editor of an online television channel disappears, then handed arrest [several other journalists detained]

Kanal11 editor Teymur Karimov first reportedly went missing on December 11. But the same day, the Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed Karimov’s whereabouts in a statement saying Karimov was detained and charged with extortion. The founder and director of Kanal11, Karimov, was sent to four months of pre-trial detention. 

If convicted, Karimov will face five years behind bars or fifteen with aggravated circumstances. 

Karimov was among scores of journalists rounded up in November and December, ahead of the snap presidential election that is taking place on February 7, 2024.

According to Kanal11, the real cause of Karimov’s arrest was his previous reporting on corruption in one of the regions of Azerbaijan.

Also on December 11, police arrested two more journalists – Ibrahim Humbatov of Azerinfo.az and Arshad Ibrahimov of Dunyaninsesi.az – on alleged extortion charges. Both journalists were sent into pre-trial detention pending trial.  

Separately on December 13, authorities arrested investigative journalist Hafiz Babali and sent him into three-month pre-trial detention on smuggling charges. 

The journalist was arrested as part of an ongoing investigation against Abzas Media.  

the saga with media registry continues in Azerbaijan [Update November 15, 2023]

[Update] Dia.az website was reportedly blocked inside the country following the court decision on November 15. The Media Development Agency filed the case with the court on November 10 [see the following update below]. The site’s manager considers the court’s decision unlawful. Zamanov told Meydan TV he will be appealing the decision. In an interview with Meydan TV, media expert Khalid Aghayev said, the court’s decision was baseless, adding, “It should not be possible to stop the work of a media outlet so easily. This is a clear violation of media freedom law.”

[Update] The media development agency takes the first media platform – Dia.az – to court. The reason, claims the agency, is that Dia.az failed to apply for registration with the agency. The site’s manager, Mahammad Zamanov, said Dia.az no longer operated as a media platform. The court case was filed on November 10, according to the reporting by an independent Meydan TV. 

The most recent online platform to join the list of rejected news platforms by the state media registry is Gündəm Xəbər. According to Meydan TV, the website’s admins were informed on September 25, that their application was rejected on the grounds the website failed to meet the requirement of publishing at least 20 articles per day as per Article 60.5 of the new law on Media adopted by the parliament in 2021, and approved by the president Ilham Aliyev in February 2022. 

At the time of its adoption, the new law was heavily criticized by local and international rights organizations who made repeated calls on the government to refrain from adopting the New Media Law given its restrictive nature. Critics of the draft law worried the new legal document would seriously threaten media freedom, including online media resources, as it contains provisions granting a discretionary power to the state, to regulate media excessively, especially online media, as well as introduce further restrictions on journalists’ work, media companies, and relevant entities. Critics were also vocal about the absence of a broad and meaningful public consultation of the law prior to its adoption.

According to the law on media, all online media outlets as well as journalists working for online media platforms or working as freelance journalists were ought to register with a new media registry system. This media registry system began to operate on October 14, 2022.

*For further reading read AIW’s legal overview and the implications of the new law here.

journalist removes social media posts under duress

A confession from journalist Elmaddin Shamilzadeh about the forced removal of social media posts under duress is a testament to persistent violence and intimidation used in Azerbaijan against civic groups. According to the reporting by Voice of America, Shamilzadeh was severely beaten by law enforcement during his detention last month. After the journalist agreed to remove all his social media posts on Facebook where he was critical of the police violence he was finally let go.

Shamilzadeh was filming protests in the village of Soyudlu. He was also able to take photographs of several police officers who used disproportionate force against village residents which were then published by Mikroskop Media.

Once the photographs were out, the journalist received a call from the state service for mobilization and conscription. The same day, he was taken from the courtyard of his home by two plain-clothed men. When the journalist tried using his phone, the two men grabbed his phone and taken to a local police station.

At the station police demanded Shamilzadeh to share the phone password which he refused to do. “When I said that I would not give them my password, one of the policemen punched me in the face,” the journalist recalled in an interview with Voice of America Azerbaijan Service. The beating continued despite the journalist’s requests to stop. “When I told them not to hit me in the face, they started cursing. From the blows, I fell to the floor.” The journalist was beaten by at least three officers. The violence was recorded by another officer in the room.

The physical violence forced the journalist to agree to remove all of the posts on Facebook about the police involved in the protest. Shamilzadeh used the opportunity when handed the phone back and posted “Torture” on his profile. Now, his friends and colleagues knew he was missing. According to the journalist, this also prevented the police from using further violence against him.

Instead of force, finally, the police started talking to the journalist. “They said that I can delete my posts myself. Then they will let me go. I thought it might be true, I picked up the phone and deleted the post with the word ‘torture’ and other posts about the police.”

But it did not stop there. After keeping the journalist for about an hour in some dark room, they brought him back to the officer of the operative who then threatened Shamilzadeh with rape.

The journalist caved and gave away his phone password. “When I handed over my phone the battery was almost fully charged, after two hours, when they finally returned my phone, the device was almost out of power. I don’t know what they did with my phone during those two hours,” said the journalist.

Shamilzadeh was also forced to sign a letter of confession where he apologized for his actions and vowed not to repeat the same mistakes. He was released afterward.

the trickery behind blocking news websites in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan started blocking access to independent news websites in 2017 [more on how this blocking has taken place here]. At the time, the state argued the reasons for blocking these websites were, calls aimed at “forcible change of the constitutional order,” “organization of mass riots,” and other illegal activities. In reality, these websites were considered independent and/or platforms affiliated with opposition parties. As a result, the decision to block them was based on legal claims that lacked evidence. This was further reflected in the review process when the decision to block these platforms was implemented. According to EHRAC, “no effective and independent review took place in the first instance decision to block access to the websites in 2017, and in subsequent appeals. The courts simply accepted the authorities’ allegations at face value and made no attempt to adequately consider or explain why the content was unlawful.”

The intentions behind the blocking decision were further reflected in subsequent actions taken by the Government of Azerbaijan against the online platforms. Such that, at the time of the first decision to block these websites for access in 2017, the Azerbaijani Government claimed these websites continued disseminating their content through VPN services or social media platforms and therefore the action taken against them did not cause significant changes to the published content. However, in February 2020, the Ministry of Transportation, Communications and High Technologies “requested the domestic courts to impose a ban on the applicants’ ability to share their content through VPN services and social media platforms.”

In a report published in February 2023, in partnership with OONI, we identified the blocking not only continued but expanded to blocking news websites from other countries as well as social media platforms [OONI measurements collected from Azerbaijan between January 2022 to February 2023]: 

  • Blocking of news media websites. Azerbaijan continues to block access to several independent news media websites. OONI data also suggests that some ISPs in Azerbaijan may have started blocking access to the Guardian on 25th December 2022.
  • Azerbaijan and Russia block each other’s news media. In early June 2022, Azerbaijan started blocking access to Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti media website. Since (at least) 7th June 2022, Russian ISPs have been blocking access to Azerbaijani news media websites (`haqqin.az`, `minval.az`, `oxu.az`, `ru.oxu.az`, `ru.baku.ws`). These blocks remain ongoing.
  • Temporary blocking of TikTok amid border clashes with Armenia. During the September 2022 border clashes, both Azerbaijan and Armenia blocked access to TikTok. While the TikTok block was lifted in Armenia by 21st September 2022 (only lasting about a week), the TikTok block remained in place in Azerbaijan until November 2022 (lasting about 2 months). 
  • Blocking of circumvention tool sites. Azerbaijan continues to block access to numerous circumvention tool websites, potentially limiting the ability to circumvent internet censorship in Azerbaijan. However, most OONI measurements suggest that tested circumvention tools (Tor and Psiphon) appear to be reachable.
  • Variance of censorship across networks. While most ISPs in Azerbaijan appear to adopt similar censorship techniques (as we continued to observe connection timeouts in most anomalous measurements across ASNs), different ISPs block access to different websites over time.

The intentional blocking and total control in the hands of the state in implementing these blocks were once again highlighted in June 2023 when co-rapporteurs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Jan Liddel-Granger and Liz Kristoffersen visited Azerbaijan. According to reporting by Meydan TV, throughout the visit of the co-rapporteurs access to blocked websites was restored. 

In the past, a similar temporary lifting of restrictions was observed in Azerbaijan during visits of international organizations. 

In Azerbaijan an online television channel temporarily suspends its work

An online television channel – Red Line Channel, temporarily suspended its work on May 5. According to the founder of the channel, Samira Gasimli, while the channel took a pause on its work a few months back, as the team was considering restructuring the format of its programs, the work of the team was put on a pause, when the team learned they were being moved from the office where it was located.

In an interview with Meydan TV, Gasimli said the timing of the eviction was surprising. According to Gasimli, the channel was planning to start daily live broadcasts as of May 1. This is when the team received the call from the landlord, who informed them they must vacate the office space as of May 1. 

Previously the team was evicted from a studio.

Gasimli told Meydan TV, the team was not looking for a new office given it was futile. Instead, they were trying to find another way.  

In March, AIW reported on a targeted digital attack against the channel’s social media accounts. 

Azerbaijan’s Media Registry leaves media platforms in limbo [Updated January 5, 2023]

[Update] The first media platform to take State Media Registry into court became the online news site, 24saat.org according to reporting by Meydan TV. The site was refused its registry on the grounds that the activities on the said news website were not regular. The site’s management claims the decision was unlawful. 


In Azerbaijan according to the new law on media that was adopted in January 2022 and approved by the President in February 2022, all online media outlets as well as journalists working for online media platforms or working as freelance journalists were ought to register with a new media registry system. This media registry system began to operate on October 14, 2022, according to reporting by Turan News Agency. The law itself was heavily criticized by the local civil society prior to its adoption, and many anticipated many of its restrictive features put in practice. AIW published this overview of the law in March 2022 describing some of its most problematic features including the media registry clause.   

According to the new law, Azerbaijan must establish a registry system of online media outlets and journalists working for online media platforms or working as freelance journalists. This and other additional provisions of the law raise a number of questions regarding the compliance of the law with the international standards on media freedom.

Article 62.1 reads that permission from state bodies is not required for setting up online media. But Article 62.2 requires that an online media entity must apply to the relevant executive authority (Media Registry) 7 days prior to the publication or dissemination of the relevant media material.  In other words, while there is no need to apply for creating an online media platform, there is a requirement to apply for a permit once the online resource becomes operational and starts publishing. Article 62.4 requires an additional opinion issued by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations before an online media focusing on religion and religious content is set up. In addition, Article 78.3 obligates online media to apply to the Media Registry within 6 months since the platforms become operational.

Article 60.5 requires online media to publish at least 20 articles per day to qualify as an online media platform.

Article 26 obligates the founder of the online media to be a citizen of the Azerbaijan Republic permanently residing in the Azerbaijan Republic. In case the founder is a legal entity, then the highest share (75 percent) in the authorized capital must belong to a citizen (citizens) of Azerbaijan permanently residing in the country.

The Cabinet of Ministers has been instructed to prepare regulation on the provision of registration at the Media Registry within 3 months as per presidential order “on the application of the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan ‘On Media’ and regulation of a number of issues arising from it” dated February 8, 2022. And Article 60 of the new law requires that online media outlets disclose their organizational information on their respective websites. Article 60.2 also requires online media to register with the tax authorities, and identify and appoint a person responsible for editorial.

Article 26.3 prohibits previously convicted individuals from setting up media platforms. The list of previous convictions is exhaustive including serious or especially serious crimes; crimes against public morality; persons whose convictions have not been expunged or revoked; including political parties (excluding print media); and religious organizations (excluding print media). Prohibiting religious and political organizations from establishing online media is a failure to comply with the international standards on the right to freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.

Importance of registering with the Media Registry for online media platforms

The Media Register is an electronic information resource managed by a Media Development Agency which is managed by the Supervisory Board consisting of the Chairman and 6 (six) members appointed by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In order to be registered at the Media Registry as a media entity (subject), a media entity can apply either as a legal entity or as a sole entrepreneur (Article 74).

Article 74.2 sets out a list of requirements journalists must comply with for their inclusion in the registry. These requirements include a degree in higher education as well as another number of different merit-based criteria. Article 74.2.5 requires that journalists obtain and provide an employment contract with a media entity. Individuals or freelance journalists must have a civil contract with at least one media entity registered at the Media Registry in order to be able to register at the media registry.

Those outlets who succeed at registering with the Media Register are issued certificates (which grant access to government events, press conferences and etc.), and journalists are issued press cards (valid for three years and subject to renewal upon request). Media entities, including online media outlets not included in this registry, will not be considered mass media, and subsequently, unable to hire journalists. Also, in case the online media platform is not registered by the registry, journalists who have contracts with these online media platforms, won’t be admitted to the Media Registry and won’t be issued press cards.

Registration with the Media Register is one of the main guarantees for the free operation of media outlets and journalists. For example, according to Article 72.6 of the Law, only media entities and journalists included in the Media Register may carry on with their work during military and/or state of emergency situations, in special operations against religious extremism, and in operations against terrorism.

In the absence of certificates issued exclusively by the register, journalists may also not be allowed to conduct polls on the streets.

These and other requirements as outlined in the law, create additional challenges for freelance journalists working (on contracts) with international media outlets or local online media outlets not registered with the Media Register.

Now, according to Turan News Agency, at least 15 online news platforms have been denied registry. Among them is 24saat.org – a news website that remains blocked in Azerbaijan according to AIW/OONI measurement reports. To bypass censorship, the founders of the website, created a new URL az24saat.org which according to the website’s director Vugar Gurjanly is still accessible. However, in an interview with Turan News Agency, Gurjanly lamented the registration process and getting it denied. Gurjanli believes the decision was not justified and aimed at eventually stopping the news site from working. “Our website meets all the necessary criteria,” Gurjanly told Turan News Agency. According to Article 78.3 of the new Media Law, active mass media must apply to the Agency within six months from the day the Registry starts working. In the event media fails to do so, or the information provided during the registration process is found incorrect the agency has a right to take the media to court. 

Speaking to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, media law expert, Khalid Aghaliyev said, the currently applied regulations on media platforms trying to register with the Agency are unconstitutional because according to the law, the registration regulations of the new law should apply to the media platforms established after the said law was adopted. “The media that existed prior to the adoption of the law should be registered automatically,” said Aghalyev. 

But this is not the only problem concerning media platforms. The law also demands that the media platform must publish at least 100 news items per week. But the agency already showing a biased approach to this specific regulation. According to Aghaliyev, a number of news sites that were registered have failed to meet the criteria, and yet those that have met the 100 items per week criteria have been denied registry. 

Articles 74.1.2 and 60.5 of the Law, define the criteria of published content as well as what the Media Agency means when it demands a continuity of activities. As such, media platforms applying for registration must demonstrate continuity in their work for at least 20 days a month and publish a minimum of 20 news items per day for their activity to be considered “continuous.” 

Those who have been denied the registry are now planning to appeal in local courts. According to information provided by the Media Agency, it has so far registered 100 media platforms, denied 15, and is reviewing 40 applications.

prosecutor’s general office warns online news platform

On September 22, Aziz Orujov, the director and founder of Kanal 13, an online television platform, was questioned by the Prosecutor’s General office, according to reporting by Meydan TV.  

In an interview with Meydan TV, Orucov said, the Prosecutor’s Office claimed, Kanal 13 published video items damaging the reputation of the Azerbaijani Army, and casting a shadow on the strengthening work of the state’s defense capabilities.

Orujov said the allegations were not true. 

The Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning to the channel’s director, based on the Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information and On National Security laws. The office also said the channel removed the videos in question.  

authorities in Azerbaijan are considering law on social media – critics say

A recent conference organized by the Prosecutor General’s office in Baku on the recent violations of media legislation has raised eyebrows among civil society. On August 10, an event, titled, “Freedom of the Media and Information Security of Society under the Increasing Influence of Social Networks,” was held at the General Prosecutor’s Office.  Among the guests were representatives of pro-government and government media, as well as GONGOs. According to reporting by Turan News Agency, representatives of independent media or independent media experts were not invited and those who did attempt to attend the event were kicked out, violating Articles 25 and 5o of the Constitution. 

During the event, Prosecutor General Kamran Aliyev said the Prosecutor’s Office was determined to continue taking measures against published content in the media as well as on social networks deemed harmful to national security, not corresponding to reality, and/or identified as violating the rights of citizens.

A number of citizens have received warnings over their social media posts in recent weeks. In a statement published 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. 

Among those in attendance, was the head of the Press Council, Aflatun Amashov, who proposed to set up a commission in partnership with the Prosecutor’s Office that would regulate the media. For what purpose remains unclear, especially when there is no legislation in Azerbaijan that gives the prosecutor’s office authority to engage on issues of media ethics, media professionalism, or content regulation. 

In May 2022, AIW published a legal analysis about content regulation in Azerbaijan. At the time, an uptick in cases in which social media users faced punitive measures by the Prosecutor’s General Office for their online activism indicated that the Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists, and media within the scope of laws on information and media. But continuing involvement of the Office in handing out fines and warnings may indicate that in addition to punitive measures, there is a plan to introduce legal measures on social media platforms. 

Khalid Aghaliyev, a media law expert, told Meydan TV in an interview that the most recent discussions are a sign that the state is mulling over creating a law to regulate social media platforms. Aghaliyev also criticized the proposal of the Press Council to set up a commission. Nowhere in the world, there are institutions set up to regulate media. “These issues are regulated by independent journalists’ unions and their recommendations. But in Azerbaijan, independent journalism and media are problematic. They must be free, in the first place to get used to regulating themselves,” explained Aghaliyev.

Similarly, the head of Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Osman Gunduz, in a Facebook post said, the event organized by the Prosecutor’s Office sets a dangerous precedent. “Such steps create risks for the freedom of the Internet, the development of social media, and freedom of expression in general,” wrote Gunduz. 

Another media law expert, Alasgar Mammadli, writing in a Facebook post, criticized both the Press Council and the newly created MEDIA agency for failing to speak up at the event. After all, each of these institutions is responsible for reforms in the media, wrote Mammadli, and yet they could not say, “Dear Prosecutor’s Office, the functions in this area have been entrusted to me by presidential decree, do not interfere,” wrote Mammadli. 

Parliament members in Azerbaijan discuss blocking Sputnik [update June 13]

[Update] On June 10, the editor-in-chief of Sputnik Azerbaijan, Antonava-Tryzno Veranika, had her local residency permit revoked according to reporting by Meydan TV. Olegovna, a citizen of Belarus, lived in Azerbaijan together with her husband, Pavel Antonava. The decision was made by the State Migration Service on June 6. The couple was denied their application for the residency extension and were given ten days to leave Azerbaijan. In a separate development, Roskomnadzor sent a warning letter to Azerbaijan’s Russian language 1news.az website with a demand that the website removes one of the articles about the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  

According to the editor-in-chief of 1news.az Kamala Mamedova, the letter claimed that the information resource (i.e., 1news.az) contained information distributed in violation of the law. The description of the information distributed in violation of the law was as follows: “Inaccurate socially significant information aimed at destabilizing the social and political situation in the Russian Federation.” Mamedova said, that information was taken from an official Ukrainian source and that’s what Roskomnadzor did not like. The editor said she responded to Roskomnadzor, thanking them for paying such close attention to their website and expressing her resentment “over why the media in Azerbaijan should follow incomprehensible laws of Russia, where wording undesirable to the Kremlin should be subject to sanctions.” 

Last month Russia’s chief media regulator – Roskomnadzor – blocked access to four Azerbaijan news websites. In retaliation, Baku is mulling over blocking Sputnik – Russia’s state-owned news platform active in Azerbaijan since 2015. By June 13, at least six Azerbaijan news sites were blocked by the Russian internet regulator– Roskomnadzor. 

In an address during a parliamentary session on April 26, Azerbaijan Parliament Member Vahid Ahmedov asked the State Agency for Media Support and the Press Council to block Sputnik on the territory of Azerbaijan in response to Russia blocking access to four Azerbaijan news websites last month. 

Responding to Ahmedov’s calls, the head of the Press Council, Aflatun Amashov said he welcomed the call, adding, “This agency disrupts objective and balanced report. That is why it is worth considering the future of this agency’s work in Azerbaijan,” reported Turan News Agency. 

In March, Roskomnadzor blocked access to minval.az, oxu.az, baku.ws, and haqqin.az in the absence of any explanation. Following the blocking, a group of Azerbaijani journalist organizations appealed to Roskomadzor to revoke its decision. “This decision [to block access] was taken without any information or warning to the editorial office of the portal […] We believe it is necessary to note that the government of Azerbaijan has never blocked Russian media outlets in those crucial times for its security, even during the second Karabakh war,” read the statement

Meanwhile, inside Azerbaijan, the local authorities continue blocking access to a number of independent news websites reporting on Azerbaijan. 

In a separate case, Russian authorities accused the PR director of Baku Magazine, sports journalist, Rovshan Askerov of “rehabilitating Nazism.” The Investigative Committee of Russia said, “the investigation established that no later than April 6, 2022, Askerov published on his Facebook page (banned on the territory of the Russian Federation) deliberately false information insulting and discrediting the memory of the great Russian commander and defender of the Fatherland, Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov.”

Baku magazine is the “brainchild” of Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, and according to the magazine’s website, “is a digital ‘magazine about everything’; it supports conservation and wildlife charities, and it’s also a hub for news, events, and features, from Azerbaijan and around the world.” The magazine is published by Darius Sanai and Condé Nast in London on behalf of Leyla Aliyeva, reads the further description on the magazine’s website. 

In his defense, Askerov said the allegations were “fictitious.”

The Facebook post the Russian authorities were referring to in their statement was indeed published by Askerov on April 6 [which Askerov has removed since then] in which Askerov, criticized the point of having the statue of Zhukov in the first place. According to Turan News Agency, if found guilty, Askerov is facing up to 5 million rubles in fines, or imprisonment for up to five years.

Askerov, is a dual citizen [even though according to Azerbaijani legislation, the country does not recognize dual citizenship.]

On May 11, according to reporting by Meydan TV, the Russian Ministry of the Interior issued a search warrant for Askerov. According to reporting by Turan News Agency, the Moscow court arrested Askerov in absentia on May 24. 

Toplum TV Facebook page hacked via SMS interception

On November 3, the founders of Toplum TV, an online news platform, said their Facebook page was hacked. Hackers(s) removed several videos, including one Toplum TV shared yesterday, which was a discussion with an opposition politician Ali Karimli. According to the founders who spoke to AIW, the hacker(s) accessed the page through another founder’s Facebook account, deleted videos, page likes, and changed the name of the page. At the time of reporting this story, the Facebook page was recovered.

In a Facebook post, Alasgar Mammadli, one of the founders of the platform explained in detail how the hacker(s) accessed Toplum TV’s Facebook page by compromising his personal account first.

Translation: This morning at 8.54AM local time, my Facebook account was compromised. The compromise was made possible using my personal mobile phone number. The hacker acquired access to personal information illegally. I only learned about what happened half hour later as I was stuck in city traffic, and had limited access both to my mobile phone and personal computer.  The compromise was made possible by intercepting an SMS sent to my mobile sim card. Meaning, messages sent to my mobile number, were used in parallel by technical supervisors overseeing the telecommunication system in accordance with telecommunication law. Having accessed my personal account [the hacker(s)] were able to access Toplum TV Facebook page, changing its name, [only] deleting archived videos of live debates with Popular Front and Musavat party leaders, and removing several thousand Page likes. Clearly, the reason behind what happened is political intervention. The absolute lack of tolerance to public debates on Toplum TV’s platform has reached such a level, that the perpetrators unafraid, have committed a criminal act prohibited by Articles 271, 272, and 273 of the Criminal Code. This compromise is an act of crime and a grave violation of freedom of speech, privacy, and security of personal data. I demand that serious investigation and preventive action be taken by relevant authorities working within the information security space.

Toplum TV encouraged its readers and followers in a tweet to support their page after hacking:

Translation: Toplum TV’s Facebook page was compromised and its name changed to their name “toplan”. To support independent media, like our Facebook page, and help restore deleted followers.

SMS interceptions are commonly used in Azerbaijan. Below, are a few excerpts from a recent report published by AIW in partnership with International Partnership for Human Rights on the topic: 

The interception of SMS exchanges remains an acute problem in Azerbaijan. In recent years, scores of political activists, journalists, rights defenders, and independent media platforms have had their social media accounts compromised. In many of these cases, those affected have had SMS notification enabled as two-step verification (2FA) procedure for accessing their Facebook accounts. As a result, when their accounts were compromised, they were unable to restore access to the accounts relying on traditional troubleshooting steps offered by social media platforms such as Facebook. Thus, they were unable to retrieve password reset codes sent by Facebook by SMS as their messages were intercepted by the operators, only to be passed on to the relevant government bodies. This experience shows that mobile companies have been involved in many of these attacks. However, none of the operators have taken the blame, so far. The earliest example of SMS surveillance goes back to 2009 when 43 Azerbaijanis voted for Armenia’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest through votes cast by SMS. A number of these people were summoned and questioned by the security services. In an interview with Azadliq Radio (the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), one of these televoters, Rovshan Nasirli said that the authorities demanded an “explanation” for his vote and told him it was a “matter of national security”. He told the service: “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like: ‘You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?’ They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go.” The authorities did not deny that they had identified and summoned people who voted for Armenia, and argued that they were merely trying to understand the motives of these people.

Three years after the Eurovision scandal, an investigative documentary aired on Swedish TV called ‘’Mission: Investigate” revealed how the Swedish telecommunications giant TeliaSonera, which at the time owned a majority stake of Azercell, allowed “black boxes” to be installed within their telecommunications networks in Azerbaijan from as early as 2008. These boxes enabled security services and police to monitor all network communication, including internet traffic and phone calls in real-time without any judicial oversight. The exposure of these black boxes explains the type of technology the government was deploying already at the time of Eurovision in 2009. The investigation aired by Swedish TV also confirmed that wiretaps were used as evidence in politically motivated cases.

In 2014, an OCCRP investigation revealed how mobile operators were directly passing on information about their users to the respective government authorities. In a country where the government enjoys unprecedented control over the ICT industry and where some of the key players in the market such as mobile operators and ISPs are affiliated with the government or its officials, the findings of the investigation were not at all surprising. The 2014 investigation quoted the director of the Media Rights Institute, Rashid Hajili as saying that both mobile companies and ISPs were obliged to provide special facilities to the Ministry of National Security (MNS)91 for surveillance purposes in accordance with existing legal provisions as explained earlier. In the case of mobile companies, no court approval was sought to eavesdrop on the conversations and SMS exchanges of their customers – a common practice to this day. One of the first accounts of collaboration between mobile companies and the government is that of journalist Agil Khalil. In 2008, Khalil was working on a story about the alleged involvement of MNS employees in corrupt land deals. After taking photographs for the story, he was approached by MNS agents and beaten. The journalist escaped from his attackers and managed to take photos of them. Khalil filed a complaint with the police, and an investigation was opened but eventually dropped, without the perpetrators having been prosecuted or even identified. Soon after turning to the police, the journalist realized that he was being followed. When he filed another complaint with the police about the surveillance, police again failed to follow up. A few days later, Khalil was subjected to a new attack: this time, an unknown assailant stabbed and injured him. Khalil again turned to the police, accusing both the MNS and the mobile operator Azercell (whose services he was using ) of being responsible for the attack. He argued that the operator had helped the MNS to track down his whereabouts, thereby facilitating the attack. The involvement of Azercell in the case became more evident when the operator provided a local court, which examined the journalist’s complaint, with alleged SMS exchanges between Khalil and a man named Sergey Strekalin, who the MNS claimed was Khalil’s lover and had stabbed the journalist out of jealousy. When Khalil’s lawyer requested access to these SMS exchanges, Azercell refused, which called into question the authenticity of these messages. Khalil left Azerbaijan the same year after another attempted attack against him and the continued failure of the authorities to hold his assailants accountable. He took his case to the ECtHR, as a result of which the Azerbaijani government made a so-called unilateral declaration (an official admission) before this court in 2015 that it had violated Khalil’s right to life, freedom from ill-treatment, and freedom of expression and agreed to pay 28 000 EUR in compensation to him. As the government made this admission, there was no ECtHR ruling on the case.

In September, Toplum TV reported it lost 16k followers on its Facebook page. Facebook failed to explain how and why this took place.