Azerbaijan takes stock of Turkey’s social media law

In recent years, as social media platforms gained popularity among Azerbaijani users to express concern and criticize the ruling authorities, the government officials were quick to react. At several meetings of the national parliament, members voiced opinions about the need to control social media platforms.

In May the discussions were back on the table.

According to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, several members of the parliament and experts expressed discomfort over insult and slander often used on social media platforms.

Some of them were quick to offer amendments to existing national legislation, introducing punishments for such cases.

Fazil Mustafa, a member of the Human Rights Committee at the National Parliament said, while it is impossible to control social media platforms, using the Turkey example it is important that popular platforms and companies have legal representatives in Azerbaijan. This won’t be government control over social media platforms but rather a constructive partnership between the government and the companies’ representatives in the country.

This is not uncommon in countries with low democracy scores said media law expert Alasgar Mammadli. In these countries, the leadership is trying to introduce strict control measures under the pretext of protecting user rights and interests. “It is possible that like in Turkey where companies were forced to open offices, Azerbaijan would do the same. They may be asked to remove some personal information. Otherwise, they would be limited in their activities in the country or face fines,” said Mammadli in an interview with Azadliq Radio.

Alternatively, the authorities may consider introducing bans on some of the platforms but this won’t be effective according to Mammadli. “Experience shows that when Turkey blocked access to platforms like YouTube and Twitter, their user base only grew. Which means this may not be an effective method.”

Although, self-censorship is pervasive among ordinary social media users, who often face offline criminal charges for their online activism criticism of government policies and decisions on social media platforms is common and in some cases proven effective in changing the course of government decision-making.

Freedom House, Freedom on the Net, Azerbaijan country report 2019

In October 2018, a lawmaker proposed requiring internet users to register their social media accounts by linking them to their government-issued identity documents.

In February 2019, members of the parliament began discussing plans for new legislation. Musa Guliyev proposed creating a national social network and restricting access to all other platforms in order to “prevent people from slandering Azerbaijan.” Another member, Ziyafat Asgarov, suggested amending the Law on Mass Media to prevent social media users from insulting “the lawful actions, the personality, the honor or the dignity” of others. That same month, Aliyev signed a decree aimed at establishing a Social Research Center, which will monitor public opinion online, primarily through polling.

These statements came in the aftermath of a series of heated public discussions online. Among them was a campaign to drop newly leveled charges against imprisoned blogger Mehman Huseynov that would have extended his two-year sentence by an additional seven years. Huseynov went on hunger strike shortly after the new charges were announced, prompting an outpouring of support on social media under the hashtag #FreeMehman. In January 2019, thousands of people rallied in Baku to protest the government’s persecution of Huseynov. The rally, organized online, was among the country’s largest protests in recent years. The new charges were eventually dropped, and Huseynov was released in March 2019, after serving his two-year sentence.

Freedom House, Freedom on the Net, Azerbaijan country report, 2020

Following campaigns and rallies organized online in October 2019 and February 2020, the government indicated that it is interested in regulating platforms, with one lawmaker describing social media as an instrument for “moral terrorism.”In March 2020, one member of parliament proposed the creation of a dedicated body to monitor social media platforms and hold users who spread rumors accountable.

Azerbaijan already has laws in place criminalizing online speech. In 2013, general provisions on defamation and insult were expanded to include criminal liability for online content. Article 147.1 of the criminal code criminalizes the “dissemination, in … a publicly displayed internet information resource, of knowingly false information discrediting the honor and dignity of a person or damaging his or her reputation.” Article 148 of the criminal code similarly criminalizes “deliberate humiliation of the honor and dignity of a person, expressed in an obscene manner … through a publicly displayed internet information resource.” Also in 2016, changes to Article 323 of the criminal code introduced a maximum prison sentence of two years for defaming the president in mass media, which include social media. Defaming the president through fake “usernames, profiles, or accounts” may result in a three-year prison sentence. Falsely accusing the president of “having committed a serious or especially serious crime” online may result in a five-year prison sentence. In 2017, the fines associated with these offenses were increased.

Taking into account Azerbaijan’s human rights track record, the likelihood of new bills (especially those similar to Turkey) is not far-fetched.