questioning over social media posts critical of government measures raise concern [updated August 3]

The questioning of political activist Ruslan Izzatli, on July 28 over his social media post renewed concerns over government oversight of social media platforms and its non-transparent approach to cherry-picking issues that it deems unfit for public discussion.

Izzatli was not the first person to receive a call from the Prosecutor General’s Office last month inviting him for a meeting. In an interview with one media platform, Izzatli explained that the prosecutor’s office refused to explain the reason for the meeting over the phone and asked that the political activist comes in person. 

During the meeting that took place on July 28, Izzatli was asked questions about a Facebook post in which the political activist shared some of the grievances of war veterans and servicemen since the second Karabakh war. He criticized the state for lack of measures in addressing these issues. “If Aliyev’s team can visit returned territories today it is because of the servicemen and war veterans. But their problems remain unaddressed,” wrote Izzatli in the said post.   

Izzatli was also asked whether he had evidence for the claims made in the post and why the political activist wrote the post in the first place. The political activist also said he received a verbal warning.

Separately, on July 30, the General Prosecutor’s Office said it has warned seven other users over their public posts shared on social media. The Prosecutor’s Office in a statement said the users were warned after the Prosecutor’s Office identified a violation of the Law on Media. Specifically the statement said, 

During monitoring, it was identified that during the publication of news in media, provisions of Article 14.1.11 of the Law on Media were not observed [Facts and events must be presented impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed]. 

In order to prevent cases of violation of socio-political stability, human and citizen rights and freedoms, a number of relevant persons were invited to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the prosecutor took measures. 

As such, Sakhavat Mammadov, Rovshan Mammadov, Zulfugar Alasgarov, Elgun Rahimov, Fuzuli Kahramani, Zeynal Bakhshiyev and Ruslan Izzetli received a warning based on Article 22 of the Law on Prosecutor – to avoid cimilar negative incidents from taking place again.

The General Prosecutor’s Office repeats, in its appeal to media and social network users, that dissemination of unverified information that lacks clarificaition from the state institutions is unacceptable and holds one accountable according to existing legislation. 

According to Alasgar Mammadli, a media law expert, Article 14 of the Law on Media, applies to journalists, newsrooms, and online news sites. But the majority of the men summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office this time were not journalists Alasgarli told Turan News Agency in an interview. The cited Article 14, cannot be used against individuals for expressing their thoughts. This is clearly an attempt to restrict freedom of expression said Mammadli. Journalist Sakhavat Mammadov who was among the group who received a warning agrees. Speaking with Turan News Agency on August 3, Mammadli said, that the warnings and questioning are meant to pressure activists and journalists and are clearly political orders. “Instead of calming people down, these incidents only raise tension and cause opposite effects. It shows there is an attempt to withhold information from the people, which only breeds rumors and disinformation.” 

AIW has analyzed the Law on Media and its implications on media freedom in Azerbaijan here. Among key findings were poorly worded definitions and excessive requirements and restrictions for online media content [see below Article 14 as an example]; challenging parameters of registration of journalists, especially those working for online media outlets and freelance journalists; and lack of oversight and checks and balances to monitor decisions taken within the scope of the new law. 

Article 14 of the Media Law requires that information published and (or) disseminated in the media (including online media) must meet at least 14 requirements. The law also requires that content published by media outlets should meet the requirements of the Law on Protection of Children from Harmful Information and the Law on Information, Informatization and Protection of Information which provides an exhaustive list of requirements criticized for vagueness.

For instance, Article 14.1.6. of the law prohibiting media from using “immoral lexical (swearing) words and expressions, gestures” contradicts the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights standards as “prescribed by law” on the account that it lacks sufficient clarity and precision. The article also does not comply with a standard, “necessary in a democratic society,” “found in Articles 8-11 of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides that the state may impose restrictions of these rights only if such restrictions are ‘necessary in a democratic society’ and proportional to the legitimate aims enumerated in each article.”  The text authorizes the authorities to consider any impugned statement or general criticism as an “immoral lexical (swearing) words of expressions”. With such a broad definition, this requirement has a chilling effect on journalists.

Article 14.1.11 of the law reads, “facts and events must be interpreted impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed.” A duty to impartial and accurate reporting and one-sidedness is likely to result in journalists refraining from exercising their right to freedom of expression without self-censorship. A failure of this requirement subjects the journalist to heavy sanctions. Furthermore, taking into account the existing political atmosphere in the country, such broadly defined restrictions can prevent journalists and other professionals working for online media from staying impartial without any interference.

Article 14.1.14  concerns published content according to which, “publication (dissemination) of information about the crime committed by a person in the absence of a court order that has entered into force should not be allowed.” Such a direct ban in general form could limit the freedom of expression, in particular, where certain cases are widely covered in the media on account of the seriousness of the facts and the individuals. The journalist also can be subject to disproportionate sanctions for publication or dissemination of information, which is already known to people, for instance in case of scandalous news about the corruption of officials. This clause heavily limits the primary duty of ensuring diversity and plurality of voices in the media.

Any imposed restrictions must meet the requirements as prescribed by law pursuant of legitimate aims (allowed by the international human rights law), necessary in a democratic society, such as proportionality, and non-discrimination.

In May, AIW looked into content regulation on the internet carried out by the Prosecutor’s office and how the measures in place, silence free speech often relying on the use of a restrictive law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information. This legal overview was prepared following an uptick of cases in which social media users faced punitive measures for their online activism by the Prosecutor’s Office. At the time, the analysis concluded that the Prosecutor General Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists, and media within the scope of laws on information and media and with the powers vested in the prosecutor’s office under the existing legislation on administrative offenses and the law of the prosecutor’s office. 

The day Ruslan Izzatli was questioned, Azerbaijan’s Press Council – nominally independent media regulation authority – held a press conference. Speaking at the briefing, the chairman of the Council Aflatun Amashov, expressed his concerns over circulating social media posts damaging the reputation of the Azerbaijani military. As such, the chairman said the council is ready to offer its recommendations on creating a legal framework to regulate social media platforms in Azerbaijan.

Speaking to Meydan TV, media law expert Khalid Aghaliyev said, the council’s proposal to regulate social media platforms is likely linked to the state’s intentions in having social media platforms open representatives in Azerbaijan and then use these representatives to further consolidate control mechanisms over social media platforms.   

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.

Happy Holidays from Azerbaijan Internet Watch

May 2020 bring us all across the world censorship-free internet and for everyone documenting, reporting, monitoring, advocating, and fighting for it, here is to a year full of progress and solidarity in standing together for the good cause.

And with just a few hours (depending on what part of the world you are in) left to mark the new year, here are a few highlights from Azerbaijan as documented by AIW in the last three months:

* The authorities in Azerbaijan continued to deploy information controls against its civil society; 

* Countless social media activists were targeted for facebook posts;

* More than 50 independent, and opposition news websites remain blocked; 

* Political activists remained under surveillance, as their phone conversations were leaked to pro-government media outlets;

* In one case, the television anchor who leaked the conversation later deleted the whole segment, as the leaked phone call took place between two international diplomats speaking with the political activist;

* One journalist’s conversation on facebook messenger was intercepted and leaked to a news outlet;

* While its size is unknown, the Azerbaijani troll army continued reporting to social media platforms alleged content abusing platforms’ copyright violation rules. in none of the cases that were examined, the reported content was an actual violation;

* An article that was published on OpenDemocracy examined closely how some of this content was taken down; 

* Azerbaijan was ranked “not free” by freedom house in its annual freedom on net report for 2019; 

“The already poor state of internet freedom in Azerbaijan continued to deteriorate during the coverage period. Access is inhibited by infrastructural challenges—illustrated by a major power outage in July 2018—and by state control over the information and communication technology (ICT) industry. The government manipulates the online information landscape, blocking websites that host unfavorable news coverage and using automated “bot” accounts to spread propaganda. Digital rights are not respected, and those who voice dissent online can expect prosecution if they reside in the country or various forms of intimidation if they live abroad.”

“Power in Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government remains heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev, who has served as president since 2003. Corruption is rampant, and after years of persecution, formal political opposition groups are weak. The regime has overseen an extensive crackdown on civil liberties in recent years, leaving little room for independent expression or activism.”

* In October, during one opposition rally, Azerbaijani citizens reported wide internet connectivity issues; most of the businesses in downtown Baku said the Internet was down throughout the day, which affected the local businesses;

* The national parliament picked up on the earlier discussions on introducing new measures to monitor the Internet in the country but now new developments have taken place since;

AIW will continue monitoring and documenting, internet censorship in Azerbaijan in 2020. Stay tuned and thank you for following!