editor of an online news site detained then released

On April 13, Zahir Amanov, editor of an online news site cenub.az was detained according to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan language service for Radio Liberty. 

Amanov, 70, is also the founder of the said website which covers regional news in southern Azerbaijan. 

According to reporting by Turan News Agency, Amanov was detained on charges of extortion by threat however, colleagues say the accusations are bogus and are related to his work exposing the extent of local and regional corruption at a government level. The case involves Israfil Aliyev, the head of a local administrative office in the village of Sygdash, Masalli region who claimed Amanov blackmailed him. “We have known Zair Amanov for 30 years, as the head of one of Azerbaijan’s leading regional media outlets and an experienced journalist. Therefore, the accusation of extorting money and arresting him red-handed seems implausible.  We have no doubt that the case has been fabricated and we will follow up on it,” said Arif Aliyev, director of the Baku Press Club in an interview with Turan. 

If convicted, Amanov is facing up to five years in jail. 

According to the latest updates, Amanov was released on April 15 while investigations into extortion continue. 

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. 

Toplum TV Facebook page hacked via SMS interception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

editor facing slander and insult charges

In Azerbaijan, editor of an online news website sozcu.az, Elshan Alisoy is facing slander and insult charges and a hefty fine. The charges leveled against the editor are related to the claims, raised by the Vice President of SOCAR [Azerbaijan State Oil Company] Mikayil Ismayilov. 

The vice president’s demands include a 100,000 AZN compensation [58.8 thousandUSD] for moral damage, charges of slander [Article 147], and insult [Article 148] of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan and closed-door hearing, over an article, Alisoy shared on Facebook. 

On June 22, a preparatory meeting was held in the Agsu District Court according to reporting by Turan News Agency. The agency reports that the hearing on the merits is scheduled for June 25. 

The editor’s lawyer, Nemat Karimli, says the acceptance of the claim into proceedings is unlawful. “According to Article 60 of the Law on Media, a person who reprints [reshares] an article published in another media is not responsible for the content.”

Titled, “The dark empire of Mikayil Ismayilov” the original article, that the blogger shared on his Facebook, was originally published by an online platform azadsoz.com [free word] on May 18, alleging that Mikayil Ismayilov oversees the management of the entire financial process in SOCAR’s covert operations.

Reposting the article, Elshan Alisoy, wrote the following comment, “Dear God, why they need all this wealth… Mikail Ismayilov is one of the 12 vice presidents of SOCAR. I call this, gluttony and barbarity.”  

The hearing in the case is scheduled for June 25. 

the tale of blocked websites

In July of last year, in their response to the Government of Azerbaijan, four of the websites that were blocked for access in Azerbaijan in 2017, reiterated their claim that the ban violates their right to freedom of expression. According to EHRAC, this response came following the Government’s [of Azerbaijan] submissions to the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”). 

EHRAC (European Human Rights Advocacy Center) represents four of the websites – Meydan TV, Azadliq Info, Azerbaycan Saadi, and Turan TV and has been working in tandem with local legal partners on the case. 

At the time of blocking these websites in 2017, the Government of Azerbaijan argued “a number of articles published by the four critical news websites included calls aimed at “forcible change of the constitutional order”, “organization of mass riots”, and other illegal activities.” 

In reality, all four websites are considered independent and/or platforms affiliated with opposition parties or their critical position against broader government practices and policies adopted by the ruling government of Azerbaijan. As a result, the decision to block them was based on the legal claims that lacked evidence. This was further reflected in the review process when the decision to block these platforms was implemented. According to EHRAC, “no effective and independent review took place in the first instance decision to block access to the websites in 2017, and in subsequent appeals. The courts simply accepted the authorities’ allegations at face value and made no attempt to adequately consider or explain why the content was unlawful.”

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

While access to the said websites remains blocked in Azerbaijan further developments signal a consistent pattern of censorship and impunity.

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.