Azerbaijan’s Media Registry leaves media platforms in limbo

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. 

In Azerbaijan journalist gets 15 days in prison over a Facebook post

Anar Abdulla was sentenced to 15 days in prison over a Facebook post, according to OC Media reporting. But the charges pressed against the journalist accuse Abdulla of hooliganism and disobeying the police – the most common charges used against civic activists in Azerbaijan.

On September 14, Abdulla wrote a short post on his personal Facebook profile accusing the heads of administrative offices, of deceiving President Ilham Aliyev, while the people pay the price for it.

According to OC Media, the journalist was summoned to the police on October 5 for a “preventive conversation” however Abdulla was handcuffed and detained. The hearing that took place on October 6, where the journalist was sentenced to 15 days was closed to the local press. 

Speaking to OC Media, Abdulla’s lawyer, Zibeyda Sadigova, said, her client denied both charges. During the hearing, police alleged that the journalist disobeyed police orders and used profane language against the officers. Police pressed charges against the journalist as a result.  

In addition to hooliganism and disobeying police, politically motivated criminal charges used against civil society representatives include drug possession and illegal business activity. 

Journalist from an online TV channel beaten

On September 28, Avaz Hafizli, a journalist from an online news platform Kanal13 was harassed and beaten by the local security guards while covering the opening of a new restaurant in the capital of Baku. 

Hafizli, arrived at the opening of Deyirman restaurant but was quickly stopped by the security guards. According to reporting by Turan News Agency, Hafizli asked the security guards to confirm whether the newly opened restaurant indeed belonged to the head of Yasamal administrative district, a government official and why ordinary citizens were not allowed in   

Hafizli was live-streaming the encounter but the stream ended abruptly after the security guard resorted to violence. 

The journalist told Turan News Agency that he was taken inside the garden of the restaurant where after guards’ attempt to bribe him, the exchange turned violent. 

Hafizli called for help and managed to call the police. At the police station, the two sides wrote their individual statements but even there, Hafizli told Turan News Agency the restaurant representative kept threatening the journalist. 

The following day, Hafizli went to a hospital where after a medical check-up he was told that his arm was broken. 

The journalist complained to the Ministry of the Interior asking for an investigation and due punishment in the case of the perpetrators of the attack and the subsequent injury. 

Kanal 13 is an online video news platform broadcasting from its YouTube channel to its close to a million subscribers. The channel was created in 2008. 

In 2014, Kanal 13 was subject to a government launched an investigation that was targeting all independent, international, and opposition civil society organizations, including organizations as IREX and Kanal 13. At the time, the manager and founder of the channel Anar Orucov (brother of Aziz Orucov) were in charge of the office and the channel.

As part of the country-wide crackdown, Kanal 13 office was searched, documents confiscated. Fearing persecution, Anar Orucov fled the country with his family with the support of an international organization while Aziz Orucov stayed behind to continue managing the channel and the projects.

Kanal 13 has also been subject to online attacks. In March of 2017, a report released by Amnesty International, “False Friends- how fake accounts and crude malware targeted dissidents in Azerbaijan” detailed how Kanal 13 was among those targeted when its internal communications were accessed for over a week.

Two months later, the channel’s director Aziz Orucov was detained and later rearrested while the office of the channel was searched and equipment was confiscated.

On February 11, 2020, a suspended sentence against Aziz Orucov, editor of the platform, was dropped by the Baku Court of Appeal.

Orucov was arrested during the criminal investigations against non-governmental organizations in Azerbaijan. He was arrested in 2017, but released in 2018 on a suspended sentence. The sentence was until February 2021.

Orucov took over the managing of the platform after his brother Anar Orucov fled the country in 2014 amid threats of persecution.

The platform’s website kanal13.tv is on the list of blocked websites according to the most recent OONI measurements. 

Earlier in September Hafizli reportedly chained himself to the gate of the Prosecutor General’s Office. The action was taken in protest of government inaction against homophobic incitement by blogger Sevinj Huseynova, whose recent videos in which the blogger openly calls for violence against trans community members have gone viral. Hafizli who is a member of the LGBTQI+ community in Azerbaijan attempted suicide on September 5 as a result of Huseynova’s videos. 

Hacks and compromised accounts continue to target journalists and activists in Azerbaijan [updated September 13]

Account compromise, website hacks, DDoS attempts, phishing are just a handful of tactics used to target journalists, rights defenders, and activists in Azerbaijan. 

Here is a list of new cases: 

Earlier in July, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported a phishing attack that targeted some of the civil society activists. Following a forensic investigation carried out in partnership with Qurium, it was possible to confirm that the email was indeed a virus. According to preliminary conclusions, “the e-mail included a link to malware, with the capability of webcam and Desktop recording, execution of windows commands (WMI) as well as extraction and uploading of selected files from the victim’s computer.

Then the civil society was targeted with another phishing, this time the sender pretended to be the National Endowment for Democracy inviting recipients of the email to apply for a Pegasus Grant. 

Preliminary forensic results indicated that the malware sent around in this email was similar to a phishing campaign from 2017, that was widely covered and reported by Amnesty International: 

The victims and targets identified, as well as the political theme of bait documents, indicate that the campaign is largely targeting human rights activists, journalists, and dissidents. This campaign also aligns with findings by VirtualRoad.org in their report, “News Media Websites Attacked from Governmental Infrastructure in Azerbaijan”, which links some of the same network address blocks with “break-in attempts” and “denial of service attacks” against several independent media websites

The malware that was observed is not sophisticated, and is in some manner extremely crude. However, combined with social engineering attempts and an unprepared public, these tactics can remain effective against many targets.

The same month, Azerbaijan Internet Watch received confirmation that the former political prisoner, Tofig Yagublu’s Facebook profile was subject to numerous hacking attempts. 

In early August, former leader of the opposition Musavat party, Isa Gambar reported that all of his social media accounts were compromised including his Facebook profile, Facebook page, and Instagram account. 

The hackers, who took hold of Gambar’s Facebook profile, changed settings, recovery emails, and an affiliated phone number, and have since then shared irrelevant posts. 

On August 27, the website for popular platform HamamTimes was hacked. The team behind the platform, reported all of its content removed, suspecting that the hackers used the site’s vulnerability as a result of weak security protocols in place. So far, HamamTimes, managed to restore all of the website’s archive of stories however its hosting remains vulnerable to new targeting. 

HamamTimes was targeted before as reported by Azerbaijan Internet Watch in a mass phishing attack. 

On September 4, editor of anews.az news website, Naila Balayeva, reported that her Facebook account was compromised. The hacker switched the email account and the phone number originally registered for the profile. Although Balayeva was able to restore access to her email and change the emails, according to the journalist, the hacker continues to use Facebook as the owner often deleting posts that are critical either of the police or the government institutions.  

Anews.az and Balayeva were targeted before. Last year, several Facebook pages affiliated with the website were hacked. 

While it was possible to provide assistance in some of the cases, the response from platforms like Facebook, especially in the case of Gambar has been slow and at times, comical. So far, twice, the platform requested new emails not associated with the platform or any of its apps and twice, Gambar sent proof of identity.  

[Update] On September 9, political activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev was reportedly threatened by Baku Police Chief Alekper Ismayilov over a Facebook post, that Hajiyev wrote the same day. The post, Hajiyev wrote on Facebook was addressing the Ministry of the Interior, specifically the Minister of the Interior, Vilayat Eyvazov. The activist alleged the ministry was delaying a response to his complaint submitted 50 days ago over a street hooligan. 

[From Hajiyev’s post on Facebook published on September 9, 2021] Instead of investigating why my Ministry of the Interior cannot question street hooligan, who is refusing to speak to them, humiliating police officers who show up at [the hooligan’s] home, Vilayat Eyvazov is going after me for reminding [the Ministry] of my complaint and is threatening me with arrest, death and blackmailing.  

The activist told Turan News Agency that he was summoned to the police on September 9 where Baku Police Chief, Alekper Ismayilov allegedly told Hajiyev less he removes the Facebook post, the activist would face a greater punishment than arrest. 

On September 12, Gubad Ibadoglu, Azerbaijani academic, and an economist reported that his Facebook profile and page were compromised. In an interview with Turan News Agency, Ibadoglu said despite his attempts to strengthen the security of his accounts, they were compromised anyway. “I got a message this morning that my password was changed using my own computer. This means that the hackers of the Azerbaijani government, even in London,” Ibadoglu told Turan. The fact that he received a notification informing him that his computer was the device from which the passwords were changed, means the device was infected with a virus containing some form of keylogger. It won’t be the first time, this type of information extraction is used to target Azerbaijani civil society. 

[Update] In September, online news platform Toplum TV, reported it lost 16k followers on its Facebook page. 

new report documents a decade of censorship in Azerbaijan

On July 16, Qurium Media Foundation released a report, “A Decade of Efforts To Keep Independent Azerbaijani Media Online”. 

The report highlights the work carried out by Qurium since 2010 assisting targeted independent and opposition online news platforms in Azerbaijan. “For more than a decade, Qurium has monitored and mitigated a wide range of cyberattacks against the websites and since 2016, no less than twenty forensics reports have been released to document our findings,” reads the new report.

Denial of Service attacks

During five years (2010-2015), Qurium mitigated dozens of denial of service attacks against Azerbaijani media, and was forced to invest in mitigation hardware and to increase its Internet capacity. Commercial mitigation of denial of service was not possible for Azeri media organizations as the average cost for such services was close to 1,000 Euro/month for a small website.

During 2014-2016, several corporate efforts made Denial of Service more difficult for the attackers, both Cloudflare (2014) and later Google (2016) started to offer free protection to journalists and human rights groups and many stress testing services (aka “booters”) since then were dismantled by FBI, such as the infamous VDOS Booter and the Mirai botnet.

After three years of research of development (2014-2017), Qurium built its own mitigation hardware and upgraded its Internet capacity by a factor of 200. Although the Denial of service attacks slowly had decreased since 2017, new challenges emerged. Internet Network Interference.

Internet Network Interference

In late 2013, a new type of challenge emerged when we discovered that websites artificially were slowed down. Instead of blocking the websites that clearly would expose the motivations and those responsible for the disruptions, the websites were slowed down by limiting the amount of bandwidth available to reach them. Qurium was forced to develop a method to detect “Internet Congestion” and to keep moving affected websites to other IP addresses to keep them online. Other large providers, such as Akamai, hosting other Azeri media was also slowed down and was unable to respond effectively to the challenge.

Exposing a coordinated cyberwar strategy

Starting from 2017, the cyberwar landscape changed. 

During that year, we received customized denial of service, pen testing and vulnerability scans and the first reports of targeted malware.

A series of diverse attacks and forensics analysis including tracing back the source of a malware sent to journalists helped us to confirm that new Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies and the “hacker community” built around the government, sponsored cybersecurity events were actively targeting our hosted media.

After hosting and protecting Azeri media for almost seven years, we had no doubt about the actors behind the attacks, and could publicly document that a “State Actor” was orchestrating diverse forms of cyber attacks.

Deep Packet Inspection

Also in 2017, a new method used against independent and opposition media was identified by Qurium – the Deep Packet Inspection or shortly DPI. 

In April 2017, we identified that new technical means were implemented in several operators to block some of the websites. The Azeri authorities had invested in Deep Packet Inspection equipment to block the media outlets once and for all.

By the end of April 2017 Qurium learned that there were a court order against some of our hosted media organizations. To our surprise, the websites under Deep Packet Inspection were many more than the ones mentioned in the court order. The court order stated that the listed websites (Azadliq.info, Azadliq.org, Azerbaycansaati.com, Meydan.tv and Turan TV) were “creating threats to the legitimate interests of the state and society” and must therefore be blocked.

After two years of research between 2017-2019, Qurium identified the use of DPI hardware from Allot Communications and Sandvine inside several operators in Azerbaijan.

Website flooding, phishing, and more

By 2018, many of the “stress testing services” often used to launch the Denial of Service attacks had been dismantled world wide. The attackers were forced to find new alternatives to conduct their traffic floods aiming to take the websites offline. During another forensic investigation we traced back this new source of denial of service to Russian Fineproxy (Region40). By identifying the service provider used to conduct the attacks, we could not only expose their business practices but also their management that kindly disabled the account of the attacker.

In late 2018, Denial of Service became a second priority in the strategy to harass Azeri media and once again other means were needed.

By April 2020, Qurium could finally link the denial of service attacks launched using Fineproxy service with the very same threat actor from the Ministry of Internal Affairs: sandman. Access to sandman github account provided us with a good insight of the toolset that was being used against online media and journalists in Azerbaijan.

A final report of our findings showed even more advanced capabilities, like the ability to create fake SMS or hijack SMS sent to the journalists giving the attackers the ability to take control over their social media accounts.

Phishing remains a major attack vector against journalists and human right activists, the latest phishing campaign in early July 2021 impersonated human rights watch so as to implant a malware capable of recording the desktop and webcam or exfiltrate all important documents of the victims.

Conclusion

What started in 2010 and went on for years with Denial of service attacks using third party stress testing services was extended with more sophisticated attacks in 2017 including targeted phishing and the introduction of dedicated hardware to block the websites using technologies as DART from Allot and PCEF from Sandvine.

The national blocking of many websites, not always supported by legal court orders, has been weaponized to limit visibility of the media in the country. Despite our multiple efforts to provide alternatives to make the content available, the blocking has had a huge impact in the revenue creation of the alternative media and the growth of readership.

After the introduction of Internet blocking by means of more sophisticated deep packet inspection against alternative websites in 2018, many of the blocked media opted to increase their presence in Facebook but that has proven to be an advantageous situation for the Azeri government and their secret cyber operations as Facebook has showed a bad track record in dealing with “coordinated inauthentic behavior” in the country.

You can read the full report here.

what’s new in the new media law

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.” In addition to a new Media Law, the decree also called for an establishment of a brand new body, the Azerbaijani Agency for Media Development replacing the State Support Fund for Mass Media Development. 

Six months after the initial announcement, the law is ready, but not for the public eye or independent journalists. The critics say, the law will further restrict the work of independent and opposition media platforms, while supporters argue the law will strengthen the media environment in the country. 

According to Ahmad Ismayilov, the Executive Director at the newly set up Agency for Media Development, the law – which is currently being developed behind-closed-door discussions – will be evaluated by the parliament in its final form, and only after the reading at the parliament will be open to public debate. 

What is known about some of the provisions

  • one unified registry system for media outlets, their offices, and journalists in order to systematize information on media entities, their offices and staff (this specifically has caused dissatisfaction among independent journalists and bloggers, according to Turan News Agency reporting);
  • the registration process requires that all print, online media platforms, news agencies, and journalists apply for registration;
  • a separate body – Audiovisual Council – will register audiovisual media platforms;
  • all media platforms and journalists registered through the system will receive certificates and press cards (valid for three years) respectively;
  • the registration system does not apply to foreign journalists who will require to receive approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
  • all media platforms must be legally registered and show proof of sustainability with registering;
  • journalists registering through the system, will be required to meet a set of requirements – those without higher education, previous convictions won’t be registered; journalists must provide contracts with media platforms that must be registered within the system; journalists must provide at least three years of work experience or relevant work experience;
  • the registry may remove media platforms and journalists already registered;  
  • the draft law will require internet television to obtain licenses in order to operate;
  • the draft law will be submitted to the national parliament (no dates announced yet); put on the agenda and posted on the Parliament’s website. Only then will there be a discussion on the main provisions and assessments of the overall bill;
  • the draft law prohibits state censorship and financing of the media; 
  • the draft law ensures pluralism and freedom of the media; 
  • according to one of the provisions, illegal interference in the work of journalists, their persecution, and harassment are inadmissible; 

According to Rustam Ahmadov, director of the Media Development Agency’s Department for Work with Media Entities and Journalists and Media Support Projects, it is possible that the bill will be adopted in the first reading. But it is also possible the draft will be returned for revision, to address suggestions and comments. “Unfortunately, I can not say exactly when the bill will be submitted to the parliament,” Ahmadov told Turan News Agency in an interview. 

Pundits’ response

Until the bill has been made public, it is hard to comment on its transparency said media lawyer Khalid Agaliyev in an interview with Turan News Agency. So far, the closed discussions are only creating doubts and eliminating optimism about the progress of the law, said a media lawyer. 

Aghaliyev pointed to three issues about the draft law that is especially worrying, “unified registry of journalists, licensing of online media, the creation of a media register (that would also require registration of their staff). All three are seriously controversial in terms of the concept of the right to freedom of expression, and there are elements of discrimination.”

On the provision about single press cards Aghaliyev said, this provision would allow the government to choose who keeps tabs on the work the government does because, under normal circumstances, it is the media and journalists who exercise public control over government activities. Aghaliyev also pointed out that the right to access, prepare and disseminate information is not only given to journalists but to every citizen according to the Constitution and international agreements Azerbaijan signed. Enforcing the single card rule is not an additional opportunity. “There are editorial offices established in accordance with the law, there is an editorial policy, their press cards should suffice to take advantage of the opportunities created by the state for journalists,” said Aghaliyev.

On the provision about licensing internet television and one single registry, Aghaliyev said this would go against the right to freedom of expression. “Rules such as the creation of a register of all media outlets and the registration of those included in the register as journalists are seriously problematic and discriminatory in terms of the right to freedom of expression.”

Aghaliyev also reminded that a media registry already exists in Azerbaijan as newspapers must inform the Ministry of Justice and once approved, start operating. “In this case, the creation of a separate register indicates the intention to more easily control, direct and suppress the media and journalists.”