two website editors, and three social media users questioned over “disseminating forbidden information on the internet” [updated August 8]

[UPDATE] By August 8, four more citizens were called in for questioning over their social media posts about the military operations in Azerbaijan reported Qaynarinfo.az. Rustam Ismayilbeyli, Farid Huseynov, Elmar Mammadov, Gulay Eyvazova were all invited to the Prosecutor’s Office where all four received a warning. Ismayilbeyli, who is a political activist, wrote on his Facebook, that he was questioned on August 4, specifically over a Facebook post in which he mentions a quote by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. “I was questioned because of the quote by Ataturk, in which he said, ‘so long as the nation’s freedom is not under threat, starting a war is a crime.’ The Prosecutor’s Office concluded that the quote was a threat to national security,” wrote Ismayilbeyli. In a separate case, journalist Sakha

On July 27, according to Turan News Agency reporting, editors of two news sites, Fikret Ibishbeyli (Faramazoglu) and Agil Alishov were questioned by the General Prosecutor’s office. Ibishbeyli is the founder of jamaz.info and Alishov manages the website miq.az. In addition, according to the agency’s reporting, three social media users were also questioned. One of them, a man named Tofig Shakhmuradov, known as a blogger covering military news was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention for “posting of information prohibited from dissemination on the telecommunication network, as well as failure to prevent the posting of such information” on Facebook.

Ibishbeyli, was most recently fined in January of this year, on the same charges, “disseminating forbidden information on the internet.” The journalist was fined a total amount of AZN500 [USD295] following a court decision. At the time, the Prosecutor General alleged that an article published on the jamaz.info website caused confusion and fear. 

In May, AIW published a legal analysis on who regulates content on the Internet in Azerbaijan. Based on that analysis, AIW specifically looked at how the Prosecutor’s Office was involved in this process and on what grounds. Currently, two laws regulate what constitutes prohibited information on the internet and the liability for violating these requirements. These are the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information, which defines the requirements and responsibilities for individuals; and the Law on Media, which defines the (almost) similar and additional requirements and responsibilities for journalists and media.

In addition, the presidential decree dated February 22, 2022, instructed the Ministry of Justice to prepare and submit a draft law on measures for violating information and media legislation on the internet to the government within a month. The law is yet to be adopted and concerns over its text and procedural implementation give ground to worry for a new restrictive law to be adopted not to mention its implications to further stifle free speech online.

Until then, an uptick in recent months, of cases in which social media users have faced punitive measures for their online activism indicates 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. The prosecutor’s office argues that the official warnings issued by the institution are a precautionary measure for violating existing laws. However as it has been pointed out by the local human rights lawyers and experts, while the prosecutor’s office may be relying on existing bills on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information as well as the Media, their measures can also be defined within the scope of additional articles of the Criminal Code. Therefore, say experts, the legality of these acts is questionable.

It is still not clear what constitutes “prohibited information”

According to the Law on Information, and Media, while there are general parameters of what prohibited information is, the definitions are rather broad and as such open to interpretation. 

In the case of two editors who received a warning on July 27, the prosecutor’s office claims both websites, published articles that cast a shadow on the country’s Armed Forces. Which articles specifically, however, is not clear. In the case of the social media users, there is no information on what posts specifically were the cause for questioning and subsequent detention of one of the users. In AIW’s legal analysis published in May, we reviewed a number of reported examples where social media users and journalists were warned or received administrative detention over publishing content. In neither of them, there was sufficient evidence to claim violations of the law did indeed occur.

In a Facebook post, media law expert, Alasgar Ahmedoglu wrote if Shahmuradov was sentenced on the grounds of spreading information prohibited by law then the information law enforcement found in violation of the law must be clearly shared as well. “If the prosecutor’s office has found a legal basis for restricting an individual’s freedom of information, it must clearly indicate the date on which the person disseminated that information, what the prohibited information in that disseminated information, and by which specific law the dissemination of that information is prohibited […] A person’s constitutional right cannot be so grossly restricted by merely stating in general terms “prohibited by law,” wrote Ahmedoglu. The expert pointed out, that while applying provisions of existing laws as punitive measures, the General Prosecutor’s Office must also take into account Articles 47 (freedom of thought and speech), and 50 (freedom to lawfully seek, obtain, transmit and disseminate information) of the Constitution of Azerbaijan.   

 

In Azerbaijan the parliament is discussing the controversial law on media – the bill already passed its second reading [Updated January 26]

[Update] On December 30, Azerbaijan’s parliament approved a new media law after its third and final reading. The law was passed despite mounting criticism from local journalists and is set to be signed by President Ilham Aliyev and become effective as of January 1, 2022. Hailed by its proponents as a reform bill, critics of the law warn that the new law’s will have an extensive impact on media freedom and independence in Azerbaijan [more here].

***

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.” Now, almost a year later, despite local advocacy by journalists and news platforms to reconsider adopting the legal document, the law passed its second reading on December 20, 2021. Although the law has not been finally approved and signed by the president, the local media already reported several citizens fined or warned over the content they have shared online. 

The controversy of the new law

On December 16, two days after the draft law passed its first reading a group of civil society representatives issued a statement urging the lawmakers to reconsider the draft law in its current form. According to the statement, the law “opens up a wide range of opportunities for the state to determine who can engage in journalism and rejects the model of media self-regulation. It inflicts incurable wounds on freedom of media, which is an important component of the right to freedom of expression.” 

According to Eurasianet.net reporting

Among the many new regulations: The state will now create a registry of journalists, who have to fit specific criteria (including lack of a criminal record) to be included. Owners of media outlets will have to live in Azerbaijan, which would effectively ban many of the country’s independent media which are run by Azerbaijanis who fled the country. Online news outlets will be required to publish at least 20 news pieces on a daily basis.

There are also a wide variety of content restrictions in the new law. Journalists will be prohibited from “propagating superstitions.” “Tarnishing a business’s reputation” will also not be allowed. Section 14.1.11 stipulates that “facts and events must be interpreted impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed.”

The intent appears to be to give the government more freedom to block media it deems unfriendly.

Reactions

Media law expert Alasgar Mammadli told Kanal13 in an interview that the law now grants a right to block online content on a whim. Azerbaijan is already blocking a wide range of independent and opposition news websites since 2017. The most recent findings were released this summer by AzNet Watch in partnership with OONI. But media censorship is an ongoing issue according to Qurium Media Foundation that released another report, this summer, documenting a decade of media censorship in Azerbaijan based on the organization’s work assisting targeted, and blocked news platforms in the country. 

In an interview with Toplum TV, journalist Seymur Kazimov said, the new provisions are “backward.”

On December 22, a human rights organization “Defense Line”, said in a statement that the new law was also in violation of the Azerbaijan Constitution: 

Part I of Article 7 of the Constitution states that the Azerbaijani state is a democratic, legal republic, Article 50, Part II guarantees freedom of mass information, as well as prohibits state censorship of the press. However, in recent years, dozens of journalists have been subjected to politically motivated administrative and criminal prosecution, ill-treatment, and illegal interference in the activities of electronic and written publications by administrative bodies.

In its statement, the organization further made calls on the government of Azerbaijani and its legislature to comply with the requirements of Articles 10 (freedom of expression), 47 (freedom of thought and expression), and 50 (freedom of information) of the European Convention.

Gubad Ibadoglu, professor of economics, who manages an online YouTube platform Biz told Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty that the new law aims to restrict the media and increase the risk of blocking critical television programs broadcast from abroad. 

First signs of controlling online content

On December 21, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan issued a statement that four citizens – Abushov Zamig, Mahmudov Ilgar, Ibrahimov Mehdi, and Safarsoy Rza – were invited to the prosecutor’s office for allegedly disseminating biased information on social networks. All four were warned that in case they repeat the offense, they could face more stringent measures reported Turan News Agency.

In addition, several websites were issued a fine in violation of Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. According to reporting by Report.az, on December 18, olke.az, and manevr.az, were fined in a total amount of AZN 1500 [USD 882] each over alleged illegal dissemination of information that promotes suicide as a solution mechanism, “while substantiating, inciting, and explaining the methods of its commission.” 

Lawyer Khaled Aghaly said the decision was embarrassing. In an interview with Meydan TV, Aghaly said that both websites were fined over publishing exact same text. “Manevr.az” website copied the story published by “olke.az.” According to the law on Mass Media, in case, information was shared from another resource [rather than published as an original text], the news outlet republishing the content should be freed from any responsibility. It is unfortunate that even the courts ignored this [when issuing their final decision],” explained Aghaly.

In addition, on December 18, journalist Sakhavat Mammad, with an online Yenicag.az website, was fined in a late-night trial, on charges of publishing prohibited information on an information resource or information/communication network in violation of Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. 

In March 2020, Article 388-1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses was aggravated with the penalty of up to one-month administrative detention with other sanctions against real or legal owners of internet information resources and associated domain names as well as against users of information-telecommunication networks for the placement, or the violation of provisions of the Information Law aiming at preventing the placement, of prohibited information on such internet information resources. 

Commenting on Sakhavat Mammad’s case, media law expert Alasgar Mammadli told Meydan TV that the new law is already being put to use even though it officially enters into force next year. “Calling the journalist to the prosecutor’s office, and then hastily fining him in court [in the absence of an investigation, explicit mentioning of which law was violated, and which secrets were spread], is nothing but a pressure on freedom of speech and is the violation of freedom of expression,” Mammadli added. 

But this is also not the first time that a journalist faced punishment over their work, reported Azerbaijan service for Radio Free Europe. In 2019, Mustafa Hajiyebli, editor of opposition bastainfo.com received an administrative sentence. He was accused of instilling chaos among the public. Around the same time, the editor of criminal.az website, Anar Mammadov faced similar charges. A number of other cases were documented in the most recent Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House. 

Finally, one secondary school principal Hikmet Aghajanov was warned by the Prosecutor Office, over alleged online dissemination of prohibited information on suicide according to reporting by Report.az.

December 21 statement by the Prosecutor Office further urged media entities and users of social networks to refrain from publicizing inaccurate and distorted information, warning that further measures would be taken otherwise.  

[Update] Over the next month the Prosecutor Office continued issuing warnings. Most recently on January 24, a group of social media users was warned while one social media user was sentenced to a month in administrative detention. Also, on January 24, activist and member of the opposition Musavat party’s youth branch, Aziz Mamiyev was questioned at the police according to reporting by Meydan TV. Mamiyev said it was his social media posts that had him questioned. The activist said police showed him the printout of his TikTok video too telling him he mentioned President Ilham Aliyev there. “They told me, it is your problem if you are criticizing the government but be careful about your writing. Be careful in your struggle,” wrote Mamiyev in a Facebook post adding that regardless he considers the nature of this visit political and pressure by the government against freedom of speech.

In a comment to AzNet Watch, an independent lawyer Emin Abbasov said, “Although Article 54.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses stipulates that the prosecutor shall initiate proceedings on certain categories of administrative offenses, the last sentence of that article authorizes the prosecutor to initiate proceedings on any other administrative offense. Apparently, the Code of the Administrative Offences (articles 54.2 and 99.3) empowers the Prosecutor General’s Office with wide powers including launching administrative offenses in any administrative offense cases. The wide discretion of criminal prosecution body beyond the criminal offenses, and in particular over the information distributed online puts huge pressure over freedom of expression and free flow of information.”

Gag order around “Terter” case

In another warning issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Interior Ministry, and the State Security Service of Azerbaijan, the government institutions warned of spreading false information on the ongoing Terter Case. According to the wording of the warning, “representatives of mass media, users of social media platforms, as well as participants in criminal proceedings [shall be] informed that the dissemination of preliminary investigation information without proper permission creates liability under criminal law.” The government institutions also warned that measures will be taken against those who disseminate biased and distorted information in order to overshadow the activities of government agencies and the victorious Azerbaijani Army, influence the investigation, and deliberately mislead the public.

The Terter Case refers to 2017 events surrounding a group of Azerbaijani servicemen accused of collaborating with the intelligence and security services of Armenia. At the time, the Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan launched a criminal case, under Article 274 (treason) of the Criminal Code on treason and other criminal acts. The faith of these men remained largely unknown until the following year, when “persons who claimed to have been illegally detained, interrogated and tortured” began talking about what happened to them on social media platforms. Since then, the case has been widely referred to as the Terter case. 

According to a statement by the OMCT issued in April 2021, following the investigations, it was possible to identify that at least “78 Azerbaijani citizens [were] detained and sentenced to between 12 and 20 years in prison, with multiple cases of torture, including 11 deaths in custody of Azerbaijani military personnel and civilians.” 

In June 2021, 24 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) signed a motion, requesting to appoint a rapporteur to investigate the reported torture and ill-treatment in the Terter case.

On November 1, Lieutenant General of Justice Khanlar Valiyev, deputy prosecutor general and military prosecutor of Azerbaijan “admitted to local media that more than 100 servicemen were tortured during the investigation of Terter case.” 

On November 5, 2021, the case was discussed during a meeting of the Committee on Legal Affairs of PACE according to reporting by Turan News Agency. 

What’s next?

The new media law enters into force on January 1, 2022. Media law experts and journalists, say instead, the authorities should have focused on decriminalizing defamation and libel, adopting a law on defamation and relying on existing legal structures rather than draft a new law, which was largely kept away from public discussions and despite demands by independent and opposition journalists and other representatives of civil society, refused to open the draft bill for review and recommendation process as has been the case with the Law on Access to Information, passed by Parliament in 2005. In an interview with Turan News Agency, lawyer Khaled Aghaly explained that at the time, “[the bill] was developed with the participation of media law experts, the local and international community.” Unfortunately, this practice was dismissed this time around explained Aghaly. 

Local experts believe it is possible to change the course as long as there is an interest on behalf of the government. Meanwhile, on December 24, the parliament is scheduled to discuss the existing law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information and the list of proposed amendments published on the parliament’s website on December 20. If approved the following changes will be made to the existing bill: 

  • in its present form, the law does not oblige the regulatory body to provide the information resource owners, internet and host providers, or other sites’ substantiated opinion reasoning for the content prohibited. In other words, the regulatory body and other state authorities can request to remove the content or block access to websites without any obligation to substantiate their demands;

    • The proposed amendment calls for clear reasoning behind the content removal request;
  • Previously a whole website could be closed for access for publishing “prohibited information”;
    • The proposed amendment calls blocking specific content; 

Journalist fined in a midnight trial

On December 18, journalist Sakhavat Mammad, with an online Yenicag.az website, was fined in a midnight trial, on charges of publishing prohibited information on an information resource or information/communication network under the law on Information, Informatisation and Protection of Information. The journalist was charged under Article 388.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.

Mammad, who often reports on the army, was invited to the Prosecutor General office on December 18 over his recent reporting published on Yenicag.az website. 

“I explained [at the Prosecutor General office] that the recently published work is the result of investigations I have been conducting for a while now. I was then taken to the court. They had a hearing late at night and fined me in the total amount of 500AZN. It was so late that when the judge asked if I wanted a lawyer, I decided to defend myself because I did not want to bother anyone so late in the evening,” Mammad told in an interview with an online news platform Toplum.tv. 

The controversial law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information was first adopted in 1998. In March 2017, a series of restrictive amendments were added to the law, converting the law from a technical regulation into content regulation. In March of 2020, the law was updated yet again. In a previous analysis of the law, AIW together with a legal expert identified some of the key challenges and loopholes in the law, such as: 

  • In the list of prohibited information envisaged in the Law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information, the definition of what entails prohibited content is described with vague expressions that are open to excessive interpretations. With these terms, the state authorities “enjoy” a broad discretion power to categorize any information as prohibited (Law № 460-IQ); 
  • Amendments to an existing bill on Information provisions, Informatization, and Protection of Information extended the subjects – to users – of responsibilities for placement of prohibited information, including the “false information” on information-telecommunication networks.

    This means that amendments establish the liability over the information-telecommunication network users to place prohibited content on the information-telecommunication networks; 

    The amendments also added an item to the list of prohibited content, forbidding the  placement of false information: thus, prohibited information was considered “false information [yalan məlumatlar] in case it posed a threat to harm human life and health, cause significant property damage, mass violation of public safety, disrupt life support facilities, financial, transport, communications, industrial, energy and social infrastructure facilities or other socially dangerous consequences.”

    In other words, if users placed content on the internet that might be considered false information capable to disrupt the functioning of state bodies or their activities it can be considered on the grounds of violating the existing law.

Article 388 of the administrative offenses 

During the same plenary meeting in March 2020, an amendment to article 388-1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO) of Law No. 27-VIQD was also approved.

Article 388-1 of the CAO was aggravated with the penalty of up to one-month administrative detention with other sanctions against real or legal person owners of internet information resources and associated domain names as well as on users of information-telecommunication networks for the placement, or the violation of provisions of the Information Law aiming at preventing the placement, of prohibited information on such internet information resources.

With the amendments introduced to laws, users of the information-telecommunication network, owners of internet information resources, and domain names might be punished under Article 388-1 of the CAO. The penalty for the offense is a fine between 500 and 1000 manats (about US$294–$588) for real persons and 1000 to 1500 manats for officials, with an option of up to one month of administrative detention for both classes of persons depending on the circumstances and the identity of the offender.

During the first year of the pandemic, the same administrative offense was used to target scores of political activists. 

 

Media censorship in Azerbaijan through the lens of network measurement – July 2021 report

On July 1, Azerbaijan Internet Watch launched a new report titled “Media censorship in Azerbaijan through the lens of network measurement”. The report was prepared in partnership with the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) summarising key findings from network measurements conducted between January 2020 to May 2021. The full report can be accessed here.

About the report

In light of reports on the blocking of websites in Azerbaijan, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Azerbaijan Internet Watch (AIW) formed a partnership to collaborate on researching internet censorship in the country. Over the past year, OONI and AIW have collaborated on collecting and regularly analyzing censorship measurements from Azerbaijan, while providing timely updates through reports. In this report, we share findings from our analysis of OONI network measurements collected from Azerbaijan between 1st January 2020 to 1st May 2021. The aim of this study is to document and increase the transparency of internet censorship in Azerbaijan through the analysis of empirical network measurement data.

Key findings

  • Blocking of independent news media and circumvention tool websites. Throughout the testing period, several independent news media and circumvention tool sites presented HTTP failures caused by connection timeouts. This suggests the potential use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) by ISPs in Azerbaijan.
  • Attempts to block Tor and Psiphon. ISPs in Azerbaijan attempted to block Tor and Psiphon amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. However, both attempts appear to have been quite ineffective. 
  • Temporary blocking of social media amid 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Between September 2020 to November 2020, several social media websites presented the same HTTP failures (as news media and circumvention tool sites), while the testing of WhatsApp and Telegram presented signs of TLS level interference.
  • Variance of censorship across networks. ISPs in Azerbaijan appear to be adopting similar censorship techniques. However, censorship varies from network to network, as different ISPs block different websites and apps at different moments in time.

Blocked news media websites

Several independent news media websites presented signs of blocking in Azerbaijan throughout the analysis period.

These domains include:

  1. `azerbaycansaati.tv`
  2. `criminal.az` 
  3. `www.24saat.org` 
  4. `www.abzas.net` 
  5. `www.azadliq.info`
  6. `www.azadliq.org`
  7. `www.gununsesi.info`
  8. `www.gununsesi.org`
  9. `www.kanal13.tv`
  10. `www.meydan.tv`

OONI data also suggests that the site (`www.occrp.org`) of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the site (`www.rferl.org`) of RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty (RFE/RFL) were blocked in Azerbaijan as well. The blocking of the OCCRP site reportedly began in September 2017, following the publication of a major investigation (“Azerbaijani Laundromat”) into corruption, bribery, and money laundering in which powerful figures were allegedly involved. The blocking of the RFE/RFL website also reportedly began in 2017, following an Azerbaijani court order which RFE/RFL described as “another blatant attempt at silencing its reporting in the country”

Blocking of social media amid 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war

Amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, OONI data shows that access to several social media websites and apps was blocked in Azerbaijan. The following chart, limited to social media websites that presented signs of blocking between February 2020 to May 2021, aggregates OONI measurement findings collected from 4 AS networks in Azerbaijan.

Blocking of social media websites in Azerbaijan based on OONI data (collected between March 2020 to May 2021), https://explorer.ooni.org/search?since=2020-01-01&probe_cc=AZ&test_name=web_connectivity&only=anomalies

As is evident from the above chart, most of these social media websites primarily presented signs of blocking during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war (between 27th September 2020 to 10th November 2020), but were found accessible when tested (on several networks in Azerbaijan) in the months before and after the war. Notably, most anomalous measurements presented HTTP failures (because the HTTP requests timed out), similarly to the blocking of news media websites (discussed previously). This provides a stronger indication that these social media websites were blocked, particularly since ISPs often use the same censorship technique(s) to block a variety of different websites. 

Blocked circumvention tool sites

Numerous circumvention tool websites presented signs of potential blocking when tested (on up to 3 AS networks) in Azerbaijan between February 2020 to May 2021, as illustrated through the following chart.

Blocking of circumvention tool websites in Azerbaijan based on OONI data (collected between January 2020 to May 2021), https://explorer.ooni.org/search?since=2020-01-01&probe_cc=AZ&test_name=web_connectivity&only=anomalies

Similar to the blocking of news media and social media websites, we observe that the testing of circumvention tool websites often resulted in HTTP failures caused by connection timeouts. This consistency in terms of failures, observed on several AS networks over the period of a year, strongly suggests blocking of these circumvention tool websites. As testing coverage increased from January 2021 onwards, we observed an increased volume of anomalous measurements, most presenting the same HTTP failures.

Conclusion

Press freedom appears to be quite limited in Azerbaijan, as suggested by the blocking of several independent news media websites in the country. These media websites presented signs of blocking throughout their testing (on several local AS networks) between January 2020 to May 2021 (corroborating past reports on the blocking of media websites in Azerbaijan), with recent OONI measurements suggesting that their blocking remains ongoing

Potentially in an attempt to prevent the circumvention of media censorship, ISPs in Azerbaijan appear to have blocked access to a number of circumvention tool websites over the last year as well. It remains unclear, however, if the apps of these circumvention tool sites were also blocked (as they were not tested as part of this study); and even if they were, it’s possible that local internet users may have been able to use them nonetheless, given that circumvention tools often include in-built circumvention techniques for evading censors. 

Amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, ISPs in Azerbaijan appear to have attempted to block the Tor and Psiphon circumvention tools. Yet, these attempts were likely ineffective, given that both tools have in-built circumvention techniques and fallback options for circumventing blocks. In Tor measurements, we observe that most ISPs did not block all tested Tor directory authorities, suggesting that it was possible to use Tor nonetheless (as also indicated by the spike in Tor usage from Azerbaijan during that period). Similarly, many Psiphon measurements during this period were successful, suggesting that it may have been possible to use the Psiphon VPN on many networks.

Several social media websites (such as `www.facebook.com` and `www.youtube.com`) and apps (primarily WhatsApp and Telegram) presented signs of blocking between September 2020 to November 2020, which coincides with the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. It is, therefore, possible that ISPs may have increased efforts to block circumvention tools (during this period) in an attempt to prevent the circumvention of social media censorship.

Interestingly, we observe similar censorship techniques adopted by different ISPs in Azerbaijan, but variance in terms of which internet services are blocked by ISPs over time. In other words, we see ISPs blocking websites and apps in similar ways (seemingly using the same censorship techniques), but different ISPs block access to different websites and apps (and sometimes this varies at different moments in time). 

Throughout the testing period, independent news media and circumvention tool websites presented HTTP failures caused by connection timeouts, suggesting the potential use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) by ISPs in Azerbaijan. Similarly, when social media websites were temporarily blocked amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, their testing also presented HTTP failures caused by connection timeouts. This suggests that most ISPs in Azerbaijan block websites using similar (if not the same) censorship techniques.

Both WhatsApp and Telegram presented signs of TLS level interference on several different AS networks in Azerbaijan amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. In the case of WhatsApp, the HTTP requests to `web.whatsapp.com` succeeded, while the HTTPS requests failed (during the TLS handshake), which could be an indication of SNI-based filtering. In the case of Telegram, we see that both HTTP and HTTPS requests to `web.telegram.org` timed out. 

As media censorship (and the blocking of circumvention tool websites) appears to be ongoing in Azerbaijan, there is a need for further testing to evaluate these censorship events in more depth over time. The temporary blocking of social media amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war also suggests that new censorship events can emerge in Azerbaijan, as political events evolve. 

This study was carried out through the use of open methodologies, free and open source software, and open data, enabling independent third-party verification of our research findings. We encourage researchers to expand upon this study by running OONI Probe and analyzing OONI measurements from Azerbaijan.    

journalist facing jail time

Anar Mammadov is editor of criminal.az – website that was blocked by the authorities in Azerbaijan in 2018. Mammadov was sentenced to 5.5 years of imprisonment with a two-year probation period on charges of anti-state appeals, abuse of power and official forgery in March 2019. The official cause of the criminal prosecution was the publication of news about the assassination attempt on the former head of the city of Ganja Elmar Veliyev.

On January 6, Mammadov was pressed with a set of new allegations facing arrest. The accusation comes from a woman, named Malahat Gurbanova. Mammadov wrote about Gurbanova’s legal battle with former Minister of Social Services earlier on. Gurbanova now, alleges Mammadov’s language used to describe Gurbanova in his coverage was slanderous and insulting. Mammadov refutes these claims in his defense adding, if anything, it is he who feels insulted.

Criminal.az is an independent website covering predominantly crime-related stories. The website was blocked by the authorities in 2017, along with a number of other critical and independent news websites. It later began operating under the criminalaz.com domain, which was also blocked shortly after.

*Criminalaz.com, Fia.az, bastainfo.az and topxeber.az were blocked in Azerbaijan after the prosecutor’s office claimed these news websites misinformed their audiences and shared news of provocative nature that were untrue. [Turan News Agency]

**Since May 2017, over 20 websites have been blocked in Azerbaijan, among them: Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Azerbaijan Service) and its international service, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Azadliq Newspaper (independent of the Azadliq radio), Meydan TV, Turan TV and Azerbaijan Saadi (Azerbaijan Hour), OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Unit), abzas.net, obyektiv.tv, and others on the ground these outlets promoted violence, hatred, extremism, violated privacy or constituted slander.

***Websites blocked since then are blocked for slander and spreading misinformation. At some point, an editor of the blocked az24saat.org was asked to remove four articles that mentioned Ali Hasanov, now a former aide to President Ilham Aliyev. Monitortv.info, which was among the blocked websites, also received a note requesting the removal of articles mentioning Ali Hasanov on the grounds these stories contained slander and lies. [Open Democracy]

At the time of the verdict against the journalist Mammadov, several international journalism organizations, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media criticized the court’s decision.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Azerbaijani authorities to drop charges against Mammadov and pointing to the unfounded prosecution.

“Informing the general public about important events is what journalists do, and the authorities should support this work, and not punish reporters,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ Program Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia.

In June 2019, the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of Anar Mammadov.

Timeline

15 May 2019 – Mammadov summoned to the prosecutor’s office. This time the journalist was questioned over a story about the state oil company – SOCAR.

Meydan TV, an independent online news website covering Azerbaijan was also targeted. Although the website of Meydan.tv was blocked already in 2017, following the publication of stories about SOCAR, the website was heavily DDoSed.

9 July 2018 – Mammadov, questioned by the police. The journalist’s home was searched and his personal devices, including his laptop and phone, were seized by the police.

Mammadov was questioned after publishing reports on an attempt on the life of the mayor of Ganja, Elmar Valiyev, on 3 July.

24 July 2018 – Mammadov was summoned to the prosecutor’s office. The journalist was questioned about the publication of reports on the assassination attempt and was warned not to spread “investigative secrets”.

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!