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

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

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

A number of citizens have received warnings over their social media posts in recent weeks. In a statement published on July 30, the General Prosecutor’s Office said it has warned seven other users over their public posts shared on social media. The Prosecutor’s Office in a statement said the users were warned after the Prosecutor’s Office identified a violation of the Law on Media. Specifically, the statement said, 

During monitoring, it was identified that during the publication of news in media, provisions of Article 14.1.11 of the Law on Media were not observed [Facts and events must be presented impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed]. 

In order to prevent cases of violation of socio-political stability, human and citizen rights and freedoms, a number of relevant persons were invited to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the prosecutor took measures. 

As such, Sakhavat Mammadov, Rovshan Mammadov, Zulfugar Alasgarov, Elgun Rahimov, Fuzuli Kahramani, Zeynal Bakhshiyev and Ruslan Izzetli received a warning based on Article 22 of the Law on Prosecutor – to avoid cimilar negative incidents from taking place again.

The General Prosecutor’s Office repeats, in its appeal to media and social network users, that dissemination of unverified information that lacks clarificaition from the state institutions is unacceptable and holds one accountable according to existing legislation. 

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

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

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

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

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

inspired lawmakers rush to discuss social media regulations in Azerbaijan

On May 29, now former President Trump signed an executive order to “pressure regulators, including the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, to come up with new rules that would curtail that immunity.” The order came shortly after Twitter fact-checked Trump’s tweet “over a false assertion that mail-in voting leads to widespread fraud.” 

Two days later, lawmakers in Azerbaijan were back to discussing the possibility to control social media platforms. Speaking at the parliament session, member of the parliament and the ruling New Azerbaijan Party Siyavush Novruzov said, the US was finally seeing that the seeds it has been sowing across the world, are turning against America. He reminded the parliament that he raised the issue before, recalling saying, foreign-based entities, bear no responsibility for their actions while supporting terrorism, assassination attempts against world leaders, and extremism. The MP did not give examples to specific cases and instead said at the time when the issue of controlling social media platforms was mentioned, it was interpreted as a violation of the freedom of the media. 

Speaking on the same issue, another MP Javid Osmanov, said, it was time for Azerbaijan to adopt a similar law especially to strengthen the national security in Azerbaijan. 

This is not the first time Azerbaijan lawmakers discuss introducing regulatory measures for social media platforms. 

In 2018, MP Hadi Rajabli, said social media platforms that engage in anti-government propaganda must but controlled. Rajabli has previously criticized social networks. “Harmful factors such as social media, Facebook, messenger apps and the like play a big role in the disintegration of families, divorces, and early marriages, because many people use social media for entertainment and end up facing serious problems,” Rajabli said during one parliamentary discussion.  Another MP Araz Alizada went as far as to claim, normal people do not use social media platforms. 

In 2017, Azerbaijani lawmakers approved criminal charges for defamation against the president on social media platforms, the use of censorship during martial law; and restricting media access to information on private property and businesses. According to changes to Article 321(1) of the Criminal Code, a maximum sentence of five years in prison was introduced for defaming or humiliating the honor and dignity of the president in mass media and social media. The changes also increased the fine from AZN1500 to AZN2500.

In February 2018, ahead of the snap presidential election, the Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov expressed concern over social media platforms. He claimed they have grown uncontrollably and are difficult to regulate during the election process. At a National Parliament Human Rights Committee meeting in January 2017, Chairman of the Press Council Aflatun Amashov discussed creating legislation to monitor and regulate bloggers and social media platforms. Other members of parliament supported the potential legislation, saying that there is a “serious need to regulate this field.” While no pieces of legislation have been proposed this is likely to change in the upcoming February discussions at the national parliament.

In 2015, the Ministry for Communication and Hight Technologies (now the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies) said it will require some social media and instant messaging services, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber, to obtain a license in order to operate in Azerbaijan. While no progress has been towards enforcing this it would be interesting to watch the upcoming discussions at the parliament. 

Azerbaijani lawmakers have been eyeing Turkey’s recent laws on social media including the controversial bill adopted in July 2020 that requires social media giants, establish local representatives, store user data locally and comply with orders for content removal, face fines and slowed bandwidth in the case of noncompliance.