Who regulates content online in Azerbaijan? Legal analysis

In this new legal analysis, we specifically look into content regulation on the internet carried out by the Prosecutor’s office and how the measures in place, silence free speech often relying on the use of a restrictive law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information.

As the use of the Internet grew in Azerbaijan, so did the measures adopted by the government to regulate the internet space, through legal changes that would tighten existing regulations. As such the ranking of Azerbaijan in Freedom House Freedom on the Net report as “not free” is indicative of the deteriorating internet freedom in several directions, including control of the ICT market, infrastructural challenges, restrictive legal measures, accounts of harassment of citizens for online criticism, and more. Numerous evidence-based reports point out the extent of coordinated, and deliberate efforts deployed by the government in Azerbaijan to restrict free speech on the users of social networks, journalists, and media at large in recent years.  

Currently, two laws regulate what constitutes prohibited information on the internet and the liability for violating these requirements. These are the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information, which defines the requirements and responsibilities for individuals; and the Law on Media, which defines the (almost) similar and additional requirements and responsibilities for journalists and media.

In addition, the presidential decree dated February 22, 2022, instructed the Ministry of Justice to prepare and submit a draft law on measures for violating information and media legislation on the internet to the government within a month. The law is yet to be adopted and concerns over its text and procedural implementation give ground to worry for a new restrictive law to be adopted not to mention its implications to further stifle free speech online.

Until then, an uptick in recent months, of cases in which social media users have faced punitive measures for their online activism indicates that the Prosecutor General Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists and media within the scope of laws on information and media. As such we decided to dedicate our next legal analysis report to the practices and activities of the general prosecutor’s office within the framework of national and international legislation. 

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In Azerbaijan, the Code of Administrative Offences and the Criminal Code regulate the legal sanctions against violations of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information. However, as noted above, an uptick in administrative penalties and warnings issued to media, journalists, and social network users in recent months shows that the main government institution carrying out monitoring, and handing out penalties and warnings has been the Prosecutor General’s Office.

This frequent and at times, aggressive interference by the prosecutor’s office, which normally is in charge of investigating criminal cases and is the prosecuting authority, itself raises a number of concerns with regard to freedom of expression and the media.

The prosecutor’s office argues that the official warnings issued by the institution are a precautionary measure for violating existing. It is worth noting, that laws here are also broadly defined. Local human rights lawyers and experts, suspect, that the prosecutor’s office relies on existing bills on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information as well as the Media, however, it could also refer to additional articles of the Criminal Code. Therefore, the legality of these acts is questionable.

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Recent amendments to the Information Law

On  December 27, 2021, the Azerbaijani parliament (Milli Məclis) adopted new amendments to the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan On Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information (30-VIQD).

One of the amendments includes expanding the measures against the prohibited content*

*Neither the previous nor the iterated version of the law clearly defines what is prohibited content leaving extensive room for the relevant state actors to decide, and based on these overt decisions,  restrict freedom of expression online.  

Previously, the owner of the internet information resource and domain name, and the hosting provider were responsible for removing (deleting) the information (specific content such as articles) from the information resource (website). The iteration obligates the owner, and the hosting provider, to block access to that content (article) on its website (Article 13-2.4, and 13-2.5).

As the law on information determines a list of grounds that define which content is prohibited, it also sets obligations for domain and information resource owners and host providers to remove or block the content upon receiving the warning from the executive authorities. In cases when content removal or blocking is not implemented, relevant executive authority applies to the court. As such, it is the judicial powers making a final judgment on the (il)legality of reported content rather than the executive power. This also means that the warnings issued by the executive authorities to the information resource and domain owners and host providers must not introduce liability. Because, when a court draws its final decision, it applies the principle of proportionality ensuring that different interests are balanced against each other.

Prohibited content as defined in the Law on Information (Article 13.2) and the Law on Media (Article 14). 

Law on Media: 

14.1.1. open calls must not be made for a forcible change of the constitutional order of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the disintegration of its territorial integrity, forcible seizure or retention of power, mass riots;

14.1.2. there must be no disrespect for the state symbols of the Republic of Azerbaijan;

14.1.3. norms of the state language must be observed;

14.1.4. discrimination on grounds of race, religion, origin, gender, ethnicity, and other discrimination must not be promoted, and also no open calls must be made for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred;

14.1.5. terrorism, religious extremism, violence, and cruelty must not be propagated, and also, information aimed at financing terrorism, organizing or conducting training for terrorist purposes must not be disseminated, and open calls for terrorism must not be made;

14.1.6. words and expressions, gestures with immoral lexical (swearing) content must not be used;

14.1.7. the humiliation of honor and dignity, tarnishing of business reputation is not allowed;

14.1.8. secret information about a person’s family and private life must not be disseminated;

14.1.9. there must be no libel, insults, or hate speech;

14.1.10. actions that are contrary to the protection of health and the environment must not be propagated;

14.1.11. facts and developments must be commented on impartially and objectively, one-sidedness is not allowed;

14.1.12. parapsychology (psychics, mediums, etc.), superstition, or other kinds of fanaticism must not be propagated;

14.1.13. pornographic materials must not be published (broadcast);

14.1.14. information about a person being guilty must not be published (broadcast) without a valid court decision;

14.1.15. the requirements provided for in the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On protection of children from harmful information” must be complied with;

14.1.16. other information provided in Article 13-2.3 of the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On information, informatization, and protection of information” must not be broadcast.

Law on information, informatization, and protection of information:

*false information threatening to harm human life and health, causing significant property damage, mass violation of public safety, disruption of life support facilities, financial, transport, communications, industrial, energy, and social infrastructure facilities, or leading to other socially dangerous consequences.

  • propaganda and financing of terrorism, as well as methods and means of terrorism, information about training for the purpose of terrorism, as well as open calls for terrorism;
  • information on the propaganda of violence and religious extremism, open calls directed to the evocation of national, racial, or religious enmity, violent change of the constitutional order, territorial disintegration, violent seizure or maintenance of power, and organization of mass riots;
  • state secrets;
  • instructions or methods for producing firearms, their component parts, ammunition, and explosive substances;
  • information on preparation and usage of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, and their precursors, about locations of their unlawful acquisition, as well as information on the location of and methods of cultivation of plants containing narcotic substances;
  • pornography, including information related to child pornography;
  • information on the organization of and incitement to gambling and other unlawful betting games;
  • information disseminated with the purpose to promote suicide as a method of solving problems justifies suicide, provides the basis for or incites suicide, describes the methods of committing suicide, and organizes the commission of suicide by several individuals or organized groups;
  • defamatory and insulting information, as well as information breaching the inviolability of private life;
  • information breaching intellectual property rights;
  • other information prohibited by the laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The legal framework of the power of the prosecutor’s office to issue the official warnings  

According to Article 133 of the Constitution, the Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan (hereinafter – the “Prosecutor’s Office”) shall exercise control over the execution and application of laws, institute criminal cases, and conduct investigations. According to Article 2 of the Law About the Prosecutor’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan is a single centralized body that, is logged in judicial authority.

According to Article 21 of the Law About the Prosecutor’s Office, issuing an official warning is one of the prosecutor’s mandates vested in its powers in the manner and within the framework established by law About the Prosecutor’s Office. Article 22 of the Law identifies under which circumstances, the prosecutor or his deputy shall issue an official warning to the citizen or official.

Because these warnings, as procedural acts, are not established in the administrative code of offenses or in the criminal procedural codes of the Azerbaijan Republic, they serve as a deterrent for individuals from certain actions, such as stopping, not repeating, or not taking any other action in the future.

Powers of the Prosecutor’s Office in the cases of administrative offenses

Article 54 of the Code of Administrative Offenses determines the scope of the prosecutor’s supervision power in the cases of administrative offenses. Within its power, the prosecutor shall take timely measures to eliminate the violation of the law during the proceedings on administrative offenses and exercise the prosecutor’s control over the application and implementation of the Constitution and laws of Azerbaijan.

The first sentence of Article 54.2 of the Code outlines a list of administrative offenses where the prosecutor’s office is empowered to initiate the administrative offense cases. The second sentence of the same Article also gives unlimited power to the Prosecutor’s office to initiate administrative offense cases for any other cases envisaged in the Code of Administrative Penalties.

Once the decision to initiate proceedings on administrative offenses is made, the Prosecutor’s Office then shall send the case to a judge or an authorized body for judiciary proceedings on the merits of the case. Overall, the scope of the prosecutor’s supervision concerning administrative offenses includes the right of the prosecutor to decide on the initiation of proceedings on administrative offenses, to participate in consideration of cases on administrative offenses, to give an opinion or petition on issues arising during the proceedings, to protest against a decision or to rule on an administrative offense.

Thus, the prosecutor’s office has the authority to take measures of responsibility and deterrence against the dissemination of prohibited information on the Internet under the existing legislation on administrative offenses and the law of the prosecutor’s office.

Prosecutor General’s Office warnings to journalists and social media users – comments on recent cases

Detecting dissemination of prohibited information on the Internet and taking non-criminal measures against it is carried out (in the order of checking the information on the violation of the law) by the department for Non-Criminal Prosecution of the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan.

In recent months, there have been numerous reports in the media about some social media users, journalists, and news websites receiving warnings or handing administrative offenses in case materials, submitted to the courts by the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Example 1:

On April 1, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office warned two online media platforms for spreading inaccurate information. According to the Press Service of the Prosecutor General’s Office, “gazet.az” and “manset.az” published inaccurate information on March 31, 2022, about an incident in which as a result of collapsed school building some 20 people died, and many more were injured in Nakhchivan, thus violating the requirements of the Laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On Information, Informatization and Protection of Information”, as well as “On Media”.

But neither of the laws prohibit the spread of inaccurate information, nor do these laws define what inaccurate information is. The vagueness of the terminology however does allow the law enforcement authority to define any kind of views, and comments as “inaccurate information” and take punitive or deterrent legal action against them.

Example 2:

According to the press service of the Prosecutor General’s Office dated January 24, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan continued to take preventive measures against the placement of prohibited information by law on the Internet, for the purpose of ensuring information security.

The press service then referred to five social media users who received warnings and one person who was detained on the grounds of putting pressure on democratic institutions, disrupting the activities of government agencies, making calls that would result in the governance decline in the country, as well as posting insulting or defamatory information on Facebook thus violating Article 13-2.3.9 of the law on the information.

However, Article 13-2.3.9 of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information cited by the Prosecutor General’s Office only prohibits the dissemination of “information that is insulting or slander, as well as infringing on the privacy of private life.” The law does not prohibit the information that could be characterized as putting “pressure on democratic institutions”, “disrupting government agencies”, or “calling to reduce the level of governance in the country” on the list of prohibited information.

Example 3:

On December 21, 2021, Prosecutor’s office issued a warning to the principal of a high school, who was interviewed about the suicides among students. The Prosecutor’s office said the information shared by the school principal qualified as prohibited content, and thus was unacceptable to spread.

The Prosecutor General’s Office did not reveal further details about the case and specifically what parts of the principal’s interview violated the rules about the information on suicide. Article 13-2.3.8 of the Law on Information only prohibits the information that “promotes suicide as a method of solving problems, justifies or incites suicide, explains the methods of committing suicide or information to organize the suicide of several people in a group.”

Example 4:

On December 28, 2021, Prosecutor’s office issued a warning to 5 social media users for violating Article 13-2 of the Information law by spreading the information without citing certain facts and sharing biased information aimed to stir sensation in the society. The prosecutor’s office further urged social media users and journalists “to refrain from disclosing inaccurate and distorted information,” warning “that the most serious measures would continue against the spread of biased and misleading information in society.”

Similar, non-criminal legal action (i.e., warning) by the Prosecutor’s Office was made on November 21, 2021, against some media and social network users. The Prosecutor General’s Office initiated a violation of an administrative offense under Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses and sent the case to the relevant court for consideration. In addition, three other people were warned by the prosecutor. The Prosecutor General’s Office further urged more serious measures in accordance with the relevant legislation, including criminal liability against media and social network users who disseminate false and inaccurate information in order to create artificial agitation.

However, Article 13-2 of the information law does not prohibit information of a “sensational” nature or for not basing information “on concrete facts” or sharing “various biased information.”

Legal commentary on warning acts issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office

As noted above, although formal warnings are defined as a type of prosecutorial act, they do not explicitly determine the concrete legal consequences for the persons receiving these warnings. As such, it is possible to determine from existing cases that these warnings issued by the prosecutor’s office are announced after alleged perpetrators are called in for questioning.

It is also possible to determine that inviting the alleged perpetrator to the prosecutor’s office is done for the purpose of signing the warning act, as a way to consent and/or admit to violating the law and not repeating it again. This was reflected in the case of journalist Avaz Zeynalli* who after being called in for questioning refused to sign the issued warning. In such cases (when the warned entity does not sign the warning) it does not remove or cancel the warning. Also worth noting is that there are no specific points mentioned in the existing legislation about measures leveled against entities who refuse to sign the warnings.  

Finally, while these official warnings are carried out as preventive measures against violating existing legislation the procedural action itself is prescribed neither in the criminal law nor in the Code of Administrative Offenses. And according to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan, “warnings” must be examined within the framework of administrative proceedings by the administrative courts. As such, the court clearly states, that warnings are issued within the framework of administrative proceedings, the prosecutor’s office functions as a law enforcement authority and has the authority to summon the individual to introduce the warnings. Such instances of summoning and conversations are apparently mandatory and carried out by the Prosecutors like “procedural coercive measures” indicated in the Criminal Procedure Code. Nevertheless, once again, it is important to note that the warning(s) is not a sanction within the meaning of criminal law and administrative offenses law and therefore prosecutor’s office shall not apply procedural coercive measures in the absence of any offense. 

*The decision of Supreme Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan, № 2-1(102)-134/2019, 14.05.2019, Avaz Zeynallı v.Chief Prosecutor’s office.

Conclusion

What the cases above illustrate is that there is a problematic and overbroad application of legal measures against social media users, journalists, and media in Azerbaijan. The examples further indicate the application of restrictive information law (which includes vaguely defined grounds to restrict free speech) against free speech on the internet and its likelihood of violating freedom of speech and media freedom standards.

Social media users, journalists, and media may argue that government regulations and their overbroad application by the Prosecutor General’s Office impermissibly infringe their freedom of speech guaranteed under the Constitution and international conventions to which Azerbaijan is a party.

Furthermore, there are almost no reports of domestic courts rejecting petitions by the prosecutor’s office against people’s rights to exercise their right to freedom of speech online, creating additional concerns about the absence of effective judicial and other remedies against the arbitrary use of domestic legislation against speech freedom rights.

As mentioned in the analysis above, one of the main challenges is that in its current form, the law on Information as well as the Code of Administrative Offenses provides vaguely defined grounds which are then used by the Prosecutor General’s Office with wide and arbitrary discretion, and at times, in the absence of any clear citing of the permissible grounds in the law. Such interference with freedom of speech is not compatible with the international standards which require that the restrictions on freedom of speech are clearly defined and concisely envisaged in the law and pursue legitimate aims as prescribed in national laws.

An analysis of most of the above cases shows that the Prosecutor General’s Office and the domestic courts interfere in freedom of expression without the proper legal grounds required for such interferences. The content of the impugned remarks characterized by the Prosecutor General’s Office and domestic courts as false, inaccurate, aimed to create a sensation, or to put pressure on the government and democratic institutions is not explicitly mentioned in the Law on Information, Informatization, and Information protection. This is against international standards which require that the national authorities intervening in the freedom of expression must have a basis in national laws (as a rule, this would mean a written and public law adopted by parliament), as well as must demonstrate sufficient reasons for justifying the interference and carefully balancing the applicants’ right to freedom of expression with the other permissible (legitimate) grounds

Azerbaijan is obligated to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information both online and offline, including on public health. International human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19) and European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10) permit restrictions on freedom of speech only if they are provided for by law, are strictly necessary and proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim.

Considering the increased scope of the legal harassment, it would be fair to conclude that such a large-scale punitive and deterrent legal measures against freedom of expression by law enforcement authorities is aimed at silencing legitimate criticism, discouraging citizens from expressing their views, and further suffocating the freedom of expression on the Internet.

Several social media users warned, one sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention

A series of new warnings were issued by the Prosecutor General office to social media users in Azerbaijan. In a statement issued by the Prosecutor General’s office, it claims five Azerbaijani citizens received a warning over their social media posts that the prosecutor’s office described as “violating stability, rights, and freedoms and casting a shadow over state’s efforts to strengthen defense capabilities.”

In addition, a citizen named Namig Aliyev was found guilty of violating the state law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information. According to the prosecutor’s office, Aliyev, editor of Yeniavaz.com news website failed to remove a Facebook post about the story published by Yeniavaz.com website that qualified as “information prohibited from sharing.”

But a series of developments including a statement by Yeniavaz.com website editor show that not only did the Prosecutor Office provide false information about Namig Aliyev’s affiliation with Yeniavaz.com website but that the story the prosecutor office wanted removed directly referred to the prosecutor office earlier involvement in committing violence against an opposition activist.

Timeline of events

On December 1, 2021, a group of activists staged a protest in the capital Baku in support of jailed opposition activist Saleh Rustamov. During the protest, scores of activists were detained, including opposition figure Tofig Yagublu, a former political prisoner himself. The violence he faced in the hands of the police was widely reported on social media platforms.

The head of the Media and Public Relations Department of the Interior Ministry’s press service, while having denied any allegations of torture, promised to investigate the case of Yagublu. 

On January 12, the Prosectur Office said it had finalized the invetigation. According to the results, Yagublu was not tortured and that the signs of violence documented and widely reported were inflicted by Yagublu himself. The investigation claimed Yagublu harmed himsefl and that no police officer was involved in violence against Yagublu. 

Yeniavaz.com published three separate articles on the results of the investigation, most recent one on January 18, 2022. 

On January 24, Yeniavaz.com website editor Baylar Majidov, published a Facebook post, with the following text: 

“The prosecutor arrested a man named Namig Aliyev, and [Azerbaijani] media presented him as the director of Yeniavaz.com. Offically, we would like to note that not only do we not have an employee named Namiq Aliyev but he is certainly not the direcotr of Yeniavaz.com.”

Majidov also wrote that their newsroom never received an official request from the General Prosecutor office to remove any information from the website or from the news website’s social media accounts.   

Also on January 24, in another statement issued by the Prosecutor General Office, it announced its decision to sentence social media user Namig Aliyev to 30 days of aministrative detention for sharing information prohibited by law. The statement also said, the office launched administrative proceedings against Azermedia LLC, a legal entity representing the operations of yeniavaz.com on the grounds that the website failed to remove the information prohibited by law. 

On January 25, yeniavaz.com published a story by one of its authors, Anar Garakhanchalli being questioned at the Prosecutor General Office on January 20, 2022. There Garakhanchalli described the conversation he had: 
I was invited to the General Prosecutor office on January 20. After talking to me first about the state, the importance of the prosecutor office for the state and etc I asked them calmly what was the purpose of my invitiation. They told me, it was an article titled “Prosecutor office: ‘Tofig Yagublu’s state was caused as a result of him beating himself up'” that yeniavaz.com published on its website and shared on its Facebook page. So I asked, if there was something wrong about the story, whether it was a lie. They said, the story was correct, but we are concerned about the comments that were written under the post. I said, if the story was ture, if you have no objections then why am I here? I also added that Facebook has billions of users, how can we be held accountable for something written by others? The officer sitting across from me then said, we suspected that these responses would follow, after giving the story a headline like that. I told this this was ludicrous. You confirm yourself that the story is true, you do not object to any of the wording, and yet you are questioning the reporter’s intent?! 
After two hour long visit, Garakhanchalli was let go. 
No further statements were made by yeniavaz.com while the articles in question all remain available online at the time of writing of this post.
AIW previously documented a number of cases where social media users and journalists received warnings, or fines over their onlline posts. 

In Azerbaijan the parliament is discussing the controversial law on media – the bill already passed its second reading [Updated January 26]

[Update] On December 30, Azerbaijan’s parliament approved a new media law after its third and final reading. The law was passed despite mounting criticism from local journalists and is set to be signed by President Ilham Aliyev and become effective as of January 1, 2022. Hailed by its proponents as a reform bill, critics of the law warn that the new law’s will have an extensive impact on media freedom and independence in Azerbaijan [more here].

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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.” Now, almost a year later, despite local advocacy by journalists and news platforms to reconsider adopting the legal document, the law passed its second reading on December 20, 2021. Although the law has not been finally approved and signed by the president, the local media already reported several citizens fined or warned over the content they have shared online. 

The controversy of the new law

On December 16, two days after the draft law passed its first reading a group of civil society representatives issued a statement urging the lawmakers to reconsider the draft law in its current form. According to the statement, the law “opens up a wide range of opportunities for the state to determine who can engage in journalism and rejects the model of media self-regulation. It inflicts incurable wounds on freedom of media, which is an important component of the right to freedom of expression.” 

According to Eurasianet.net reporting

Among the many new regulations: The state will now create a registry of journalists, who have to fit specific criteria (including lack of a criminal record) to be included. Owners of media outlets will have to live in Azerbaijan, which would effectively ban many of the country’s independent media which are run by Azerbaijanis who fled the country. Online news outlets will be required to publish at least 20 news pieces on a daily basis.

There are also a wide variety of content restrictions in the new law. Journalists will be prohibited from “propagating superstitions.” “Tarnishing a business’s reputation” will also not be allowed. Section 14.1.11 stipulates that “facts and events must be interpreted impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed.”

The intent appears to be to give the government more freedom to block media it deems unfriendly.

Reactions

Media law expert Alasgar Mammadli told Kanal13 in an interview that the law now grants a right to block online content on a whim. Azerbaijan is already blocking a wide range of independent and opposition news websites since 2017. The most recent findings were released this summer by AzNet Watch in partnership with OONI. But media censorship is an ongoing issue according to Qurium Media Foundation that released another report, this summer, documenting a decade of media censorship in Azerbaijan based on the organization’s work assisting targeted, and blocked news platforms in the country. 

In an interview with Toplum TV, journalist Seymur Kazimov said, the new provisions are “backward.”

On December 22, a human rights organization “Defense Line”, said in a statement that the new law was also in violation of the Azerbaijan Constitution: 

Part I of Article 7 of the Constitution states that the Azerbaijani state is a democratic, legal republic, Article 50, Part II guarantees freedom of mass information, as well as prohibits state censorship of the press. However, in recent years, dozens of journalists have been subjected to politically motivated administrative and criminal prosecution, ill-treatment, and illegal interference in the activities of electronic and written publications by administrative bodies.

In its statement, the organization further made calls on the government of Azerbaijani and its legislature to comply with the requirements of Articles 10 (freedom of expression), 47 (freedom of thought and expression), and 50 (freedom of information) of the European Convention.

Gubad Ibadoglu, professor of economics, who manages an online YouTube platform Biz told Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty that the new law aims to restrict the media and increase the risk of blocking critical television programs broadcast from abroad. 

First signs of controlling online content

On December 21, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan issued a statement that four citizens – Abushov Zamig, Mahmudov Ilgar, Ibrahimov Mehdi, and Safarsoy Rza – were invited to the prosecutor’s office for allegedly disseminating biased information on social networks. All four were warned that in case they repeat the offense, they could face more stringent measures reported Turan News Agency.

In addition, several websites were issued a fine in violation of Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. According to reporting by Report.az, on December 18, olke.az, and manevr.az, were fined in a total amount of AZN 1500 [USD 882] each over alleged illegal dissemination of information that promotes suicide as a solution mechanism, “while substantiating, inciting, and explaining the methods of its commission.” 

Lawyer Khaled Aghaly said the decision was embarrassing. In an interview with Meydan TV, Aghaly said that both websites were fined over publishing exact same text. “Manevr.az” website copied the story published by “olke.az.” According to the law on Mass Media, in case, information was shared from another resource [rather than published as an original text], the news outlet republishing the content should be freed from any responsibility. It is unfortunate that even the courts ignored this [when issuing their final decision],” explained Aghaly.

In addition, on December 18, journalist Sakhavat Mammad, with an online Yenicag.az website, was fined in a late-night trial, on charges of publishing prohibited information on an information resource or information/communication network in violation of Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. 

In March 2020, Article 388-1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses was aggravated with the penalty of up to one-month administrative detention with other sanctions against real or legal owners of internet information resources and associated domain names as well as against users of information-telecommunication networks for the placement, or the violation of provisions of the Information Law aiming at preventing the placement, of prohibited information on such internet information resources. 

Commenting on Sakhavat Mammad’s case, media law expert Alasgar Mammadli told Meydan TV that the new law is already being put to use even though it officially enters into force next year. “Calling the journalist to the prosecutor’s office, and then hastily fining him in court [in the absence of an investigation, explicit mentioning of which law was violated, and which secrets were spread], is nothing but a pressure on freedom of speech and is the violation of freedom of expression,” Mammadli added. 

But this is also not the first time that a journalist faced punishment over their work, reported Azerbaijan service for Radio Free Europe. In 2019, Mustafa Hajiyebli, editor of opposition bastainfo.com received an administrative sentence. He was accused of instilling chaos among the public. Around the same time, the editor of criminal.az website, Anar Mammadov faced similar charges. A number of other cases were documented in the most recent Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House. 

Finally, one secondary school principal Hikmet Aghajanov was warned by the Prosecutor Office, over alleged online dissemination of prohibited information on suicide according to reporting by Report.az.

December 21 statement by the Prosecutor Office further urged media entities and users of social networks to refrain from publicizing inaccurate and distorted information, warning that further measures would be taken otherwise.  

[Update] Over the next month the Prosecutor Office continued issuing warnings. Most recently on January 24, a group of social media users was warned while one social media user was sentenced to a month in administrative detention. Also, on January 24, activist and member of the opposition Musavat party’s youth branch, Aziz Mamiyev was questioned at the police according to reporting by Meydan TV. Mamiyev said it was his social media posts that had him questioned. The activist said police showed him the printout of his TikTok video too telling him he mentioned President Ilham Aliyev there. “They told me, it is your problem if you are criticizing the government but be careful about your writing. Be careful in your struggle,” wrote Mamiyev in a Facebook post adding that regardless he considers the nature of this visit political and pressure by the government against freedom of speech.

In a comment to AzNet Watch, an independent lawyer Emin Abbasov said, “Although Article 54.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses stipulates that the prosecutor shall initiate proceedings on certain categories of administrative offenses, the last sentence of that article authorizes the prosecutor to initiate proceedings on any other administrative offense. Apparently, the Code of the Administrative Offences (articles 54.2 and 99.3) empowers the Prosecutor General’s Office with wide powers including launching administrative offenses in any administrative offense cases. The wide discretion of criminal prosecution body beyond the criminal offenses, and in particular over the information distributed online puts huge pressure over freedom of expression and free flow of information.”

Gag order around “Terter” case

In another warning issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Interior Ministry, and the State Security Service of Azerbaijan, the government institutions warned of spreading false information on the ongoing Terter Case. According to the wording of the warning, “representatives of mass media, users of social media platforms, as well as participants in criminal proceedings [shall be] informed that the dissemination of preliminary investigation information without proper permission creates liability under criminal law.” The government institutions also warned that measures will be taken against those who disseminate biased and distorted information in order to overshadow the activities of government agencies and the victorious Azerbaijani Army, influence the investigation, and deliberately mislead the public.

The Terter Case refers to 2017 events surrounding a group of Azerbaijani servicemen accused of collaborating with the intelligence and security services of Armenia. At the time, the Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan launched a criminal case, under Article 274 (treason) of the Criminal Code on treason and other criminal acts. The faith of these men remained largely unknown until the following year, when “persons who claimed to have been illegally detained, interrogated and tortured” began talking about what happened to them on social media platforms. Since then, the case has been widely referred to as the Terter case. 

According to a statement by the OMCT issued in April 2021, following the investigations, it was possible to identify that at least “78 Azerbaijani citizens [were] detained and sentenced to between 12 and 20 years in prison, with multiple cases of torture, including 11 deaths in custody of Azerbaijani military personnel and civilians.” 

In June 2021, 24 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) signed a motion, requesting to appoint a rapporteur to investigate the reported torture and ill-treatment in the Terter case.

On November 1, Lieutenant General of Justice Khanlar Valiyev, deputy prosecutor general and military prosecutor of Azerbaijan “admitted to local media that more than 100 servicemen were tortured during the investigation of Terter case.” 

On November 5, 2021, the case was discussed during a meeting of the Committee on Legal Affairs of PACE according to reporting by Turan News Agency. 

What’s next?

The new media law enters into force on January 1, 2022. Media law experts and journalists, say instead, the authorities should have focused on decriminalizing defamation and libel, adopting a law on defamation and relying on existing legal structures rather than draft a new law, which was largely kept away from public discussions and despite demands by independent and opposition journalists and other representatives of civil society, refused to open the draft bill for review and recommendation process as has been the case with the Law on Access to Information, passed by Parliament in 2005. In an interview with Turan News Agency, lawyer Khaled Aghaly explained that at the time, “[the bill] was developed with the participation of media law experts, the local and international community.” Unfortunately, this practice was dismissed this time around explained Aghaly. 

Local experts believe it is possible to change the course as long as there is an interest on behalf of the government. Meanwhile, on December 24, the parliament is scheduled to discuss the existing law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information and the list of proposed amendments published on the parliament’s website on December 20. If approved the following changes will be made to the existing bill: 

  • in its present form, the law does not oblige the regulatory body to provide the information resource owners, internet and host providers, or other sites’ substantiated opinion reasoning for the content prohibited. In other words, the regulatory body and other state authorities can request to remove the content or block access to websites without any obligation to substantiate their demands;

    • The proposed amendment calls for clear reasoning behind the content removal request;
  • Previously a whole website could be closed for access for publishing “prohibited information”;
    • The proposed amendment calls blocking specific content; 

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.   

arqument.az Facebook page hacked

June 24, editor of an online news platform arqument.az Shamshad Agha reports that the platform’s Facebook page was hacked. 

The damage was significant Agha told AIW. Around 11,000 page likes were deleted as well as some 12,000 followers. All of the platform’s posts until March were also removed. 

The admins were able to restore access to the page since the attack.

Arqument.az website was blocked in August 2018, following a decision issued by Sabail District Court. A few days later, Baku Court of Appeal annulled district court’s decision. However, the website was blocked once again in April 2019 by the Ministry of Communication, Transportation and High Technologies after publishing the story about protests in Jalilabad district. This time, the blocking took place without a court order.

According to the editor, he was informed that unless he removes the reported story, the blocking will remain in place. However, the news platform refused and instead filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Communication, Transportation and High Technologies. After that, the blocking was lifted by the Ministry while the platform’s lawsuit continues.

The website was also subject to cyber attacks following blocking.

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.