Azerbaijan’s desire to regulate online hate speech: What problems should Azerbaijan fix first?

This is part two in a series of detailed reports and analyses on existing legal amendments and new legislation affecting freedom of expression, media, and online rights in Azerbaijan and their compliance with international standards for freedom of expression.  

Background

On September 17, 2020, Zahid Oruc, member of the parliament and the head of the Human Rights Committee at the National Parliament, suggested parliament adopts a new law on hate speech. At the time, Oruc said the main goal was to prevent hate speech in the information space, possibly with the inclusion of social media platforms [several members of the parliament and government representatives have stressed that social networks should be regulated by law in Azerbaijan in recent years]. While stressing the urgency in adopting such a law, Oruc failed to address the exact nature of this urgency. In addition, likely in response to a possible backlash from the independent lawyers and civil society in Azerbaijan the MP said, the new bill, cannot be viewed “as a document against freedom of speech and expression”. Nevertheless, much of the responses that came following this announcement, were critical of the proposal especially in light of the legal context where plenty of other existing laws and procedures already address hate speech in one form or another.

In January 2020, the discussion on adopting the bill on hate speech was back on the agenda. Speaking at the first meeting of the spring session of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights the chairman of the committee Zahid Oruj noted that the spring session will focus on the analysis of world experience in the field of defamation and “hate speech” legislation.

But what about the analysis of Azerbaijan’s experience in the field of defamation? 

In Azerbaijan, a number of conceptual elements of hate speech are envisaged in the different normative legal acts, including in the Code of Administrative Offences, Criminal Code, the law on Information, informatization and protection of information and Law on Mass-Media.  In other words, several Azerbaijani laws include measures that are designed to address unacceptable online content (including hate speech), ranging from removing content, and making content temporarily inaccessible on the information-telecommunication network.

According to Article 47 of the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, everyone has the right to freedom of thought and speech. Agitation and propaganda, inciting racial, national, religious, social discord and animosity, or relying on any other criteria is inadmissible. Azerbaijan has also ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (hereinafter “ECHR”) where Article 10 provides that everyone has the right to freedom of expression.

Azerbaijan’s history is rich with examples where existing laws, were abused to restrict freedom of expression, and the national legislation so far failed to comply with international human rights standards with respect to the safety of the media workers or citizens who exercise their right to freedom of expression. That and the lack of independent judicial oversight over the restrictions to freedom of expression and thought post additional challenges in a current environment.

In 2017, when changes were made to the law on combating religious extremism, two prominent members of the Popular Front Party were arrested relying on the existing legislation, even though it was clear, it was a setup, as neither of the activists had any religious affiliation. In January 2017, a Baku court convicted senior opposition Popular Front member Fuad Gahramanli to 10 years in jail for inciting religious and ethnic hatred. Gahramanli was known for his criticisms of the government on Facebook. In July 2017 a court convicted Faig Amirli, another Popular Front member and financial director of the now-closed pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, on bogus charges of inciting religious hatred and tax evasion. Amirli was handed a suspended sentence.

Four out of seven alerts in 2019 related to detention. Despite the March 2019 release of some wrongfully imprisoned journalists, including anti-corruption blogger Mehman Huseynov, the detention and harassment of journalists continue to this day.

During the height of the pandemic in Azerbaijan, the parliament introduced a series of amendments to existing laws that were then used to prosecute activists. Scores of activists were rounded up, including members of the opposition Popular Front [some of these arrests were captured here]. 

The government of Azerbaijan has consistently ignored the international calls, including the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) requiring Azerbaijan to reform its domestic legislation with respect to freedom of expression and media rights in order to ensure that it is in line with the international standards. Instead of reforms, the government of Azerbaijan has aggravated the criminal liability for defamation and expanded the scope of the criminal liability to the online spaces (2016 amendments to the Criminal Code), adopted a criminal liability for extremist views on vague grounds, and established administrative liability for spreading false information.

These developments were contrary to the ECtHR’s findings in the Fatullayev, Mahmudov, and Agazade v. Azerbaijan cases (2008) where the Court found that application of provisions of the criminal law on defamation had been contrary to Article 10 of the Convention and the Council of Europe calls to the Member States that prison sentences for defamation should be abolished without further delay [Resolution 1577 (2007) of the Parliamentary Assembly, Towards decriminalization of defamation, to which the Strasbourg Court has referred on a number of occasions].

The country’s poor ranking on most of the rights and freedoms indexes attest to the grave reality in the country. It was also reflected in a statement issued following the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović’s visit to Azerbaijan in July 2019 where the Commissioner said, “Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan continued to be under threat”.

The key state obligations while regulating the online hate speech and general concerns for the Azerbaijani context

Despite the term “hate speech” widely used in legal, policy-making, and academic circles, there is often disagreement about its scope and about how it can best be countered [Dr. Tarlach McGonagle. The Council of Europe against online hate speech: Conundrums and challenges, p. 3.]

There is no international legal definition of hate speech, and the characterization of what is ‘hateful’ is controversial and disputed. However, in 1997 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a Recommendation (No. R (97) 20) on hate speech which stated the term (non-binding) “shall be understood as covering all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin”. 

In its case law the European Court of Human Rights, without adopting a precise definition, has regularly applied this term to forms of expression that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred founded on intolerance, including religious intolerance.

Key concerns for the abusive application of the hate-speech regulations

There have been growing concerns in many countries that hate speech regulations (both online and offline) are often misused or result in a violation of freedom of thought and expression. To this end, many international human rights organizations have often emphasized raising concerns on this matter and issued general recommendations, and developed standards for the regulation of hate speech to ensure that such regulations are in line with international human rights standards.

As noted, hate speech has threatened freedom of expression in many countries. Despite the importance “to prevent all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance …,” [Erbakan v. Turkey judgment of 6 July 2006, § 56] the presence of hate speech constitutes a serious threat for the freedom of expression in the process of potentially limiting the expression as such.

On May 13, 2020, Freedom of expression organization ARTICLE 19 has warned that France’s new “Avia” Law, will threaten freedom of speech in France. When a draft bill on hate speech was discussed in France, the French government has ignored the concerns raised by digital rights and free speech groups, and the result will be a chilling effect on online freedom of expression in France”. Consequently, on June 18, 2020, the French Constitutional Council (Conseil constitutionnel) the highest constitutional authority in France, declared that the majority of the Law on Countering Online Hatred, more commonly known as the Avia Law, was unconstitutional. This declaration rendered the key provisions in the law invalid. In its decision, the Constitutional Council held that certain provisions infringe “on freedom of speech and communication, and are not necessary, appropriate and proportionate to the aim pursued”.

The international human rights law provides that states may restrict freedom of expression (only) where provided by law with the condition to meet the principles of legality or necessity and proportionality.

Alongside these principles, an effective judicial review is needed to prevent any abuses of laws capable to restrict freedom of expression. The judicial review of such a measure, based on a weighing-up of the competing interests at stake and designed to strike a balance between them, is inconceivable without a framework establishing precise and specific rules regarding the application of preventive restrictions on freedom of expression [Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey, § 64; Cengiz and Others v. Turkey, § 62, which concerns the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas; see also OOO Flavus and Others v. Russia, §§ 40-43]. Furthermore, in some cases, for determining the proportionality, the ECtHR assesses the quality of the parliamentary and judicial review of the necessity of the measure [Animal Defenders International v. the United Kingdom [GC], §§ 108-109].

The First and foremost among these safeguards is the guarantee of review by an impartial decision-making body that separate from the executive and other interested parties.

The UN Special Rapporteur notes that “any restriction imposed must be applied by a body that is independent of political, commercial or other unwarranted influences in a manner that is neither arbitrary nor discriminatory, and with adequate safeguards against abuse” (A/67/357, para. 42).

This is not the case in Azerbaijan. For instance, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies is the main body regulating the internet in Azerbaijan, something that experts have called to change and share this role with an organization that is not under state control. The ICT market is also fairly concentrated in the hands of the government.

In its report (A/74/486, 9 October 2019), the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression evaluates the human rights law that applies to the regulation of online “hate speech” and notes that any restriction – and any action taken against speech should meet the conditions of legality, necessity, and proportionality, and legitimacy [Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, A/74/486, 9 October 2019), para. 20] and to establish or strengthen independent judicial mechanisms to ensure that individuals may have access to justice and remedies in case of restrictions. The Special Rapporteur further notes that “as a first principle, States should not use Internet companies as tools to limit expression that they themselves would be precluded from limiting under international human rights law. [para, 29]. In the meantime, the same Recommendation envisages a principle [third principle] that requires from the governments that interference with freedom of expression, in the context of combating hate speech, are narrowly circumscribed and applied in a lawful and non-arbitrary manner on the basis of objective criteria and must be subject to independent judicial control.

In addition to discussions on adopting the law on Hate Speech, there are also plans to adopt a new law on Media at the moment. The consistent view of the government to regulate social networks with the “hate speech” law poses an additional risk to the systematically undermined freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. There is no guarantee that Azerbaijan’s government will not use lex ferenda regulations as a tool of oppression against its political opponents and civil society.

Without genuine consultations with civil society organizations, independent journalists, disregarding the constant calls of the human rights organizations and ECtHR judgments to reform the domestic laws to remove irrelevant and restrictive frameworks over freedom of expression, new hate speech, and media laws should be taken into account as a serious concern [Dr. Tarlach McGonagle. The Council of Europe against online hate speech: Conundrums and challenges, p. 29].

Instead of addressing the systematic shortcomings, in particular, rendering the restrictive legal frameworks in the sphere of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and thought, and internet freedom, the government of Azerbaijan continues to add more restrictive regulations into its legislation that is likely to undermine last remnants of the freedom of expression – the online spaces.

In addition, while in a hurry to pass restrictive legislation against freedom of expression, the government of Azerbaijan remains inactive when it comes to the effective investigation of the smear campaigns and hateful attacks against minority groups, such as LGBTQ- communities, and feminists

Finally, having reviewed the current environment of repression and crackdown, and specifically, in the absence of effective judicial oversight and a fully independent regulatory body accountable to the public, it can be concluded that there is no urgency for any new regulations at the moment in Azerbaijan.

fresh media reforms raise concern [updated]

On January 12, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree “on deepening media reforms in the Republic of Azerbaijan.” As a result, the newly established Azerbaijani Agency for Media Development will replace the State Support Fund for Mass Media Development and will have all the rights of the former institution. In tandem, new media law is also being drafted by the Administration of the President for the President’s review in two months.

The decree was welcomed by many mouthpiece media, including the SES [Voice] media group. Its director, Bahruz Guliyev said, there was a need for fundamental reforms, transparency, and public demand. “Since the Azerbaijani law on mass media fails to meet the demands of the time, it requires to be revised, should be improved, and one of the main tasks of the new body is to develop a draft law ‘On media’ replacing the outdated law,” he added.

Guliyev has been a long advocate of the government of Azerbaijan. SES was established in 1991. In 2015, Guliyev in an interview with YAP [Yeni Azerbaijan Partiyasi – the ruling New Azerbaijan Party] said, the platform had a tough path having survived the “pressure and censorship from the government.” The reason for the pressure faced in the hands of the government claimed Guliyev was that “the newspaper was writing about Azerbaijani realities.”

Two years prior, Guliyev was shouting at ODIHR representative in the aftermath of the rigged presidential election in Azerbaijan accusing ODIHR of having prepared the entire preliminary statement long before coming to Azerbaijan. Just two months earlier, Guliyev was among the recipients of a free apartment by President Aliyev in the new government-built residential complex for journalists. 

The charter

The Media Development Agency is a public legal entity carrying out activities to support the development of media, organise the training of media specialists and their additional education, stimulate the activities of audiovisual, print, online media and information agencies (media subjects), journalists and other media workers, as well as the introduction of new information and communication technologies and innovations in the field of media.

The agency’s tasks include organising the implementation of projects that are important for the state and society, aimed at developing, strengthening economic independence and improving the activities of these media entities, as well as in accordance with the “Concept of state support for the development of the media in the Republic of Azerbaijan.” The organisation also takes measures to strengthen the economic independence of media entities, creates financial support for the development of media, acts as a state customer for the production and distribution of audiovisual products, and holds competitions for this purpose.

Punitive measures

According to its charter, the agency can take measures to protect state and commercial secrets. In case of non-compliance with the information published in the online media within the requirements provided by law, the agency can contact the relevant authorities in order to take measures in this regard.

It also has the authority to take measures in accordance with the Code of Administrative Offenses in case of detecting signs of an administrative violation in the field of print and online media, and in case of detection of signs of a crime – to provide information to the appropriate authority [the powers are similar to the National Council on Television and Radio which can and has in the past deprive radio and television companies of air hours]. 

It will also be accountable to the head of state.

The agency’s governing bodies – a Supervisory Board of six members – and the executive director, are appointed by the head of state. Ahmed Ismayilov, is the executive director of the new fund. In April 2020, he was appointed the executive director of the now defunct Media Development Support Fund. Ismayilov, 40, is a lawyer by education. Previously he has worked in various government institutions, including the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, managed by the first lady and the first vice president Mehriban Aliyeva. He is a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party. 

Previously, the central executive body supervising the media in Azerbaijan was abolished when the country joined the Council of Europe in 2001.

Reactions

In his Op-ed, the director of Turan News Agency, Mehman Aliyev wrote

Until now, the press supported by the state legally and illegally, has served the interests of the authorities, but not society; it has led to a deplorable situation in various areas, including the media themselves.

In the meantime, notes Aliyev, while the new fund’s focus is on technological aspects of media development there is no mentioning of protection of free press whatsoever. Lack of avenues for independent media in the country and impunity is the challenge, not the lack of technological equipment notes Aliyev.

Alasgar Mammadli, the media law expert, criticized the new agency’s broad, it’s vaguely defined legal powers and the absence of any wider preliminary discussions in the society ahead of its approval.

In an interview with ASTNA, lawyer Khalid Aghaliyev said while it is too early to say anything about the new agency, the role its predecessor played in Azerbaijan, should not be underestimated: 

State Support Fund for the Development of Mass Media, established 11 years ago, was one of the institutions that played a key role in controlling the media in Azerbaijan. This organization gradually began to penetrate the media in 2009 and was able to make the print media almost completely dependent on it in a short time. 

[…]

The image of this Fund, especially in the last 2-3 years, was seriously damaged, and its main mission was fully exposed. In this regard, it was entirely expected that the government would liquidate the Fund or present it in a new image. Therefore, I do not see a serious difference in principle between the abolished and the newly created institution. The new body will likely carry out the same mission as the Fund in reality. 

[…]

Powers such as punishment with regard to the content and directing the content are very dangerous. Empowering an institution created by the state with such powers is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. Legislation already delineates the boundaries of freedom of expression, and any other interference is unacceptable.

Two days after the decree was signed, Vugar Safarli, the former fund’s executive director [Ahmed Ismayilov’s predecessor] who was dismissed from his post in April 2020, was arrested on charges of embezzlement. During the investigation, the prosecutor’s office seized some 6million AZN [3.5million USD] from Safarli’s personal bank accounts. Safarli was expelled from the ruling party on February 15. 

Now, the critics, and media practitioners must wait until the new media law is drafted. Given the country’s recent history of media crackdown, the chances of having transparent legislation are slim, while its implications worrying.