forced posts removal from Facebook continue in Azerbaijan

On January 13, Elmir Abbasov, a member of NIDA movement, was taken against his will to local police station in the city of Sumgayit where he was questioned over his Facebook post about president Ilham Aliyev.

In his interview with Azadliq Radio, Abbasov said, he was on his way to a shop when a man told Abbasov to get into the car for a chat at the police station. Abbasov, who said without a warrant he won’t be going anywhere, was then shuved into the car and taken to the station by force.

Abbasow spent the next two hours at the police station, where he was informed that the reason for his interrogation was a Facebook post, he wrote about the President. He was told to immediately delete the post. 

AIW spoke with Abbasov about the content of the post which is no longer available on the social media platform.

Under normal circumstances this post would not be considered critical but in Azerbaijan, the sensitivity around certain personalities as in the case of the president are common and not tolerated. 

In the case of Abbasov’s post, it was a comment about an economic system heavily reliant on hydrocarbons. This has been voiced by international financial institutions, experts and pundits alike for a long time.

Similarly, Abbasov’s post stressed the country’s economy, over reliance to fluctuating oil price as a result of its dependence and recommended that the president takes recommendations by independent economists seriously rather than dismiss them. 

Three days before Abbasov was taken to the police and ordered to delete his post from Facebok, one freelance journalist [name omitted due to safety concerns] was told to delete a Facebook post, that was critical of the local law enforcement. Namely, the journalist desrcibed seeing one officer, take a bribe from a man stopped on the street as part of the COVID measures in place. The source told AIW, the measure was taken in an attempt to keep the reputation of the local agency clean.

opposition party boss seeks justice at the European Court of Human Rights

Ali Karimli, the head of the opposition Popular Front Party, and his spouse Samara Seyidova said they are preparing for the European Court of Human Rights, having received no response from domestic courts concerning their home internet connections being cut off since April of last year.  

AIW was documenting Karimli’s case since April 13 when the opposition boss encountered connection issues before a live interview with journalist Sevinc Osmangizi [for the detailed timeline please visit here]. 

Since then, despite numerous attempts, the leader of the Popular Front failed to resolve the problem through domestic courts. Most recently, the ruling of the Baku Appeal Court confirmed previous court decisions, thus ruling against the party head. The court of appeal is the final legal entity to accept and deal with similar complaints. “In such cases, the appeal to the Supreme Court is not expected. This is why we intend to take our complaint to the European Court,” said one of the lawyers defending Karimli in an interview with Azadliq Radio. 

The defendants are the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, Azercell mobile operator, AzQTEL internet provider, the Ministry of the Interior, State Security Service, and the Special State Protection Service. According to Karimli his rights were violated under Articles 6 (right to a fair trial), 8 (right to respect of family and private life), 10 (freedom of expression), 14 (prohibition of discrimination), and 18 (Limitation on use of restrictions on rights) of the European Convention on Human Rights

Karimli’s access to the internet was restored twice since April. Once on January 12 and in May but only briefly, for few hours. Karimli is certain the decision to cut him and his familly off internet is political. Government supporters think otherwise. Siyavush Novruzov, a parliament member, blamed Karimli for not paying his bills on time and laying the responsibility on the government. In the meantime, Azercell, the mobile operator [with ties to the government], said in a statement it does not discreminate among its customers based on their political views. 

But while government representatives and affiliated companies claim otherwise, Karimli and his family members had their rights violated. According to a fact checking platform FaktYoxla Karimli’s case, goes against severeal articles and guarantees specieifed by the national constitution and can be described as an unlawful interference. Specifically, it is against the right to equality and freedom of expression, right to live in safety and privacy. In addition, actions against Karimly contradict the provisions of the Law on Telecommunications, Access to Information and Personal Information and are criminalized by criminal law.

AIW will continue documenting developments in the case of Ali Karimli and the family. 

fresh media reforms raise concern [updated]

On January 12, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree “on deepening media reforms in the Republic of Azerbaijan.” As a result, the newly established Azerbaijani Agency for Media Development will replace the State Support Fund for Mass Media Development and will have all the rights of the former institution. In tandem, new media law is also being drafted by the Administration of the President for the President’s review in two months.

The decree was welcomed by many mouthpiece media, including the SES [Voice] media group. Its director, Bahruz Guliyev said, there was a need for fundamental reforms, transparency, and public demand. “Since the Azerbaijani law on mass media fails to meet the demands of the time, it requires to be revised, should be improved, and one of the main tasks of the new body is to develop a draft law ‘On media’ replacing the outdated law,” he added.

Guliyev has been a long advocate of the government of Azerbaijan. SES was established in 1991. In 2015, Guliyev in an interview with YAP [Yeni Azerbaijan Partiyasi – the ruling New Azerbaijan Party] said, the platform had a tough path having survived the “pressure and censorship from the government.” The reason for the pressure faced in the hands of the government claimed Guliyev was that “the newspaper was writing about Azerbaijani realities.”

Two years prior, Guliyev was shouting at ODIHR representative in the aftermath of the rigged presidential election in Azerbaijan accusing ODIHR of having prepared the entire preliminary statement long before coming to Azerbaijan. Just two months earlier, Guliyev was among the recipients of a free apartment by President Aliyev in the new government-built residential complex for journalists. 

The charter

The Media Development Agency is a public legal entity carrying out activities to support the development of media, organise the training of media specialists and their additional education, stimulate the activities of audiovisual, print, online media and information agencies (media subjects), journalists and other media workers, as well as the introduction of new information and communication technologies and innovations in the field of media.

The agency’s tasks include organising the implementation of projects that are important for the state and society, aimed at developing, strengthening economic independence and improving the activities of these media entities, as well as in accordance with the “Concept of state support for the development of the media in the Republic of Azerbaijan.” The organisation also takes measures to strengthen the economic independence of media entities, creates financial support for the development of media, acts as a state customer for the production and distribution of audiovisual products, and holds competitions for this purpose.

Punitive measures

According to its charter, the agency can take measures to protect state and commercial secrets. In case of non-compliance with the information published in the online media within the requirements provided by law, the agency can contact the relevant authorities in order to take measures in this regard.

It also has the authority to take measures in accordance with the Code of Administrative Offenses in case of detecting signs of an administrative violation in the field of print and online media, and in case of detection of signs of a crime – to provide information to the appropriate authority [the powers are similar to the National Council on Television and Radio which can and has in the past deprive radio and television companies of air hours]. 

It will also be accountable to the head of state.

The agency’s governing bodies – a Supervisory Board of six members – and the executive director, are appointed by the head of state. Ahmed Ismayilov, is the executive director of the new fund. In April 2020, he was appointed the executive director of the now defunct Media Development Support Fund. Ismayilov, 40, is a lawyer by education. Previously he has worked in various government institutions, including the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, managed by the first lady and the first vice president Mehriban Aliyeva. He is a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party. 

Previously, the central executive body supervising the media in Azerbaijan was abolished when the country joined the Council of Europe in 2001.

Reactions

In his Op-ed, the director of Turan News Agency, Mehman Aliyev wrote

Until now, the press supported by the state legally and illegally, has served the interests of the authorities, but not society; it has led to a deplorable situation in various areas, including the media themselves.

In the meantime, notes Aliyev, while the new fund’s focus is on technological aspects of media development there is no mentioning of protection of free press whatsoever. Lack of avenues for independent media in the country and impunity is the challenge, not the lack of technological equipment notes Aliyev.

Alasgar Mammadli, the media law expert, criticized the new agency’s broad, it’s vaguely defined legal powers and the absence of any wider preliminary discussions in the society ahead of its approval.

In an interview with ASTNA, lawyer Khalid Aghaliyev said while it is too early to say anything about the new agency, the role its predecessor played in Azerbaijan, should not be underestimated: 

State Support Fund for the Development of Mass Media, established 11 years ago, was one of the institutions that played a key role in controlling the media in Azerbaijan. This organization gradually began to penetrate the media in 2009 and was able to make the print media almost completely dependent on it in a short time. 

[…]

The image of this Fund, especially in the last 2-3 years, was seriously damaged, and its main mission was fully exposed. In this regard, it was entirely expected that the government would liquidate the Fund or present it in a new image. Therefore, I do not see a serious difference in principle between the abolished and the newly created institution. The new body will likely carry out the same mission as the Fund in reality. 

[…]

Powers such as punishment with regard to the content and directing the content are very dangerous. Empowering an institution created by the state with such powers is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. Legislation already delineates the boundaries of freedom of expression, and any other interference is unacceptable.

Two days after the decree was signed, Vugar Safarli, the former fund’s executive director [Ahmed Ismayilov’s predecessor] who was dismissed from his post in April 2020, was arrested on charges of embezzlement. During the investigation, the prosecutor’s office seized some 6million AZN [3.5million USD] from Safarli’s personal bank accounts. Safarli was expelled from the ruling party on February 15. 

Now, the critics, and media practitioners must wait until the new media law is drafted. Given the country’s recent history of media crackdown, the chances of having transparent legislation are slim, while its implications worrying.   

parliament in Azerbaijan is discussing law on hate speech

Parliament in Azerbaijan is set to discuss a draft law on hate speech. While independent critics say there is no need for a separate law, given the existing legal framework that does offer context on hate speech, there is suspicion it is another law with an intention to harm independent voices. 

On September 17, Zahid Oruc, member of the parliament and the head of the Human Rights Committee at the National Parliament, suggested parliament adopts a new law on hate speech. Oruc said the main goal of the law would be to prevent hate speech in information space. While promising, the draft law will be released for public discussion before it goes to the parliament during the fall session, the MP also added the draft law, may consider including social media platforms as part of the information space.

Azerbaijan Internet Watch talked to Elesger Memmedli, a media law expert in Azerbaijan about the draft law. Memmedli thinks there is no need for a separate law on hate speech because Azerbaijan already has plenty of laws that can be amended to regulate hate speech. “What is worrying is the intention. At the moment, the draft law is aimed at political speeches and other instances. But the likelihood of this law to be used as a limiting norm is high.”

The tradition of using existing legal framework or laws against opposition or independent voices goes back to the case of the then opposition journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, explained to Azerbaijan Internet Watch, lawyer Khaled Aghaly. At the time of the sentence [in 20o7] Fatullayev was accused of terrorism, defamation, and incitement to racial hatred. Like Memmedli, Agahly agrees there is no need for a new law when Azerbaijan has Article 283 of the Criminal Code – on Excitation of national, racial, social, or religious hate and hostility.

During the height of the pandemic in Azerbaijan, the parliament introduced a series of amendments to existing laws that were then used to prosecute activists explains Elesger Memmedli. “Shortly after [the amendments] scores of activists were rounded up, including members of [opposition] Popular Front. Some were taken straight from their homes and sentenced to lengthy administrative detention,” recalls Memmedli [some of these arrests were captured here]. 

In 2017, when changes were made to the law on religious terrorism, two prominent members of the Popular Front were arrested relying on the existing legislation, even though it was clear, it was a setup, as neither of the activists had any religious affiliation or background explains Memmedli. 

  • In July, a court convicted Faig Amirli, an APFP member and financial director of the now-closed pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, on bogus charges of inciting religious hatred and tax-evasion. He received a suspended sentence.
  • In January 2017, a Baku court convicted senior APFP member Fuad Gahramanli to 10 years’ imprisonment for inciting religious and ethnic hatred; he posted criticisms of the government on Facebook.

 

So while hate speech may be a legitimate concern the existing examples tell a different story says Memmedli. 

Meanwhile, Zahid Oruc, vowed the drat law, would not limit the freedom of speech. 

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. 

teacher arrested over social media posts

On May 22, a high school teacher Jalil Zabidov was arrested and sentenced to five months in prison on charges of hooliganism according to reports. Zabidov was also a member of D18, an opposition movement.

According to his family members, and members of the D18 movement, Zabidov often shared stories and news of corruption in his village.

In October 2019 D18 was targeted online. Its Facebook page was hacked and the group lost thousands of followers. According to one of the movement’s founders, Ruslan Izzetli, the attack was targeted and was the result of a recent Facebook post the group shared on their page, calling on the current Minister of Internal Affairs, Vilayet Eyvazov’s resignation. 

social media activist arrested

May 18, activist Elvin Irshadov, known online as “Umari Ali” was reportedly arrested in the city of Lenkoran. A court in Lenkoran sentenced Irshadov to 16days in administrative detention on charges of disobeying police orders on May 19.

Irshadov is known for his critical posts online and has been previously warned by city police over his online activism. In one of his recent social media posts, Irshadov criticized authorities over the recent dismissals of city administrative officials calling it a political cover-up.

Irshadov, is not the first activist targeted for online activism. In recent weeks, scores of activists were targeted by authorities across the country.

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.”