In recent years, as social media platforms gained popularity among Azerbaijani users to express concern and criticize the ruling authorities, the government officials were quick to react. At several meetings of the national parliament, members voiced opinions about the need to control social media platforms.
In May the discussions were back on the table.
According to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, several members of the parliament and experts expressed discomfort over insult and slander often used on social media platforms.
Some of them were quick to offer amendments to existing national legislation, introducing punishments for such cases.
Fazil Mustafa, a member of the Human Rights Committee at the National Parliament said, while it is impossible to control social media platforms, using the Turkey example it is important that popular platforms and companies have legal representatives in Azerbaijan. This won’t be government control over social media platforms but rather a constructive partnership between the government and the companies’ representatives in the country.
This is not uncommon in countries with low democracy scores said media law expert Alasgar Mammadli. In these countries, the leadership is trying to introduce strict control measures under the pretext of protecting user rights and interests. “It is possible that like in Turkey where companies were forced to open offices, Azerbaijan would do the same. They may be asked to remove some personal information. Otherwise, they would be limited in their activities in the country or face fines,” said Mammadli in an interview with Azadliq Radio.
Alternatively, the authorities may consider introducing bans on some of the platforms but this won’t be effective according to Mammadli. “Experience shows that when Turkey blocked access to platforms like YouTube and Twitter, their user base only grew. Which means this may not be an effective method.”
Although, self-censorship is pervasive among ordinary social media users, who often face offline criminal charges for their online activism criticism of government policies and decisions on social media platforms is common and in some cases proven effective in changing the course of government decision-making.
Freedom House, Freedom on the Net, Azerbaijan country report 2019
In October 2018, a lawmaker proposed requiring internet users to register their social media accounts by linking them to their government-issued identity documents.
In February 2019, members of the parliament began discussing plans for new legislation. Musa Guliyev proposed creating a national social network and restricting access to all other platforms in order to “prevent people from slandering Azerbaijan.” Another member, Ziyafat Asgarov, suggested amending the Law on Mass Media to prevent social media users from insulting “the lawful actions, the personality, the honor or the dignity” of others. That same month, Aliyev signed a decree aimed at establishing a Social Research Center, which will monitor public opinion online, primarily through polling.
These statements came in the aftermath of a series of heated public discussions online. Among them was a campaign to drop newly leveled charges against imprisoned blogger Mehman Huseynov that would have extended his two-year sentence by an additional seven years. Huseynov went on hunger strike shortly after the new charges were announced, prompting an outpouring of support on social media under the hashtag #FreeMehman. In January 2019, thousands of people rallied in Baku to protest the government’s persecution of Huseynov. The rally, organized online, was among the country’s largest protests in recent years. The new charges were eventually dropped, and Huseynov was released in March 2019, after serving his two-year sentence.
Freedom House, Freedom on the Net, Azerbaijan country report, 2020
Following campaigns and rallies organized online in October 2019 and February 2020, the government indicated that it is interested in regulating platforms, with one lawmaker describing social media as an instrument for “moral terrorism.”In March 2020, one member of parliament proposed the creation of a dedicated body to monitor social media platforms and hold users who spread rumors accountable.
Azerbaijan already has laws in place criminalizing online speech. In 2013, general provisions on defamation and insult were expanded to include criminal liability for online content. Article 147.1 of the criminal code criminalizes the “dissemination, in … a publicly displayed internet information resource, of knowingly false information discrediting the honor and dignity of a person or damaging his or her reputation.” Article 148 of the criminal code similarly criminalizes “deliberate humiliation of the honor and dignity of a person, expressed in an obscene manner … through a publicly displayed internet information resource.” Also in 2016, changes to Article 323 of the criminal code introduced a maximum prison sentence of two years for defaming the president in mass media, which include social media. Defaming the president through fake “usernames, profiles, or accounts” may result in a three-year prison sentence. Falsely accusing the president of “having committed a serious or especially serious crime” online may result in a five-year prison sentence. In 2017, the fines associated with these offenses were increased.
Taking into account Azerbaijan’s human rights track record, the likelihood of new bills (especially those similar to Turkey) is not far-fetched.
“an internet shutdown is ‘an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.’ An internet shutdown happens when someone — usually a government — intentionally disrupts the internet or mobile apps to control what people say or do.”
In this context, the report notes that one trend in 2020 was how governments deployed internet shutdowns “in response to ongoing violence — particularly in active conflict zones.” But this decision comes at a great cost. “Amid conflict, shutdowns can hide human rights violations or war crimes, thwart journalism, and put people’s lives in danger.” In Azerbaijan during the armed conflict with Armenia, the government of Azerbaijan announced it would disrupt internet access across the country. This decision, prevented numerous online news platforms, from publishing news, and their readers, from accessing news. The authorities encouraged the Azerbaijani people to only use and rely on government media platforms, and updates from the government institutions. None of which, experienced the same difficulties and challenges with access as did the normal users.
Although the government in Azerbaijan did not ban the use of VPNs which became the top most downloaded apps during the war, it did encourage users not to rely on virtual private networks. Some of the companies refused to offer their services to customers using VPNs on their devices. When confronted, they refuted the claims this was the case.
The new report also mentioned the role tech companies play in internet shutdowns globally, chief among them Sandvine and Allot. Azerbaijan has used the technology by both companies on different occasions and for different purposes. During the 44-day war, Sandine worked with Delta Telecom – Azerbaijan’s backbone internet provider, which is owned by the government to block access to live stream videos from YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.
Given Azerbaijan has purchased both technologies, the chances of both of them being deployed during the most recent internet shutdown are high.
*Sandvine provides Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment that enabled shutdowns and website blocking.
*Allot‘s DPI equipment can track applications in use, what is done while using these apps, the locations of users, the video content viewed, and contacts. It can also shut down entire networks, websites, services, slow down internet traffic so that people cannot transmit videos or photos, or block traffic altogether.
[Update] On March 3, Sumgayit Appeal Court held a hearing in the case of arrested N!DA member Elmir Abbasov. During the hearing, Abbasov recounted how he was taken off the street, beaten, and humiliated by the local police and how they planted drugs on him. The presiding judge, Elman Ahmadov, prevented journalists, civil society representatives, and Abbasov’s family members from entering the courtroom reported Azadliq Radio. Abbasov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, said, this constitutes a violation of the court’s transparency principle. All of the lawyer’s motions were dismissed, including a request to study camera footage on the day of the arrest, as well as the questioning of Rauf Babashov, the Deputy Chief of Sumgayi City Police department.
The case launched against the activist claims, Abbasov was detained as a suspect in the theft. The activist rejects the case brought against him. In his statement, Abbasov said, he went to buy bread from the market, when he was stopped by plainclothed men. They told Abbasov he was to come with them to the police station. When he refused to follow the men, asking for an official warrant, he was shoved into the car and taken to the city police department. In his statement, Abbasov said after arriving at the city police department he was held there for five hours, after which he was transferred to police station no.4. “They threatened me. One police officer named Bahruz started shaking me and using derogatory language on our way to the station. When we got out of the car, he dragged me by my jacket. Then he started hitting me at the entrance to the station. At that moment another officer, under the pretext of rescuing me, dropped drugs in my pocket,” recounted Abbasov in court.
Police claim they found drugs on Abbasov during their search. But Abbasov’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov argues the delay in full body search, even by half an hour after an arrest is suspicious. Especially when Abbasov remained under police custody for several hours and was searched hours later.
Despite the lawyer’s motion to release Abbasov, the court rejected the appeal and kept its previous decision in the case of the activist – one-month administrative detention.
On February 22, Elmir Abbasov, a member of civic movement N!DA [translation: exclamation mark] was arrested in Sumgayit. He was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention on bogus drug possession charges.
Abbasov’s friends, refute drug allegations, saying the arrest is connected to his posts online, critical of the ruling government and that Abbasov was kidnapped in front of his home in Sumgayit city.
Following Abbasov’s arrest, N!DA movement issued this statement: “Member of N!DA and activist Elmir Abbasov was detained several days ago. We were only able to find out today [February 22]. Elmir Abbasov’s lawyer, Zibeyde Sadigova confirmed his detention. Elmir Abbasov was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention in accordance with Article 206 of the Code of Administrative Offenses [Illegal consumption of drugs, psychotropic substances, preparation, acquisition, storage, transportation, or shipment in the amount of personal consumption without the purpose of sale]. Surely, the reason for Elmir Abbasov’s arrest is his political and social activism, his posts on social networks. Elmir Abbasov’s arrest is yet another example of persecution and repression against political activists. The primary condition for having a civil and just political environment in Azerbaijan is to stop all political repressions and release of all political prisoners. All political prisoners and Elmir Abbasov must be freed!”
Nidaçı fəal Elmir Abbasov bir neçə gün öncə Sumqayıt polisi tərəfindən saxlanılıb. Bu barədə məlumatı bu gün əldə…
Abbasov’s most recent post was published on February 16 which gives ground for his friends and colleagues to believe, that the cause of Abbasov’s arrest was this post. “The people of Azerbaijan know the truth, but do not speak it. The people know, that the main culprit of corruption in the country is Ilham Aliyev. The ministers, the government officials are simply a small part of this scheme. Is it really possible that billions are removed from the state budget and the head of state is unaware of this? Of course, he does and he also profits from it. So if people are aware of this, why they don’t say anything? Because the people are afraid of Ilham Aliyev. They are afraid of the things they may lose [employment, community, freedom, lives] if they go against Ilham Aliyev […]”
Azərbaycan xalqı həqiqəti bilir amma onu demir. Xalq bilir ki, ölkədə baş verən milyardlıq korrupsiya faktlarının əsl…
Independent journalist, Ulviyya Ali, reported on February 23, that Abbasov was tortured and beaten by the officers. “He was beaten both inside the car right after he was kidnapped from the front of his house and then at the station. He was threatened with torture unless he removed the post about Ilham Aliyev,” wrote the journalist via her Twitter account.
30 gün inzibati həbs cəzası alan Nida-çı Elmir Abbasov Sumqayıt Polis İdarəsində işgəncəyə məruz qalıb. Onu evinin qabağından oğurlayandan sonra maşında və idarədə döyüblər. Elmir Abbasovu İlham Əliyevlə bağlı yazdıqlarını silmədiyi halda ağır işgəncələrlə təhdid ediblər. pic.twitter.com/eL4agEGoVi
The corruption allegations Abbasov alludes to in his Facebook post, are reflected in Azerbaijan’s global ranking on Corruption Perception Indexes. According to 2020, Transparency International global CPI Azerbaijan ranked 129 out of 180 countries. The most recent corruption scandal where Azerbaijan’s name cameos is this investigation, published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) on February 22. The investigation revealed how since 2015, Azerbaijan sold weapons stockpile to Congo-Brazaville. Although it was not possible to allocate the exact price the Congolese regime paid for the shipments, one expert said, it was possibly worth tens of millions of dollars, according to the investigation.
In 2017, another corruption scandal, Azerbaijani Laundromat exposed how the ruling elite ran a secret slush fund and a complex money-laundering scheme. The fund was mostly used to help whitewash Azerbaijan’s international image at the Council of Europe. Several delegates of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council (PACE), were among the recipients of the laundered money and were later expelled.
These are just a few recent examples of how far and deep corruption runs.
January 29, 2021 – Resident of Mingachevir city, Sardar Asgarov was taken to local police, beaten, and forced to apologize over his criticism of the local government officials on social media.
In an interview with Meydan TV, a Berlin-based online news platform, covering Azerbaijan, Asgarov said, a man showed up at his door on January 26 in the morning telling him, he was coming from the Mingachevir Employment Center. Once Sadigov stepped outside of his door, three other men showed up and attacked Sadigov.
According to Sadigov he was then taken to the local police where the city’s deputy chief, Javid Talibov slapped him, used derogatory language and told him who was he to criticize local administration, and the head of the police on social media. “He then forced me to kneel, and to apologize while Talibov was filming me with his phone,” Sadigov told Meydan TV.
The same day, Sadigov was fined and let go.
Sadigov said both his mobile phones that were taken by the police were formated and his accounts on social media platforms were deleted. “The deputy chief told me if I criticize local authorities again, he will find a way to arrest me.”
In the meantime, Mingachevir City Police told Meydan TV, Sadigov was detained for hooliganism and fined for 50AZN and that Sadigov’s claims about violence and threats he was subject to at the police are not true. Similarly, the city administrative office refuted Sadigov’s claims that he was detained on the orders of the office. The office also said they consider Sadigov’s comments on social media as slander.
Sadigov’s posts on social media criticized one of the city government departments for withholding salaries of women employees, and not helping them during the pandemic. Sadigov also criticized the city police for preventing these women from protesting.
December 14, freelance journalist Nurlan Gahramanli (Libre) reported being questioned at the Baku City Main Police Department over alleged extortion charges. But Gahramanli refutes the claims and believes, the reason for his persecution is his live coverage of Victory Day protests on December 10 that he did over Facebook.
“A police officer named Fuad Babayev invited me to the bureau. He told me that I have allegedly blackmailed a man named Tabriz Ahliyarli via ‘Orange Media’ Instagram account in November [the account previously managed by Gahramanli, but which he no longer has access to according to Gahramanli himself]. I told him, I never heard of the name,” the journalist told Meydan TV. Gahramanli does not rule out that the allegation of blackmail and extortion is the work of the Organized Crime department that detained and questioned Gahramanli on October 30. During his detention, his phone was confiscated and the department had access to it. Gahramanli believes it is possible that the department employees established contact with Tabriz Ahliyarli using Gahramanli’s ‘Orange Media’ Instagram account to later blackmail Gahramanli and use it as proof that indeed he has made contact with the alleged victim.
“During the questioning by Fuad Babayev, I was threatened with a criminal case and imprisonment,” Gahramanli told Meydan TV.
The journalist publicized his visit to the Organized Crime Unit via various online news platforms. The following day the Ministry of the Interior called him and told him his phone was under surveillance and that if I continue my journalist work, persecution will continue and that I will be arrested.”
Meanwhile, the Ministry of the Interior has refuted Gahramanli’s claim that he was beaten during his detention at the Organized Crime Unit. Instead, the ministry said in an official statement that Gahramanli received a warning from the relevant authorities, following a series of complaints by “many citizens” who have informed the Ministry of the Interior, Gahramanli made contacts and befriended Armenians on social platforms, liked and shared their public posts critical of Azerbaijan. “Nurlan Gahramanli was invited to the police following these appeals and after getting his statement, he was given a warning and released. Gahramanli’s claims that he is being prosecuted by the authorities are baseless,” said the statement.
In August, when people in Belarus took the streets across the country in protest of election results where incumbent President Lukashenka secured yet another victory in a contested presidential election, authorities deliberately cut the internet. Quickly, experts concluded DPI technology may be in use. By the end of August, it was reported that this DPI technology was produced by the Canadian company Sandvine and supplied to Belarus as part of a $2.5million contract with the Russian technology supplies Jet Infosystems.
DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) is known as digital eavesdropping that allows information extraction. More broadly as explained here, DPI “is a method of monitoring and filtering internet traffic through inspecting the contents of each packet that is transmitted through an inspection point, allowing for filtering out malware and unwanted traffic, but also real-time monitoring of communications, as well as the implementation of targeted blockings and shutdowns.”
Canadian company Sandvine is owned by American private equity firm Francisco Partners.
Sandvine technology has been detected in many countries across the world, including in Ethiopia, Iran, as well as Turkey, and Syria as previously reported. One other country where Sandvine technology was reportedly deployed is Azerbaijan.
In Azerbaijan, the DPI deployments have been used since March 2017. This was reported in January 2019, when VirtualRoad, the secure hosting project of the Qurium – Media Foundation published a report documenting fresh attacks against Azerbaijan’s oldest opposition newspaper Azadliq’s website (azadliq.info). The report concluded: “After ten months trying to keep azadliq.info online inside Azerbaijan using our Bifrost service and bypassing multi-million dollar DPI deployments, this is one more sign of to what extent a government is committed to information control”.
Another report released in April 2018 showed evidence of the government of Azerbaijan using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) since March 2017. The report also found out that this specialized security equipment was purchased at a price tag of 3 million USD from an Israeli security company Allot Communications.
Now, according to this story reported by Bloomberg, Sandvine worked with Delta Telecom – Azerbaijan’s main internet provider and owned by the government to install a system to block live stream videos from YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. “The social media blackout came last week after deadly clashes with Armenia. As a result, people in Azerbaijan couldn’t reach websites including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zoom, and Skype, according to internet monitoring organization Netblocks,” wrote Bloomberg.
Azerbaijan Internet Watch has been monitoring the situation on the ground since September 27, the day when clashes began. Together with OONI, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported that access to several social media applications and websites was blocked.
Access to the Internet remains throttled in Azerbaijan as of writing this post. Many of the social media applications remain accessible only through a VPN provider. As a result, authorities have resorted to other means in order to prevent users from using VPN services. From banks to ISPs encouraging users not to use VPN services, this account on Facebook made a list of VPNs alleging they were of Armenian origin in order to discourage users.
[UPDATE] On November 12, access to the Internet was finally restored across the country in Azerbaijan. This was shared in an announcement shared by the Ministry of Communication, Transportation and High Technologies on November 11. In a statement, the Ministry said:
The temporary restriction on Internet access imposed in our country in order to prevent large-scale provocations and cyber incidents committed by the Republic of Armenia will be lifted on November 12, 2020, with the exception of the territories liberated from occupation and former frontier zones.
The Ministry expresses gratitude to millions of Azerbaijani Internet users for their understanding in connection with the restriction on Internet access over the past period.
It should be noted that the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies imposed restrictions on the provision of Internet in the country on September 27, 2020.
ABC.az, a local online news platform, reported that restrictions remained in territories liberated from occupation and territories that previously belonged to the frontline zone.
November 11, the Cabinet of Ministers said it had no information about the lifting of restrictions on Internet access in the country while addressing Turan News Agency. Meanwhile, the head of an opposition Popular Front party Ali Karimli called for an immediate end to restrictions imposed on Internet access and to social media platforms. Unlike Karimli, the head of Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Osman Gunduz, sees gradual transition as an alternative. “Although the military operations are over, keeping restrictions imposed on social media platforms is needed.” Gunduz suggested keeping restrictions on WhatsApp and YouTube as these were two of the most popular platforms where false information about the fighting made rounds. In contrast, the head of the Internet Forum, it would be suitable to lift the ban on Twitter because this platform is widely used to disseminate information about the war to an international audience. Gunduz said similar restrictions are common practice across countries including in Europe and the UK where governments restricted internet access during mass protests. “In the UK, during acts of terrorism, the government restricted access to social media platforms.” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, could not verify this statement. Unlike Azerbaijan, the UK is ranked “free” in Freedom on the Net ranking by Freedom House. Similarly, most of the European countries, are categorized under “little or no censorship, and surveillance” countries.
As of November 7, access to the Internet remained limited with users of state operators Baktelecom and Aztelekom remaining largely disconnected or with slower than usual internet speed. The rest of the providers worked in a limited capacity while access to social media platforms remained blocked.
October 21, President Ilham Aliyev in an interview with the Japanese Nikkei newspaper said restrictions on Internet access and on the use of social media platforms in Azerbaijan are only temporary. “Once active fighting is over we will restore all access.”
October 20, State Security Service encouraged Azerbaijani citizens to refrain from using VPN providers when trying to access social media platforms that have been inaccessible as a result of the restrictions imposed by the government. It warned that some of the VPN providers such as SkyVPN is not trusted and can steal persona information. To its credit, the SSS is correct about the poor quality of this specific VPN service.
October 13, on the 16th day of escalated tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Internet access remains throttled in Azerbaijan. The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies claims throttling is in line with government orders given the active state of military operations. But not to everyone. Independent media and journalists complain they have had issues posting news since the start of the recent conflict on September 27 on their websites and social media accounts. In addition to slowing down the Internet, on October 8, a story reported by Bloomberg identified the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology in Azerbaijan to effectively block access to many of the social media platforms in the country as well. However, this is not the case for government news outlets and government institutions. The latter’s access to uninterrupted and undisrupted Internet highlights the inequality of access to information both by those who produce independent news as well as the audience of these platforms. Experts say that blocking specific content may align with the existing legal framework, however, throttling access to the Internet altogether is a violation of user rights.
October 10, while the spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, Gunel Gozalova said in a statement to Report.az, that the ministry remains uncertain about the duration of the government imposed internet limitations, independent economy expert Togrul Mashalli, has raised the issue of the economic costs, the recent internet disruptions are posting. Writing through his personal Telegram channel, Mashalli wrote, “it is not just the social media platforms that are limited, but other services too. And this is happening across the whole country. According to the Netblocks Cost of Shutdown Tool, Azerbaijan’s economy is suffering from a total of 44.8millionUSD loss per day. So over the 13 days, this adds up to a 582,4million USD. Since the Internet has not fully been turned off, the total losses are probably around 200-250million USD (we should take into account that social media platforms are often an important part of local internet economy).”
October 9, Gunel Gozalova, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, said, the government has not shut down the internet. “We have only restricted the Internet. So no one can say, there is no internet at all […] The restrictions introduced are simply to prevent unwanted, unverified, war-related content on social networks. We have taken these measures to protect Azerbaijan’s positions in cyberspace.” The spokesperson said, she does not have any information about how long these restrictions will last. Other experts as the head of Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Osman Gunduz said, the restrictions should be taken with an understanding: “it is possible that we don’t have access to certain information and we can’t analyze what is happening as a result. We think if social media platforms and the internet remained completely open to access it would have been better. But this is not the case. It is normal that given the military situation this step was taken. This is legal. However, I am for having additional measures in place especially for those wanting to fight anti-Azerbaijan propaganda online. It is necessary to set up centers and create a suitable environment for media, experts, and others who have experience working in an international environment.”
October 8, ABC.az local online news platform released a list of VPN providers claiming they were allegedly Armenian providers. The list includes the following VPN services: Express VPN, Nord VPN, VPN 360, CyberGhost VPN, HMA Vpn, Surfshark VPN. While finding the right VPN provider is often challenging, and some of the listed companies do have murky ownership presenting these services as Armenian owned is inaccurate and misleading. Instead, ABC.az could have offered this source for comparisons of numerous VPN services.
October 3, a number of mobile operators came forward refuting claims of limiting access to users relying on VPN services from their devices. Nar mobile said they have not introduced any additional limitations to their users relying on VPN services, adding that within the recently introduced internet restrictions and for the sake of protecting their users’ information, users of the mobile operator may face restrictions while accessing “Nar+” application and “nar.az” website. “Information on your mobile devices, as well as passwords used for other applications can be stolen by third parties when using VPN applications. We call on our subscribers to protect their security and advice against the use of VPN applications,” said the mobile operator in an interview with MediaPost.
Another mobile operator Bakcell, said, no extra restrictions were applied by the operator. The company did however encourage its clients to resort to the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies on rules and recommendations about the use VPN services. “Given the current environment, citizens should accept the circumstances with an understanding and follow cyber security rules. It is also important, to pay attention to the origins and trustworthiness of the applications in use.”
Azercell Telekom said it bears no responsibility over its users devices, as well as their security and that it only provides its clients with internet connection within the scope of its telecom services, which include access to social media platforms and websites.
October 1, Government in Azerbaijan continues to pose limitations to Internet access as tensions continue on the front line. Joining them are internet providers and telecom companies. According to Azerbaijan Press Agency (APA), Azerfon mobile company (with alleged ties to the ruling family) told its users, that its website and the mobile application won’t be accessible for users, using VPN. At the time of writing this update, the website was inaccessible from abroad, without a VPN.
September 30, according to the most recent reports Internet access remains throttled in Azerbaijan. Users report:
Bakinternet (ISP)- not working
Access to social media platforms not possible without a VPN;
Whatsapp app and its web extension are not working (without a VPN);
WiFi connections are down for some;
Internet speed is slow;
Gmail is accessible without a VPN;
Some banks [ex. Rabitabank] has informed its customers their mobile app won’t be accessible if users have VPN active;
Bakcell [mobile operator] and Kapitalbank mobile apps are not accessible when VPN is used;
On its website, Bakinternet (an ISP for Bak Telecom) shared a similar statement seen earlier on the website of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies: “In order to prevent provocations from Armenia, access to the Internet has been limited.”
⚠️DİQQƏT! 🔥Azərbaycanda iş yerlərində insanlardan VPN app-lərini silməyi tələb edirlər. 📌VPN istifadəsinin təhlükəli olduğu deyilir və bir çox insan da həmin tətbiqləri silir. 📌Həmçinin AzərTac-da VPN-nin təhlükəli olduğu barədə yazı, televiziyalarda da verilişlər yayımlanıb. pic.twitter.com/aeXYo9MsJE
Employees are asked to delete VPN apps at the workplaces; They are told using VPN is dangerous; AzerTac (state news agency) published articles and aired TV shows discussing the dangers of VPN;
According to the VPN service Surfshark website, the sale of VPN in Azerbaijan witnessed a sharp increase as the country moved to block social media platforms starting September 27. “An increased number of Azerbaijanis are turning to Surfshark VPN, leading to an ongoing spike in sales. As a VPN service, Surfshark allows users to overcome government blockades. It doesn’t matter if the new restrictions are imposed via a relatively simple DNS-level block or a sophisticated deep packet inspection, a VPN can open access to blocked media.”
As users in Azerbaijan began increasingly reliant on VPN providers rumors of imposed fines against those who are accessing the blocked content began circulating online. However, the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies said, this was not true and that the government body, cannot impose fines. There is also no such legislation in Azerbaijan on the use of VPNs. Instead, the ministry representative encouraged Azerbaijani users, to rely on government media, and stop looking for news on social networks.
September 29, as clashes on the front line continued on the third day, Internet access in Azerbaijan remained spotty. Users continued reporting difficulties accessing social media platforms. Access to government websites remained spotty. The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies did not share any further updates on how much longer the situation will last.
September 28, according to the most recent reports from Azerbaijan, users continued to face difficulties accessing social media platforms unless using VPN services.
Government websites that were mostly inaccessible yesterday were restored.
The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies (MCHT) has not made any further statements about the duration of currently imposed throttling.
Instead, MCHT did issue a warning to users of VPN services in the country with the caveat they were unsafe, collecting private user information, and also capable of infecting devices with malware. The Ministry failed to mention the amount of surveillance technology used by other government institutions against citizens in Azerbaijan.
Based on OONI Measurement results it was possible to confirm that the following applications were blocked in Azerbaijan:
According to measurements, the Facebook messenger app was reachable.
Similarly, according to measurements access to the Telegram app was available on some networks.
As tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated on the front line on September 27, Internet users in Azerbaijan began reporting issues accessing the Internet, social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others), and communication apps (WhatsApp, Telegram).
Yalnız sosial şəbəkələrə girişi məhdudlaşdırırlar, deyəsən. İnternetdə problem yoxdur çünki. Başqa saytlara girmək olur.
According to a global #KeepItOn campaign, “Public safety, national security, or stopping fake news are commonly used to justify shutdowns.” Looking at data collected as a result of the campaign there is a significant annual growth in the number of shutdowns reported across the world. Last year alone, 1706 days of internet access were disrupted by 213 internet shutdowns across 33 countries according to #KeepItOn campaign.
Internet disruptions of various forms and scale in Azerbaijan are not new. Since April, a leader of an opposition party has had his internet cut off. Sometimes they are reportedly caused as a result of technical incidents. In other cases, access to internet is intentionally slowed down especially around political events.
While some users online commented on internet disruptions as necessary measure to prevent spread of unconfirmed information, others argued the decision to simply throttle the connection was an easy solution especially when there is no way, the authorities can control social media platforms.
Azerbaijan Internet Watch continues to monitor developments on the ground.
Parliament in Azerbaijan is set to discuss a draft law on hate speech. While independent critics say there is no need for a separate law, given the existing legal framework that does offer context on hate speech, there is suspicion it is another law with an intention to harm independent voices.
On September 17, Zahid Oruc, member of the parliament and the head of the Human Rights Committee at the National Parliament, suggested parliament adopts a new law on hate speech. Oruc said the main goal of the law would be to prevent hate speech in information space. While promising, the draft law will be released for public discussion before it goes to the parliament during the fall session, the MP also added the draft law, may consider including social media platforms as part of the information space.
Azerbaijan Internet Watch talked to Elesger Memmedli, a media law expert in Azerbaijan about the draft law. Memmedli thinks there is no need for a separate law on hate speech because Azerbaijan already has plenty of laws that can be amended to regulate hate speech. “What is worrying is the intention. At the moment, the draft law is aimed at political speeches and other instances. But the likelihood of this law to be used as a limiting norm is high.”
The tradition of using existing legal framework or laws against opposition or independent voices goes back to the case of the then opposition journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, explained to Azerbaijan Internet Watch, lawyer Khaled Aghaly. At the time of the sentence [in 20o7] Fatullayev was accused of terrorism, defamation, and incitement to racial hatred. Like Memmedli, Agahly agrees there is no need for a new law when Azerbaijan has Article 283 of the Criminal Code – on Excitation of national, racial, social, or religious hate and hostility.
During the height of the pandemic in Azerbaijan, the parliament introduced a series of amendments to existing laws that were then used to prosecute activists explains Elesger Memmedli. “Shortly after [the amendments] scores of activists were rounded up, including members of [opposition] Popular Front. Some were taken straight from their homes and sentenced to lengthy administrative detention,” recalls Memmedli [some of these arrests were captured here].
In 2017, when changes were made to the law on religious terrorism, two prominent members of the Popular Front were arrested relying on the existing legislation, even though it was clear, it was a setup, as neither of the activists had any religious affiliation or background explains Memmedli.
In July, a court convicted Faig Amirli, an APFP member and financial director of the now-closed pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, on bogus charges of inciting religious hatred and tax-evasion. He received a suspended sentence.
In January 2017, a Baku court convicted senior APFP member Fuad Gahramanli to 10 years’ imprisonment for inciting religious and ethnic hatred; he posted criticisms of the government on Facebook.
So while hate speech may be a legitimate concern the existing examples tell a different story says Memmedli.
Meanwhile, Zahid Oruc, vowed the drat law, would not limit the freedom of speech.
On September 10, the Facebook page that belongs to an online news website bastainfo.com was hacked. Bastainfo.com is affiliated with the opposition party Musavat and is known for often running into problems with the authorities. Its editor was handed a five year suspended sentence in February 2019. The website bastainfo.com remains blocked for access in Azerbaijan.
In January 2020, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported how several Musavat party social media accounts were targeted. According to preliminary reports five Facebook pages, one Facebook group, and one website were targeted.
Bastainfo.com page was targeted then as well. The page lost followers. During last week’s attack, bastainfo.com page lost some 5k followers, and content that was shared since 2017.
Hacking and compromising Facebook, Instagram, and YouTubeaccounts (because these are popular platforms used by journalists and activists) is common in Azerbaijan and isn’t new. The online harassment of prominent accounts began several years ago at first, mostly on the level of government-sponsored trolls. Over the years, as the ruling government developed an interest in spyware technology, the types of attacks became more sophisticated while state-sponsored trolling and reliance on automated bots even though still used, became secondary. In each of these cases, finding the perpetrators have not been possible. And in cases when it was clear the attacker was an automated bot/state-sponsored troll the platform took no action. We finally know why. A former Facebook employee, Sophie Zhang, wrote a memo after getting fired from her job at the company revealing how the company dealt with fake accounts and bots. Among the countries, she has worked on and analyzed was Azerbaijan. “Ms. Zhang discovered that the ruling political party in Azerbaijan was also using false accounts to harass opposition figures. She flagged the activity over a year ago, she said, but Facebook’s investigation remains open and officials have not yet taken action over the accounts.”
On September 8, seven Azerbaijani dissidents who now live in various cities across Europe were targeted by the government of Azerbaijan. In addition to being formally charged with a crime in their absence and arrest warrants issued, the authorities have vowed to ask Interpol for their extradition.
The story goes back to last year when an Azerbaijani blogger, Elvin Isayev was extradited to Azerbaijan from Ukraine. Isayev lived in Russia since 1998 and was known for his critical views of the government. He acquired Russian citizenship in 2001. 19 years later, a court in St. Petersburg ruled to strip him of Russian citizenship and expel him. The following month Isayev moved to Ukraine, after an interim measure of the European Court of Human Rights called “Rule 39” suspended his deportation. Three months later he went missing only to appear in Azerbaijan where the Azerbaijan State Migration Service claimed Isayev was deported, a statement that was later refuted by Ukraine’s State Migration Service which said it never ordered Isayev’s deportation.
Few days after his “arrival” in Azerbaijan, Isayev was charged with calling for mass riots and public incitement against the ruling government. Now, the Prosecutor General office is seeking the deportation of seven men accusing them of the same crimes.
Ordukhan Babirov, Gurban Mammadov, Orkhan Agayev, Rafel Piriyev, Ali Hasanaliyev, Tural Sadigli, and Suleyman Suleymanli have been now charged in their absence. Many of these men are known for their online media activism, managing popular opposition YouTube channels, and for organizing street protests across European capitals in support of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, highlighting human rights violations and other advocacy engagements. One of the targeted men, popular activist, Ordukhan Babirov (known as Ordukhan Temirkhan Babirov) wrote in a Facebook post “[…] how many more times are they are going to give my name to Interpol”.
In an interview with OC-Media Tural Sadigli, activist and editor of Azad Soz [Free Speech] online news platform, said he faced a criminal case in 2019. “I was slighly surprised. They can’t reach us, they cannot stop our activities, so they use such forms of pressure,” Sadigli told OC Media.
This is not the first time, the government in Azerbaijan is resorting to Interpol. But according to Interpol, “[it] cannot compel the law enforcement authorities in any country to arrest someone who is the subject of a Red Notice. Each member country decides what legal value it gives to a Red Notice and the authority of their law enforcement officers to make arrests.
The persecution against activists at home and abroad is on-going. For years, the ruling Baku tried silencing dissident voices both inside the country through threats, intimidation, and arrests and abroad through public shaming campaigns, and targeting of remaining family members.
A week ago, a court in Baku sentenced veteran dissident Tofig Yagublu to four years and three months in jail on bogus charges. A campaign calling for his freedom #FreeTofigYagublu and #TofiqYaqubluyaAzadliq was launched and many of the targeted activists mentioned in this story have been rallying behind the campaign. Similarly, a youth activist who is among the organizers of the September 9 rally in support of Yagublu, was also targeted online and blackmailed.