OONI measurements indicate censorship remains

In its most recent measurement report, the Open Observatory of Network Interference [OONI] concludes that “while social media censorship in Azerbaijan appears to have been lifted, the media censorship remains.” These and other findings are based on the recent measurement report produced in partnership with OONI. 

Here are some highlights.

Blocked websites

The news websites that presented signs of blocking in Azerbaijan (between December 2020 to February 2021) include:

🛑 azerbaycansaati.tv – at the time of blocking azerbaycansaati.tv in 2017, the Government of Azerbaijan claimed “a number of articles published” by the news website “included calls aimed at ‘forcible change of the constitutional order,’ ‘organization of mass riots,’ and other illegal activities.” 

🛑 www.24saat.org – a more detailed report about how 24saat.org was blocked can be found in this report, published by Qurium in 2017. 

🛑 www.abzas.net – DDoS attacks against abzas.net commenced on January 12, 2017, and lasted for eight days. During five full consecutive days, the website remained inaccessible until it was finally migrated to VirtualRoad.org’s secure hosting infrastructure.

🛑 www.azadliq.info – as a hosting provider for azadliq.info Qurium published this report about initial signs of blocking against this online news platform. The website was attacked numerous times according to documentation and forensic reports by Qurium. The technology deployed in these DDoS attacks was Allot and Sandvine DPI gear.

🛑 www.azadliq.org – the news website which represents the Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe, was blocked on March 27, 2017. 

🛑 www.gununsesi.org – signs of DPI technology used in blocking gununsesi.org were once again documented by Qurium.

🛑 www.kanal13.tv – was among blocked websites in 2017 while its editor prosecuted [charges were dropped three years later.] 

🛑 www.meydan.tv – was also among the websites that were blocked in 2017 together with azerbaycansaati, azadliq.info and others. 

🛑 www.occrp.org – in response to the leaks about Azerbaijan Laundromat published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Research Project [OCCRP], the government of Azerbaijan suspended access to OCCRP’s website.

There is no official data on the number of blocked websites in Azerbaijan. The Ministry of Communication, High Technologies and Transportation has so far failed to provide accurate lists. This in itself is a violation of Article 13.3.6 of the Law on Information, Informatisation and Access to Information, which requests the Ministry to prepare a list of blocked websites if it has blocked access to a resource and the court upheld this decision.

In July 2018, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched criminal investigations against four news websites: criminal.az, bastainfo.com, topxeber.az and fia.az. The former two were accused of “knowingly spreading false information,” while the latter two were accused of “spreading unfounded, sensational claims in order to confuse the public.” Criminal.az is an independent website, known for its coverage of crime-related news, while bastainfo.com is affiliated with the opposition party Musavat. The latter two are run-of-the-mill online news websites.

In addition to the usual suspects, video streaming service Vimeo appeared to be briefly blocked during the testing coverage:

Circumvention

Several circumvention tool websites appear to have been interfered with in Azerbaijan during the testing period, as illustrated below:

The good news are that access to social media sites and apps was restored during the testing period. The following chart shows that while WhatsApp and Telegram were blocked in November 2020, both apps (along with Facebook Messenger) have been accessible in recent months:

How you can help?

If you are interested in contributing to these tests you are welcome to try the following instructions

news agency website DDoSed [updated]

Turan, Azerbaijan’s independent news agency was subject to multiple DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks and was briefly blocked. 

The incident took place between May 15 through 18.

The Agency’s Director, Mehman Aliyev said the hosting provider for the news agency failed due to an overwhelming amount of incoming traffic.

In an interview with AIW, Aliyev said the team spotted something was wrong on May 15 and immediately informed the host providers. “We were forced to stall all the work on the website by May 16 as the attacks were very serious. And although the website is operational, it will take time to fully secure the platform,” explained Aliyev. 

A DDoS attack makes an online service unavailable as a result of incoming traffic from multiple sources making the hosting server unable to run as usual.

The agency head suspects authorities may be behind the attacks. “The equipment purchased by the authorities is being used not only against independent online news platforms, but also on Facebook, where political activists, journalists, and the news’ social media pages are targeted,” said Aliyev in an interview with AIW.

This is not the first time online news platforms are DDoSed in Azerbaijan

Over the years, authorities have been targeting Facebook pages and profiles of popular political activists as well as media platforms.

Responding to the attacks, Reporters Without Borders condemned the attacks:

Meanwhile, on May 21, Investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova wrote that the Ministry of Communication, High Technologies, and Communication has sought court approval to prevent access to online news platforms Azadliq Radio, Meydan TV, Turan TV, and Azadliq newspaper via Facebook and VPN services.

Equipment

According to detailed reporting carried out in April 2018, by Virtual Road—a secure hosting project run by the media foundation Qurium, the government of Azerbaijan has been relying on Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) since March 2017. This equipment was purchased from an Israeli security company called Allot Communications. Reports by Virtual Road have shown evidence of the denial of service and other attacks against independent and opposition media news sites, that were traced to IP addresses associated with the government. This timeline describes how over the years, the government in Azerbaijan became aware of digital tools, for targeting civil society, especially at the time when much of the conversation was shifting online, amid on-going crackdown. 

AIW has been monitoring these and other attacks since October 2019: 

  • in October opposition movement Facebook page was hacked;
  • in November, a political figure’s Facebook page was hacked;
  • in December, leader of an opposition party had his Instagram account hacked into;
  • also in December, an activist’s YouTube channel was targeted;
  • in January, mass phishing attack targeted a significant number of civil society representatives;
  • also in January, the political figure targeted in October via her Facebook page was once again a target;
  • in February, several social media accounts affiliated with an opposition party were hacked;
  • in March, Facebook pages affiliated with an online news platform were targeted;
  • also in March, a group of activists was targeted online;
  • in April, journalist’s YouTube channel was targeted and videos were taken down;
  • also in April, a journalist was targeted online in a targeted online harassment campaign; 
  • also in April, former political prisoner, parliamentary candidate reported multiple break-in attempts into his social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram;
  • in May, political figure targeted in November and in January was yet again, a target;
  • and other forms of legal constraints and technical interference.

 

During C19 authorities paid special attention to social media platforms and targeted several activists calling them in for questioning, arresting them, or imposing fines.

Mehman Aliyev considers these attacks an attempt to suffocate free speech. In an interview with Azadliq Radio in April, the head of Turan News Agency, said, “based on our previous experience we know it is the government behind the attacks. It is just now, they are more serious.” Aliyev believes it is the fear of the looming financial crisis and the social tension that is making the ruling government fearful of any criticism.