how to silence corruption: the tale of one citizen journalist and a government that does not want people to know the truth

The tale of corruption in Azerbaijan is no news to anyone familiar with the country’s history of money laundering, slush funds, and other fraudulent misconduct. From countless investigations, such as Caviar Diplomacy, Azerbaijani Laundromat and Panama Papers, and most recently OCCRP report about massive weapons deal with Congo-Brazzaville, the extent of involvement of key leadership figures of Azerbaijan in numerous financial schemes, deals, and investments, is astonishing. For years, the journalists who have been involved in these investigations have been and continue to be targeted. The most recent target is Mehman Huseynov, 28, a popular citizen journalist, and editor-in-chief of the SANCAQ, a socio-political magazine, which documents extensive corrupt practices and violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. Huseynov, shares his findings in short videos, explained in simple language, often with a touch of humor.

In 2017, shortly after President Ilham Aliyev, appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva as the First Vice President, Huseynov did a short video, asking male residents of Baku, whether they would appoint their wives as first secretaries if they were heads of companies. Huseynov was arrested the following day and later ended up serving a two-year prison term on charges of slander. Some speculated this satirical video was the real cause behind the journalist’s arrest. 

Ahead of his release from jail in 2019, the authorities attempted at keeping him behind bars, albeit unsuccessfully, and Huseynov was released. 

This is not the first time Huseynov was persecuted for his activities. He was questioned by the police countless times, threatened, intimidated, placed under a travel ban for five years, his personal documents were confiscated. The Human Rights House Foundation has documented in detail the reprisals against Huseynov in recent years. 

Realising, physical surveillance, and intimidation were not enough, Huseynov’s Sancaq TV became a target.

Hacking alert: Instagram

Due to the popularity of his channel [Sancaq TV has a large following on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube], there have been numerous attempts to break-in into Sancaq TV’s social media accounts. Huseynov was able to keep his accounts secure until he took time off from social media ahead of a medical operation after being diagnosed with cancer. The treatment and the operation were successful. It was time, for Huseynov to slowly pick up on where he left off.

Little did he know, that one of Sancaq TV’s social media accounts was compromised. “Unfortunately, government officials took advantage of my illness and in my absence hacked Sancaq TV’s Instagram account.  They sent fake messages on behalf of Instagram to my Azerbaijani mobile number and gained access,” explained Huseynov in his recollections to AIW.  

Months after Huseynov reported about the interception, it was possible to restore access to Sancaq TV’s Instagram account. 

Hacking alert: Facebook 

Since his recovery from cancer, Huseynov returned to Azerbaijan, from where he continued working on investigations into government corruption. Sancaq TV has featured some 13 separate investigations since then.

These investigations however have once again triggered perpetrators to silence Huseynov by taking over Sancaq TV’s Facebook page. While they have been unsuccessful in hacking the page, several fake Facebook pages called Sancaq TV have been created. The “owners” of these accounts are using these pages to report the original Sancaq TV Facebook page in an attempt to take it down on the grounds, that it is fake. Sancaq TV’s most recent expose explores a man named Gorxmaz Huseynov, the head of Azerbaijan Water Supply company, whose personal wealth is measured in multimillion-dollar businesses, from hospitals to tourism companies with zero accountability and transparency. 

So far, Huseynov remains defiant in his fight against corruption in Azerbaijan but so do the perpetrators behind the digital persecution campaign. Sancaq TV’s social media accounts can be accessed on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube

facebook page affiliated with opposition hacked, again

On September 10, the Facebook page that belongs to an online news website bastainfo.com was hacked. Bastainfo.com is affiliated with the opposition party Musavat and is known for often running into problems with the authorities. Its editor was handed a five year suspended sentence in February 2019. The website bastainfo.com remains blocked for access in Azerbaijan. 

In January 2020, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported how several Musavat party social media accounts were targeted. According to preliminary reports five Facebook pages, one Facebook group, and one website were targeted. 

Bastainfo.com page was targeted then as well. The page lost followers. During last week’s attack, bastainfo.com page lost some 5k followers, and content that was shared since 2017. 

Hacking and compromising Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts (because these are popular platforms used by journalists and activists) is common in Azerbaijan and isn’t new. The online harassment of prominent accounts began several years ago at first, mostly on the level of government-sponsored trolls. Over the years, as the ruling government developed an interest in spyware technology, the types of attacks became more sophisticated while state-sponsored trolling and reliance on automated bots even though still used, became secondary. In each of these cases, finding the perpetrators have not been possible. And in cases when it was clear the attacker was an automated bot/state-sponsored troll the platform took no action. We finally know why. A former Facebook employee, Sophie Zhang, wrote a memo after getting fired from her job at the company revealing how the company dealt with fake accounts and bots. Among the countries, she has worked on and analyzed was Azerbaijan. “Ms. Zhang discovered that the ruling political party in Azerbaijan was also using false accounts to harass opposition figures. She flagged the activity over a year ago, she said, but Facebook’s investigation remains open and officials have not yet taken action over the accounts.” 

hacking alert: activists and journalists targeted online [ongoing, last update September 10]

Several activists and journalists had their Facebook accounts compromised in recent weeks in Azerbaijan. 

At the end of June, a veteran human rights lawyer, Intigam Aliyev, reported a break-in attempt into his Facebook profile. A few days later, an opposition group D18 reported their Facebook page was compromised. On July 2, journalist Aysel Umudova and activist Rustam Ismayilbeyli received messages from the Facebook platform informing them their passwords were reset. This happened despite the fact, that both users had 2FA enabled on their accounts. On July 6, journalist Fatima Movlamli’s Facebook profile was compromised. Yet again, despite 2FA and secure email service, the account was taken over by unknown users. Finally, on July 14, multiple social media users reported receiving password reset messages even though no such requests were made by the users.  

Targeting social media profiles, and pages, are common in Azerbaijan. In recent years, hacking of prominent accounts has led to mass content removal, loss of followers, and subscribers. On YouTube, account owners of popular channels report their videos are taken down by the platform due to copyright violation reports, have received strikes and in some cases, their accounts were deactivated by the platform. And yet, further investigations, indicate, that these copyright violations are indeed submitted by fake accounts and that the actual cause of the strike is nothing but a fluke.

This type of deliberate targeting limits the work of targeted account owners, whether they are human rights defenders, journalists, media platforms, or political activists. Responding to these digital attacks takes time, it also requires having the right contacts at platforms directly or vis-a-vis third parties. In addition, once the account is compromised the account owner, no longer has access to their platform for outreach, unable to share their work/updates, and face the reality of losing their audience.  

While there is some evidence pointing the attacks originate from the government-affiliated institutions, it’s been virtually impossible to prevent them from happening and keep the online community safe.

On September 10, Nigar Hezi, a political activist, said there was an attempt to compromise her Facebook account.  

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.