new decree on the State Control Information System

On January 30, President Ilham Aliyev, signed a decree “on the procedure for the operation of the State Control Information System”, reported Turan News Agency. The information system was set up in March of last year when President Aliyev, introduced it in a new order. At the time, local media reported that the order aims at introducing “additional measures to increase efficiency in public administration, informs the press-service of the Azerbaijani head of state.” 

On paper, the new system “serves to increase the efficiency of work in the Administration of the President, in the field of organizing state control and ensuring executive discipline, electronic monitoring of the status of execution of decrees, orders, and instructions of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, First Vice President, and the head of the Presidential Administration.” 

But what does it mean in reality?

A few things according to Khaled Aghaliyev. While there is a need for transparency, checks and balances on government implemented decisions, documents, and policies, whether the new system allows for that is yet to be seen. “This system should be accessible to everyone”, said Aghaliyev in an interview with Astna on February 6. However, the new decree does not provide “direct indications of this”. There is also the issue of track record.

Aghaliyev in his interview mentioned the law “On Freedom of Information” that was adopted 15 years ago. However, over the years, too many changes were made to the law that its accountability power over holders of information which also includes the president as well as all other officials, has been weakened. Had the provisions of the law on Freedom of Information worked, there would be no need for creating a new system believes Aghaliyev. 

As for access to the information, a series of amendments to the Law on Right to Obtain Information have hindered the right to access information. As a result of these changes, access to information was only allowed in cases when the request did not contradict the protection of political, economic, military, financial, credit, and currency interests of the Azerbaijan Republic. That in addition, “preserving public order, health, and morality, as well as rights and freedoms of other persons, commercial and other economic interests, the purposes of securing reputation and impartiality of the court and proper continuance of preliminary investigation on criminal cases.” But the use of such expressions as “protection of interests in political, economic, military, monetary and currency policy fields” according to this review of Azerbaijan’s national legislation on access to information, is not only not acceptable but, in fact, goes against the Constitution of Azerbaijan.

These shortcomings have been highlighted in a series of reports produced by local organizations such as the Center for Legal Initiatives. In its 2016 report, the organization also reported that the new amendments categorized information on financial transactions data as private information and therefore restricted for access. Meanwhile, an amendment to the laws of state register of legal persons and to the Tax Code, classified information about founders of commercial legal entities and commercial stakes as confidential. 

Under normal circumstances, the most effective, the proven control mechanism is the mass media. However, in Azerbaijan, independent media, is often silenced, through various forms of persecution, including arrests, detentions, intimidation tactics, blackmail, and more. As a result of persistent threats to an independent media environment Azerbaijan’s rankings on global media freedom rankings have been poor, often described as not free, or partially free. 

The same applies to online media platforms, many of which have been targeted over the years and since 2017, consistently blocked by government bodies. 

Why now? 

On February 1, President Aliyev in an interview with national television AzTV said, a new approach has begun within the state administration. “My patience running thin”, said the President in an interview, adding the need for public control. He has said this before too, like during the trip to Mashtaga village outside of the capital Baku in 2018, where yet again, President Aliyev talked about strengthening public control. Then in 2019, he repeated the urgency of such control mechanisms during a meeting with the Cabinet of Ministers. But since his ascent to power in 2003, President Aliyev, has himself (through presidential decrees and orders) deliberately weakened public oversight. That in addition, to harassment of non-governmental organizations, tightening of domestic legislation, the arrest of activists and outspoken critics of the government, among them journalists and rights efenders – have all been taking place under his watch. Perhaps a good place to start would have been naming the new system, not State Control but Public Control? 

Regardless, Azerbaijan Internet Watch shares the concerns over the applicability and efficiency of the new system in the absence of reforms and will continue to monitor the developments regarding the newly set up system on information controls. 

inspired lawmakers rush to discuss social media regulations in Azerbaijan

On May 29, now former President Trump signed an executive order to “pressure regulators, including the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, to come up with new rules that would curtail that immunity.” The order came shortly after Twitter fact-checked Trump’s tweet “over a false assertion that mail-in voting leads to widespread fraud.” 

Two days later, lawmakers in Azerbaijan were back to discussing the possibility to control social media platforms. Speaking at the parliament session, member of the parliament and the ruling New Azerbaijan Party Siyavush Novruzov said, the US was finally seeing that the seeds it has been sowing across the world, are turning against America. He reminded the parliament that he raised the issue before, recalling saying, foreign-based entities, bear no responsibility for their actions while supporting terrorism, assassination attempts against world leaders, and extremism. The MP did not give examples to specific cases and instead said at the time when the issue of controlling social media platforms was mentioned, it was interpreted as a violation of the freedom of the media. 

Speaking on the same issue, another MP Javid Osmanov, said, it was time for Azerbaijan to adopt a similar law especially to strengthen the national security in Azerbaijan. 

This is not the first time Azerbaijan lawmakers discuss introducing regulatory measures for social media platforms. 

In 2018, MP Hadi Rajabli, said social media platforms that engage in anti-government propaganda must but controlled. Rajabli has previously criticized social networks. “Harmful factors such as social media, Facebook, messenger apps and the like play a big role in the disintegration of families, divorces, and early marriages, because many people use social media for entertainment and end up facing serious problems,” Rajabli said during one parliamentary discussion.  Another MP Araz Alizada went as far as to claim, normal people do not use social media platforms. 

In 2017, Azerbaijani lawmakers approved criminal charges for defamation against the president on social media platforms, the use of censorship during martial law; and restricting media access to information on private property and businesses. According to changes to Article 321(1) of the Criminal Code, a maximum sentence of five years in prison was introduced for defaming or humiliating the honor and dignity of the president in mass media and social media. The changes also increased the fine from AZN1500 to AZN2500.

In February 2018, ahead of the snap presidential election, the Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov expressed concern over social media platforms. He claimed they have grown uncontrollably and are difficult to regulate during the election process. At a National Parliament Human Rights Committee meeting in January 2017, Chairman of the Press Council Aflatun Amashov discussed creating legislation to monitor and regulate bloggers and social media platforms. Other members of parliament supported the potential legislation, saying that there is a “serious need to regulate this field.” While no pieces of legislation have been proposed this is likely to change in the upcoming February discussions at the national parliament.

In 2015, the Ministry for Communication and Hight Technologies (now the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies) said it will require some social media and instant messaging services, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber, to obtain a license in order to operate in Azerbaijan. While no progress has been towards enforcing this it would be interesting to watch the upcoming discussions at the parliament. 

Azerbaijani lawmakers have been eyeing Turkey’s recent laws on social media including the controversial bill adopted in July 2020 that requires social media giants, establish local representatives, store user data locally and comply with orders for content removal, face fines and slowed bandwidth in the case of noncompliance.