’s father, Bakir Khalilov was taken by the police when they could not locate Ilkin Rustamzade at his family home. When Rustamzade called to speak with his father, the police interrupted the conversation, took the phone away from the father and told Rustamzade unless he comes to the station, his father will be arrested. When police showed up at his father’s house, they claimed Rustamzade violated quarantine laws by leaving the house without informing the law enforcement. This is a new regulation that was introduced on April 5. Rustamzade moved out on April 2. Three days before the regulation was set in place.

Meanwhile, Rustamzade’s father falls into a threatened group category due to his age and health condition. He just recently had heart surgery.

Although his father has been released since then, Rustamzade is concerned both his father, and himself could be arrested and that threats against his family will continue.

Journalist Khadija Ismayilova wrote her on Facebook that “Police clearly is eager to use these SMS restrictions to harass activists.”

in Azerbaijan SMS notification system grants permission to leave homes [updated]

As of April 5, residents across Azerbaijan can only leave their apartments having informed local law enforcement via SMS, a phone call or if in possession of a special certificate of employment.

Azerbaijan remains among countries, which haven’t declared a “state of emergency”. Instead, they are referring to new restrictions as part of the “strict quarantine regime”.

How SMS notification system works

Permission to go outside is granted for the following reasons:

  • receiving medical treatment;
  • buying medication or groceries;
  • visiting a bank or a post office;
  • attending a funeral of a close relative

Before leaving, SMS is sent out with a national ID number indicating the reason for going outside. The sender then gets an SMS in response with a code, which can then be used when stopped by the police officers.

There is no further information about the tracking mechanism, its transparency, and whether authorities have developed or relying on a special tracking application to monitor its citizens.

So far, the new restriction has proven to serve the financial interests of the authorities.

Hebib Muntezir, Azerbaijan journalist wrote,


Translation: Yesterday (April 6), a total of 456thousand SMS was sent from 223thousand phone numbers. Of these 284thousand SMS (approximately 62%) were of irrelevant nature. Some received responses immediately, others in half hour, and some in an hour. 6 nationals who have violated the quarantine regime were arrested, 3800 were fined. If we take AZN100 per person that makes AZN380,000 [of collected fines] in just one day. #stayhome

The new fines were introduced on April 3. The fines range from AZN100-200 (USD60-USD120) and include up to a one month administrative arrest.

To understand the potential surveillance implications of this new restriction, AIW spoke to legal expert Emin Abbasov.

“Based on what we know so far, the goal is reportedly to limit freedom of the movement via permission regime relaying users’ requests via mobile devices. However, without knowing whether an SMS can be used to start tracking a mobile device (current assessment indicates that the mechanism in place isn’t used in tracking mobile devices) the notifications are only used to limit freedom of the movement. It is not an application. It is more like an information resource or a system. But the collection of information here is done on compulsory basis, not voluntarily. As a result, this should fall under special legal regime. That is, the issue is very complicated and still unclear. What is clear, however is that when there are limitations on rights and freedoms these limitations fall within the scope of the law on rights and freedoms. What becomes important under these circumstances, is that the emergency decrees issued by the executive authorities that interfere with the rights and freedoms envisaged in the Constitution or International treaties, are required to have a constitutional basis. Another issue is that there are noclear assurances as to whether the information resource (currently in use by the law enforcement) will be destroyed when there is no further need for it. We are yet to see these assurances. And overall, all of the currently adopted decisions are seemingly taken outside of the constitution.

It is indisputable that restrictive measures aimed at combating COVID19 pandemic have a legitimate purpose such as protection of health. However, respect for the rule of law and democratic principles in times of emergency requires that states respect the principle of legality even in an emergency situation. Compliance with the rule of law and democratic principles determines that the restriction of rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution and international treaties may be limited either by laws (adopted by parliament) or by emergency decisions issued as a result of the extraordinary powers vested in the executive branch by the parliament. However, it is not clear that power of the Cabinet of Ministers in Azerbaijan to issue an emergency decrees that are restricting rights and freedoms are carried out in accordance with those principles.”

So far authorities have warned of further restrictive measures taken if the number of infected cases keeps growing and citizens do not follow through with imposed restrictions.
[Updated] On April 9, Azadliq Radio featured a story where political activist Izzatli Ruslan and investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova said, requesting permission to leave via SMS, is against the national constitution, article 28 and that together with other representatives of civil society, they intend to take the matter to domestic courts. The right may only be limited in case of the state of emergency, which was not declared in Azerbaijan during the fight against C19.
Izzatli himself was fined in a total amount of 100AZN on the grounds of violating quarantine regimes when he did not provide the permission upon police request. Izzatli was headed to donate blood.
As of May 18, the compulsory requirement has been lifted as Azerbaijan joins the list of countries, slowly opening up.

amendments to the legislation raise alarm in Azerbaijan

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

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

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

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

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

The Law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information

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

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

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