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. 

 

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.” 

new decree on the State Control Information System

On January 30, President Ilham Aliyev, signed a decree “on the procedure for the operation of the State Control Information System”, reported Turan News Agency. The information system was set up in March of last year when President Aliyev, introduced it in a new order. At the time, local media reported that the order aims at introducing “additional measures to increase efficiency in public administration, informs the press-service of the Azerbaijani head of state.” 

On paper, the new system “serves to increase the efficiency of work in the Administration of the President, in the field of organizing state control and ensuring executive discipline, electronic monitoring of the status of execution of decrees, orders, and instructions of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, First Vice President, and the head of the Presidential Administration.” 

But what does it mean in reality?

A few things according to Khaled Aghaliyev. While there is a need for transparency, checks and balances on government implemented decisions, documents, and policies, whether the new system allows for that is yet to be seen. “This system should be accessible to everyone”, said Aghaliyev in an interview with Astna on February 6. However, the new decree does not provide “direct indications of this”. There is also the issue of track record.

Aghaliyev in his interview mentioned the law “On Freedom of Information” that was adopted 15 years ago. However, over the years, too many changes were made to the law that its accountability power over holders of information which also includes the president as well as all other officials, has been weakened. Had the provisions of the law on Freedom of Information worked, there would be no need for creating a new system believes Aghaliyev. 

As for access to the information, a series of amendments to the Law on Right to Obtain Information have hindered the right to access information. As a result of these changes, access to information was only allowed in cases when the request did not contradict the protection of political, economic, military, financial, credit, and currency interests of the Azerbaijan Republic. That in addition, “preserving public order, health, and morality, as well as rights and freedoms of other persons, commercial and other economic interests, the purposes of securing reputation and impartiality of the court and proper continuance of preliminary investigation on criminal cases.” But the use of such expressions as “protection of interests in political, economic, military, monetary and currency policy fields” according to this review of Azerbaijan’s national legislation on access to information, is not only not acceptable but, in fact, goes against the Constitution of Azerbaijan.

These shortcomings have been highlighted in a series of reports produced by local organizations such as the Center for Legal Initiatives. In its 2016 report, the organization also reported that the new amendments categorized information on financial transactions data as private information and therefore restricted for access. Meanwhile, an amendment to the laws of state register of legal persons and to the Tax Code, classified information about founders of commercial legal entities and commercial stakes as confidential. 

Under normal circumstances, the most effective, the proven control mechanism is the mass media. However, in Azerbaijan, independent media, is often silenced, through various forms of persecution, including arrests, detentions, intimidation tactics, blackmail, and more. As a result of persistent threats to an independent media environment Azerbaijan’s rankings on global media freedom rankings have been poor, often described as not free, or partially free. 

The same applies to online media platforms, many of which have been targeted over the years and since 2017, consistently blocked by government bodies. 

Why now? 

On February 1, President Aliyev in an interview with national television AzTV said, a new approach has begun within the state administration. “My patience running thin”, said the President in an interview, adding the need for public control. He has said this before too, like during the trip to Mashtaga village outside of the capital Baku in 2018, where yet again, President Aliyev talked about strengthening public control. Then in 2019, he repeated the urgency of such control mechanisms during a meeting with the Cabinet of Ministers. But since his ascent to power in 2003, President Aliyev, has himself (through presidential decrees and orders) deliberately weakened public oversight. That in addition, to harassment of non-governmental organizations, tightening of domestic legislation, the arrest of activists and outspoken critics of the government, among them journalists and rights efenders – have all been taking place under his watch. Perhaps a good place to start would have been naming the new system, not State Control but Public Control? 

Regardless, Azerbaijan Internet Watch shares the concerns over the applicability and efficiency of the new system in the absence of reforms and will continue to monitor the developments regarding the newly set up system on information controls. 

fresh media reforms raise concern [updated]

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

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

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

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

The charter

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

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

Punitive measures

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

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

It will also be accountable to the head of state.

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

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

Reactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

government rolls out an e-permission requirement for journalists

June 20, the Cabinet of Ministers rolled out a new requirement for journalists and mass media resources during the two weeks of strict quarantine regime effective between June 21 and July 5. According to the new regulation, journalists must register with an e-permission platform icaze.e-gov.az  The requirement concerns freelance and full-time journalists. Critics say the new regulation intends to limit the work of independent journalists and therefore access to independent information. 

According to the government website, before a journalist can obtain the permission slip, first, the person with the “seal of authority” of the media platform must apply. However, the majority of independent and opposition news sites operating inside and outside the country, work online and often do not carry the “seal of authority”. They are also likely not to be registered as platforms with the Ministry of Justice. 

Speaking on the issue, the media law expert Alasgar Ahmadoglu told Voice of America that in the absence of the state of emergency [Azerbaijan never declared the state of emergency but only imposed a strict quarantine regime] the Cabinet of Ministers cannot introduce such a requirement. Such regulation may only be possible according to article 112 of the constitution that states, the professional work of journalists can be limited during a state of emergency. 

The same day, Chief of the Public Relations Department of the Main State Traffic Police Department, Colonel Kamran Aliyev added further clarifications to the list of requirements. Aliyev noted that first, the media platform itself must register their journalist online using the e-registration system. If the media platform is registered in Baku, then in addition to the capital, it can dispatch journalists to Sumgayit and across Absheron region. However, the journalists will require a separate permission slip if they intend to travel to other regions in the country during the quarantine regime explained Aliyev. For this, the journalists [in addition to the registering online] must obtain a permission slip from his/her media platform indicating that the journalist is going a business trip on specified dates. The rule also applies to television channels inviting a guest – the gust’s name must also be registered within the system. This will help to identify whether the person was indeed invited to speak in case he/she stopped by the police for control. 

The online permission system was introduced on April 2 for institutions and organizations considered eligible to continue working during COVID19. No further explanations were provided on the storage of the personal data and the duration this platform will keep records of organisations, institutions, and the names of their staff. 

Azerbaijan may end up blocking more online content

Four months ago, the Plenum of the Supreme Court in Azerbaijan annulled previous court decisions issued by the Courts of Appeal and Cassation regarding five news websites that were blocked in 2017. On June 5, the Plenum sent the cases back to the Baku Court of Appeal for reconsideration.

The five media platforms include Meydan TV, Azadliq Radio [Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe], Turan TV, Azerbaijansaadi, and Azadliq newspaper [not related to Azadliq Radio]. In March 2017, the Ministry of Communication [which later became the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies] restricted access to these online resources on the grounds these websites’ content was threatening national security and promoted “violence, hatred, or extremism” and “violated privacy or constituted slander.” The forensics carried out by an independent organization Virtual Road showed evidence of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology used to interfere with access even before there was a court ruling in place. By May 2017, the Ministry had a court ruling to block access. In December 2017, the Court of Appeal in Baku upheld the court ruling from May.

The blocking of these news resources came shortly after the National Parliament of Azerbaijan adopted changes to the law on Information, Informatisation, and access to Information. With the new changes, authorities were allowed to block access to any website on the grounds it contained prohibited information, was posing danger to the state or society, and in the case, the website owner failed to remove content within eight hours of receiving the notification.

In 2017, the Ministry asked for the following in its court appeal:

  1. court order to prevent access to five platforms’ websites;
  2.  block all other resources offering access to the content (this included YouTube, Facebook, and other online resources);

In its decision, the Sabail Court ruled in favor of the first request, leaving the second demand out. The Ministry was satisfied and blocking became effective immediately. 

Three years later, the Ministry of Communication, Transportation, and High Technologies went straight to the Plenum.  According to media law expert Khaled Aghaly, the reason is that the Ministry wants to expand blocking. Considering the experience with the previous court decisions and rulings in Azerbaijan, the chances of the court ruling coming out in favor of the blocked websites are dim. 

Although the Ministry has not explicitly mentioned any of the platforms or names of other resources that have shared content from these blocked news outlets, Aghaly explains that in the new complaint the Ministry claims that the blocked news resources continue to share their content online using other “resources” and that other media platforms also share the content from these blocked platforms. It is possible that the Ministry is looking for ways to not only prevent access to more online news sites but also, access to social media platforms of Azadliq Radio, Meydan TV, and others.

Can individual social media accounts and/or content be blocked? 

Technically it can. There are previous instances where Facebook did limit access to certain content. This was the case in Thailand in 2017 when Thai users of the social media platform no longer had access to a video that showed the country’s king at a mall in Germany, his tattoos exposed and accompanied by one of his mistresses. According to this Vice story, Facebook blocked the video based on Thailand’s government legislation that deems it insulting to the king and in violation of the country’s laws banning criticism of the monarchy. 

Another option to prevent access is on an ISP level. An example would be what happened in Kazakhstan in 2019 when the government there instructed local ISPs to force their users into installing a government-issued certificate on all their devices, and in every browser. With this certificate installed, the government had access to users’ HTTPS traffic that normally would keep it anonymous. In case, users refused to install the certificate, they were blocked from accessing the internet altogether. At the time, the Kazakh Ministry of Digital Development Innovation and Aerospace said the measure was “aimed at enhancing the protection of citizens, government bodies and private companies from hack attacks, internet fraudsters and other  types of cyber threats.”

Similarly, “mobile service providers instructed their customers to install encryption software on mobile phones that would allow security services to intercept data traffic and circumvent email and messaging applications’ encryption.”

It is worth noting that ISPs in Azerbaijan are bound to the government for the main internet backbone provider in Azerbaijan is government-owned Delta Telekom. In addition, the history of collaboration between mobile operators and the Ministry of the Interior is full of examples when private information of customers was handed over and as a result, led to further targeting. 

Impunity for all these user violations is rampant.

independent news site hacked

On the morning of April 22, an independent online news platform, abzas.net noticed strange activity on its website. Not only did the website lose, a month worth of published articles, but that some articles’ headlines were also changed. 

In an interview with AIW, the website’s editor Ulvi Hasanli confirmed the attack. Hasanli said, this was not the first time, the website was under attack. “We have experienced DDoS attacks every month for a year between 2016 and 2017. Eventually, abzas.net was blocked in Azerbaijan and the website switched to .org”. 

Hasanli confirmed that the team was able to restore back the missing articles and reverted back changed headlines. 

While the team continues to investigate the source behind the attack, in an interview with Azadliq Radio, Hasanli said, they will seek legal remedy once they have sufficient evidence.

journalist facing jail time

Anar Mammadov is editor of criminal.az – website that was blocked by the authorities in Azerbaijan in 2018. Mammadov was sentenced to 5.5 years of imprisonment with a two-year probation period on charges of anti-state appeals, abuse of power and official forgery in March 2019. The official cause of the criminal prosecution was the publication of news about the assassination attempt on the former head of the city of Ganja Elmar Veliyev.

On January 6, Mammadov was pressed with a set of new allegations facing arrest. The accusation comes from a woman, named Malahat Gurbanova. Mammadov wrote about Gurbanova’s legal battle with former Minister of Social Services earlier on. Gurbanova now, alleges Mammadov’s language used to describe Gurbanova in his coverage was slanderous and insulting. Mammadov refutes these claims in his defense adding, if anything, it is he who feels insulted.

Criminal.az is an independent website covering predominantly crime-related stories. The website was blocked by the authorities in 2017, along with a number of other critical and independent news websites. It later began operating under the criminalaz.com domain, which was also blocked shortly after.

*Criminalaz.com, Fia.az, bastainfo.az and topxeber.az were blocked in Azerbaijan after the prosecutor’s office claimed these news websites misinformed their audiences and shared news of provocative nature that were untrue. [Turan News Agency]

**Since May 2017, over 20 websites have been blocked in Azerbaijan, among them: Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Azerbaijan Service) and its international service, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Azadliq Newspaper (independent of the Azadliq radio), Meydan TV, Turan TV and Azerbaijan Saadi (Azerbaijan Hour), OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Unit), abzas.net, obyektiv.tv, and others on the ground these outlets promoted violence, hatred, extremism, violated privacy or constituted slander.

***Websites blocked since then are blocked for slander and spreading misinformation. At some point, an editor of the blocked az24saat.org was asked to remove four articles that mentioned Ali Hasanov, now a former aide to President Ilham Aliyev. Monitortv.info, which was among the blocked websites, also received a note requesting the removal of articles mentioning Ali Hasanov on the grounds these stories contained slander and lies. [Open Democracy]

At the time of the verdict against the journalist Mammadov, several international journalism organizations, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media criticized the court’s decision.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Azerbaijani authorities to drop charges against Mammadov and pointing to the unfounded prosecution.

“Informing the general public about important events is what journalists do, and the authorities should support this work, and not punish reporters,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ Program Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia.

In June 2019, the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of Anar Mammadov.

Timeline

15 May 2019 – Mammadov summoned to the prosecutor’s office. This time the journalist was questioned over a story about the state oil company – SOCAR.

Meydan TV, an independent online news website covering Azerbaijan was also targeted. Although the website of Meydan.tv was blocked already in 2017, following the publication of stories about SOCAR, the website was heavily DDoSed.

9 July 2018 – Mammadov, questioned by the police. The journalist’s home was searched and his personal devices, including his laptop and phone, were seized by the police.

Mammadov was questioned after publishing reports on an attempt on the life of the mayor of Ganja, Elmar Valiyev, on 3 July.

24 July 2018 – Mammadov was summoned to the prosecutor’s office. The journalist was questioned about the publication of reports on the assassination attempt and was warned not to spread “investigative secrets”.

arqument.az remains blocked

On December 24, 2019, the administrative-economic court in Baku rejected the claim by arqument.az against Transportation, Communication and High Technologies ministry. Arqument.az took the ministry to court following its decision to block arqument.az inside the country.

The website’s editor Shamshad Agayev intends to appeal the decision.

Arqument.az was blocked on August 8, 2018, following a decision issued by Sabail District Court. A few days later, Baku Court of Appeal annulled district court’s decision.

But arqument.az was blocked once again in April 2019 after publishing coverage of protests in Jalilabad district. The website was also subject to cyber attacks after being blocked.