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 Among some of the factors contributing to this ranking are outdated infrastructure, state control over information and communication technology, government manipulation of the online information landscape, presence of blocked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. 

Azerbaijan among top VPN users worldwide according to recent reports

Azerbaijan ranked among the top countries where VPN services were in high demand last year between September and November during the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to Proprivacy and NordVPN research “global events in 2020 have caused surges in VPN demand, as citizens from Belarus to Hong Kong set out to secure their online privacy and protect themselves from censorship and persecution for their online activities.” Azerbaijan was among the top ten countries where interest in VPN providers spiked in 2020.

Source: https://proprivacy.com/privacy-news/vpn-spikes-2020

“In late September, as the violent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia continued to escalate over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies of Azerbaijan took action to restrict internet access across the country. Extensive social media restrictions were put in place that took down major communications services, including: Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Zoom, Skype, Messenger,” said the joing report.

In a different report Azerbaijan was once again among the top countries where the biggest increase of VPN usage was recorded. “On September 29, NordVPN saw online privacy tool usage increased by 148 times due to internet access restrictions,” said the report. 

Not surprisingly, NordVPN, a Lithuanian by origin, was among the top targeted providers by pro-government media outlets, which said the service was owned by Armenians and therefore users in Azerbaijan should avoid using this provider.  

Finally, Surfshark, analyzed 185 countries and their social media blocking practices from 2015 to the present day. There Azerbaijan is ranked among the most recent cases of social media blocking [Surfshark too was discredited by Azerbaijan media outlet as being allegedly owned by Armenians, even though the company is registered in BVI. You can check out it’s ranking here.] 

Source: https://surfshark.com/social-media-blocking

On November 10 Azerbaijan and Armenia signed an agreement to end the active phase of fighting. On November 12, the government lifted the blocking and access to all social media platforms.  

For disruptions observed throughout the 44 days read this timeline. For the country ranking in Internet Freedom, you can read the most recent report on Net Freedom by Freedom House here.

Azerbaijan not free in Freedom on the Net annual report

Azerbaijan ranked “not free” in this year’s Freedom House, Freedom on the Net report. Among key factors are the overall infrastructural challenges, a monopoly over ISPs, and distributed Internet traffic, state control over the information and communication technology, blocked access to most websites that host unfavorable news coverage, and new forms of restrictions introduced during COVID-19. 

According to the report, there is an overall decline in internet freedoms across the world:

Global internet freedom has declined for the 10th consecutive year: 26 countries’ scores worsened during this year’s coverage period, while 22 countries registered net gains. The largest declines occurred in Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan, followed by IndiaEcuador, and Nigeria. A record number of countries featured deliberate disruptions to internet service.

On the bright side, countries like Sudan and Ukraine experienced the largest improvements, followed by Zimbabwe find the report. And while Iceland was the top performer China was found to have the worst conditions for internet freedom. 

The report highlighted some new trends that have emerged globally: 

[…] this year Freedom on the Net observed intentional disruptions to connectivity in a record 22 out of 65 countries. Many of these disruptions, including Iran’s November 2019 countrywide blackout and shutdowns in Moscow in August and September 2019, were directly precipitated by protests. Such practices are an ultimate expression of contempt for freedoms of association and assembly, as well as for the right to access information.

Azerbaijan was ranked partly free last year. 

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!

Azerbaijan ranked “not free” in a new report by Freedom House

On November 5, Freedom House released the new edition of Freedom on the Net report. The report ranks 65 countries.

According to 2019 Freedom on the Net report, Azerbaijan was downgraded to “not free” scoring 39 out of 100.

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.

Read the report.