what’s new in the new media law

The plans to roll out a new Media Law in Azerbaijan were announced in January 2021 following a Presidential Decree “on deepening media reforms in the Republic of Azerbaijan.” In addition to a new Media Law, the decree also called for an establishment of a brand new body, the Azerbaijani Agency for Media Development replacing the State Support Fund for Mass Media Development. 

Six months after the initial announcement, the law is ready, but not for the public eye or independent journalists. The critics say, the law will further restrict the work of independent and opposition media platforms, while supporters argue the law will strengthen the media environment in the country. 

According to Ahmad Ismayilov, the Executive Director at the newly set up Agency for Media Development, the law – which is currently being developed behind-closed-door discussions – will be evaluated by the parliament in its final form, and only after the reading at the parliament will be open to public debate. 

What is known about some of the provisions

  • one unified registry system for media outlets, their offices, and journalists in order to systematize information on media entities, their offices and staff (this specifically has caused dissatisfaction among independent journalists and bloggers, according to Turan News Agency reporting);
  • the registration process requires that all print, online media platforms, news agencies, and journalists apply for registration;
  • a separate body – Audiovisual Council – will register audiovisual media platforms;
  • all media platforms and journalists registered through the system will receive certificates and press cards (valid for three years) respectively;
  • the registration system does not apply to foreign journalists who will require to receive approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
  • all media platforms must be legally registered and show proof of sustainability with registering;
  • journalists registering through the system, will be required to meet a set of requirements – those without higher education, previous convictions won’t be registered; journalists must provide contracts with media platforms that must be registered within the system; journalists must provide at least three years of work experience or relevant work experience;
  • the registry may remove media platforms and journalists already registered;  
  • the draft law will require internet television to obtain licenses in order to operate;
  • the draft law will be submitted to the national parliament (no dates announced yet); put on the agenda and posted on the Parliament’s website. Only then will there be a discussion on the main provisions and assessments of the overall bill;
  • the draft law prohibits state censorship and financing of the media; 
  • the draft law ensures pluralism and freedom of the media; 
  • according to one of the provisions, illegal interference in the work of journalists, their persecution, and harassment are inadmissible; 

According to Rustam Ahmadov, director of the Media Development Agency’s Department for Work with Media Entities and Journalists and Media Support Projects, it is possible that the bill will be adopted in the first reading. But it is also possible the draft will be returned for revision, to address suggestions and comments. “Unfortunately, I can not say exactly when the bill will be submitted to the parliament,” Ahmadov told Turan News Agency in an interview. 

Pundits’ response

Until the bill has been made public, it is hard to comment on its transparency said media lawyer Khalid Agaliyev in an interview with Turan News Agency. So far, the closed discussions are only creating doubts and eliminating optimism about the progress of the law, said a media lawyer. 

Aghaliyev pointed to three issues about the draft law that is especially worrying, “unified registry of journalists, licensing of online media, the creation of a media register (that would also require registration of their staff). All three are seriously controversial in terms of the concept of the right to freedom of expression, and there are elements of discrimination.”

On the provision about single press cards Aghaliyev said, this provision would allow the government to choose who keeps tabs on the work the government does because, under normal circumstances, it is the media and journalists who exercise public control over government activities. Aghaliyev also pointed out that the right to access, prepare and disseminate information is not only given to journalists but to every citizen according to the Constitution and international agreements Azerbaijan signed. Enforcing the single card rule is not an additional opportunity. “There are editorial offices established in accordance with the law, there is an editorial policy, their press cards should suffice to take advantage of the opportunities created by the state for journalists,” said Aghaliyev.

On the provision about licensing internet television and one single registry, Aghaliyev said this would go against the right to freedom of expression. “Rules such as the creation of a register of all media outlets and the registration of those included in the register as journalists are seriously problematic and discriminatory in terms of the right to freedom of expression.”

Aghaliyev also reminded that a media registry already exists in Azerbaijan as newspapers must inform the Ministry of Justice and once approved, start operating. “In this case, the creation of a separate register indicates the intention to more easily control, direct and suppress the media and journalists.” 

blogger handed seven year jail sentence [Updated May 5]

[Update] According to OC Media, Gurbanov was relocated to a prison, which the lawyer says, is in breach of the law. Speaking to OC Media, lawyer Fariz Namazli said, the relocation was illegal as the defendant is awaiting the result of an appeal case. “This [the decision to relocate Gurbanov] was explained to me by the fact that the detention centre was overcrowded and there were a large number of detainees,” Namazli told OC Media. Meanwhile, Gurbanov’s brother said his brother was placed in solitary confinement over an alleged fight. Gurbanov’s lawyer Namazli could not confirm but said he has filed an appeal for further investigation. 

On April 15, blogger, Aslan Gurbanov was sentenced to seven years on charges of calls to overthrow the government and incitement of national, religious, and social hatred, according to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Liberty. Gurbanov was arrested on July 14. During his arrest, the blogger suffered from a seizure according to the Justice for Journalists records.

Gurbanov was arrested by the State Security Services and sentenced to four months detention. He was kept at the SSS’s pre-trial detention facility until the trial. 

According to the Azadliq Radio report the blogger was accused of anti-government propaganda on social media platforms and instigated national discrimination – the accusations, Gurbanov refutes. Contrary to the alleged claims that the blogger was disseminating false stories about the discrimination against the Talysh people – an ethnic minority group in Azerbaijan. 

In a statement issued by the Talysh Public Council of Azerbaijan, the group said, Gurbanov promoted Talysh culture and literature, and that accusing the blogger of plotting against the state was unsubstantiated. 

Gurbanov is not the first Talysh activist to be targeted in Azerbaijan. In 2007, the then editor of Talysho Syado (‘Talysh Voice’) newspaper Novruzali Mamedov was arrested initially on charges of ‘resisting law enforcement.’ He was later charged with treason. In his first 15 days in custody, Mamedov was held incommunicado at a [now former] Ministry of National Security detention center, and neither family members nor lawyers were able to visit him. In June 2008, Mamedov was convicted of treason for the ‘distribution of Talysh nationalist ideas and attempts to destroy the foundations of the Azerbaijani state’ and sentenced to 10 years in prison in a closed trial, in absence of his defense attorney, relatives, and the press. The prosecutors alleged that Mamedov received money from Iran to publish the newspaper, but failed to explain or comment on the charges publicly.

Mamedov died in prison in August 2009 as a result of a variety of health problems for which he never received adequate medical care reported Radio Liberty. 

In September 2013, another Talysh journalist, Hilal Mamedov was sentenced to five years in jail on charges of selling drugs, high treason including espionage for Iran, and incitement to national, racial, social, and religious hatred and hostility. Hilal Mamedov took over the editorial of the Talysho Syado after Novruzali Mamedov’s arrest. The journalist was pardoned in 2016 following the Presidential pardon decree. 

youth activist gets detention over criticism online [Updated March 4]

[Update] On March 3, Sumgayit Appeal Court held a hearing in the case of arrested N!DA member Elmir Abbasov. During the hearing, Abbasov recounted how he was taken off the street, beaten, and humiliated by the local police and how they planted drugs on him. The presiding judge, Elman Ahmadov, prevented journalists, civil society representatives, and Abbasov’s family members from entering the courtroom reported Azadliq Radio. Abbasov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, said, this constitutes a violation of the court’s transparency principle. All of the lawyer’s motions were dismissed, including a request to study camera footage on the day of the arrest, as well as the questioning of Rauf Babashov, the Deputy Chief of Sumgayi City Police department. 

The case launched against the activist claims, Abbasov was detained as a suspect in the theft. The activist rejects the case brought against him. In his statement, Abbasov said, he went to buy bread from the market, when he was stopped by plainclothed men. They told Abbasov he was to come with them to the police station. When he refused to follow the men, asking for an official warrant, he was shoved into the car and taken to the city police department. In his statement, Abbasov said after arriving at the city police department he was held there for five hours, after which he was transferred to police station no.4. “They threatened me. One police officer named Bahruz started shaking me and using derogatory language on our way to the station. When we got out of the car, he dragged me by my jacket. Then he started hitting me at the entrance to the station. At that moment another officer, under the pretext of rescuing me, dropped drugs in my pocket,” recounted Abbasov in court. 

Police claim they found drugs on Abbasov during their search. But Abbasov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov argues the delay in full body search, even by half an hour after an arrest is suspicious. Especially when Abbasov remained under police custody for several hours and was searched hours later. 

Despite the lawyer’s motion to release Abbasov, the court rejected the appeal and kept its previous decision in the case of the activist  – one-month administrative detention. 

On February 22, Elmir Abbasov, a member of civic movement N!DA [translation: exclamation mark] was arrested in Sumgayit. He was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention on bogus drug possession charges. 

Abbasov’s friends, refute drug allegations, saying the arrest is connected to his posts online, critical of the ruling government and that Abbasov was kidnapped in front of his home in Sumgayit city.

Following Abbasov’s arrest, N!DA movement issued this statement: “Member of N!DA and activist Elmir Abbasov was detained several days ago. We were only able to find out today [February 22]. Elmir Abbasov’s lawyer, Zibeyde Sadigova confirmed his detention. Elmir Abbasov was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention in accordance with Article 206 of the Code of Administrative Offenses [Illegal consumption of drugs, psychotropic substances, preparation, acquisition, storage, transportation, or shipment in the amount of personal consumption without the purpose of sale]. Surely, the reason for Elmir Abbasov’s arrest is his political and social activism, his posts on social networks. Elmir Abbasov’s arrest is yet another example of persecution and repression against political activists. The primary condition for having a civil and just political environment in Azerbaijan is to stop all political repressions and release of all political prisoners. All political prisoners and Elmir Abbasov must be freed!”

Nidaçı fəal Elmir Abbasov bir neçə gün öncə Sumqayıt polisi tərəfindən saxlanılıb. Bu barədə məlumatı bu gün əldə…

Posted by Nida Vətəndaş Hərəkatı on Monday, February 22, 2021

Abbasov’s most recent post was published on February 16 which gives ground for his friends and colleagues to believe, that the cause of Abbasov’s arrest was this post. “The people of Azerbaijan know the truth, but do not speak it. The people know, that the main culprit of corruption in the country is Ilham Aliyev. The ministers, the government officials are simply a small part of this scheme. Is it really possible that billions are removed from the state budget and the head of state is unaware of this? Of course, he does and he also profits from it. So if people are aware of this, why they don’t say anything? Because the people are afraid of Ilham Aliyev. They are afraid of the things they may lose [employment, community, freedom, lives] if they go against Ilham Aliyev […]”

Azərbaycan xalqı həqiqəti bilir amma onu demir. Xalq bilir ki, ölkədə baş verən milyardlıq korrupsiya faktlarının əsl…

Posted by Elmir Abbasov on Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Independent journalist, Ulviyya Ali, reported on February 23, that Abbasov was tortured and beaten by the officers. “He was beaten both inside the car right after he was kidnapped from the front of his house and then at the station. He was threatened with torture unless he removed the post about Ilham Aliyev,” wrote the journalist via her Twitter account. 

The corruption allegations Abbasov alludes to in his Facebook post, are reflected in Azerbaijan’s global ranking on Corruption Perception Indexes. According to 2020, Transparency International global CPI Azerbaijan ranked 129 out of 180 countries. The most recent corruption scandal where Azerbaijan’s name cameos is this investigation, published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) on February 22. The investigation revealed how since 2015, Azerbaijan sold weapons stockpile to Congo-Brazaville. Although it was not possible to allocate the exact price the Congolese regime paid for the shipments, one expert said, it was possibly worth tens of millions of dollars, according to the investigation.

In 2017, another corruption scandal, Azerbaijani Laundromat exposed how the ruling elite ran a secret slush fund and a complex money-laundering scheme. The fund was mostly used to help whitewash Azerbaijan’s international image at the Council of Europe. Several delegates of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council (PACE), were among the recipients of the laundered money and were later expelled

These are just a few recent examples of how far and deep corruption runs. 

Elmir Abbasov is not the first activist to receive a bogus administrative sentence, fines, or face police violence over social media posts. This has been the case over recent years where scores of activists received offline punishments over their online comments, posts, and in the case of journalists, stories.  

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. 

free or not free – the battle over internet freedom in Azerbaijan

On January 26, during the appointment of the new head for the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, Rashad Nabiyev, president Ilham Aliyev in a video conference boasted about free, uncensored internet in Azerbaijan. “Everybody knows, internet in Azerbaijan is free, there is no censorship, no restrictions,” said the President during the video conference. 

But international watchdogs, as well as local activists, beg to disagree. In its most recent ranking of Internet Freedom across the world, Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as “not free”. Among some of the factors contributing to this ranking are outdated infrastructure, state control over information and communication technology, government manipulation of the online information landscape, presence of blocked websites, jailed critics over their online activism to name a few. Similarly, activists and opposition party representatives say, if President Aliyev’s claims are true, then why do activists are called in for questioning after their critical posts on social media platforms? Or why do opposition activists experience internet disruptions during rallies? 

And this has been the case for over a decade now. Over the years of exercising control over internet freedom in Azerbaijan, the ruling Baku has successfully relied on defensive techniques that require widespread filtering and direct censorship; legal measures techniques that often involve the use of legislation on defamation, and slander to deter users of online platforms from posting critical of the government content; and finally, offensive techniques, such as cyber-attacks against civil society. 

These techniques, defined by Ronald Deibert, is how authoritarian regimes have become savvy at restricting access to their users relying on technology, legal and extralegal techniques, described above. Suffice to say, that these techniques are widely implemented not just in Azerbaijan but other countries where governments exercise full control over the internet domain. Moreover, all of these restrictions have been documented in recent years, concluding a rather stark difference to what President Aliyev claimed on January 26, that Azerbaijan’s internet freedom is far away from being free.

This is also reflected in the work carried out by Azerbaijan Internet Watch. Just within last year alone, Azerbaijan Internet Watch has documented and reported on the score of cases where the evidence suggests to the contrary of what President Ilham Aliyev claimed last month. From discussions on control mechanisms over social media to arrests and intimidation of activists for their online criticisms to internet restrictions and disruptions, and the use of sophisticated surveillance technology to stifle independent voices. That in addition to lack of quality infrastructure and services, is yet to indicate, how does the President come to a conclusion that access to the Internet is free and unrestricted. 

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.

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.