in Azerbaijan State Security Service blocks TikTok during the most recent clashes [Updated November 7]

[Update] According to Turan News Agency reporting, the temporary ban on TikTok placed in September was removed. The decision was announced by the service for electronic safety at the Ministry of Digitial Development and Transport. 

Users of the social media platform TikTok in Azerbaijan started reporting difficulties accessing the application as early as September 13. On September 14, the State Security Service announced its decision to block access to the platform entirely on the grounds the platform was casting a shadow over the military activities, revealing military secrets, and forming wrong public opinion. 

According to testimonies of users in Azerbaijan, soldiers were sharing videos from the line of contact along the Azerbaijan-Armenia border. Some of these videos were graphic. Graphic videos also circulated on the Telegram app. OC Media reported about the first video while users said there was a second video resurfacing online.  

Other users said they experienced issues accessing WhatsApp, Telegram, and slow internet connectivity speeds. 

Azerbaijan Internet Watch together with partner organization OONI analyzed data provided by local testers on the ground and confirmed the blocking on the platform in Azerbaijan. The analysis revealed that TikTok was also blocked in Armenia. 

The blocking came at a time of renewed clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

According to the collected and analyzed OONI data,

the testing of www.tiktok.com and Tiktok endpoints presented a relatively large volume of anomalies between the 13th to 15th of September 2022, following the eruption of border clashes on the 12th of September 2022. It’s worth noting though that while www.tiktok.com measurements (showing signs of blocking) were collected from Azerbaijan from 13th September onwards, TikTok endpoint measurements are only available from 14th September 2022 onwards (when they were added to the test list for Azerbaijan). 

In summary, based on the analysis of 681 OONI metrics collected from 5 different networks in Azerbaijan, we conclude that:

  • The main TikTok website (www.tiktok.com) and several endpoints essential to its functionality were blocked on at least 3 different networks (AS29049AS41997AS31721);

  • On all networks where we identified blocking, it seems to be implemented by means of TLS level interference by dropping packets after noticing a disallowed server_name;

  • ISPs in Azerbaijan block TikTok based on different lists of TikTok endpoint domains, and there is some level of inconsistency.

Separately journalists from independent news platforms reported attempts to hack into their social media accounts during the most recent clashes due to their critical coverage. Verbal attacks were also documented as was the case two years ago. Both journalists and activists said their social media accounts were getting temporarily blocked by the platforms as a result of mass (fake) reporting. 

During the second Karabakh war, users in Azerbaijan faced internet restrictions as well. As a result, VPN usage soared during that period. In a statement issued by Access Now platform, Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now said, “Governments’ deep-seated drive to control the narrative — including in Central Asia and Eastern Europe — must stop.” “Whether authorities like it or not, people have the right to access the internet and to use social media, so focus on facilitating, not blocking.”

one man threatens to behead LGBTQI+ community members in a TikTok video

A man named Roman Mammadov, 39, in a video he shared on TikTok, threatened to behead men who behaved like women. The video that was circulated on social media, alarmed LGBTQ+ activists in Azerbaijan who demanded the Ministry of Interior take action. Eventually, Mammadov was detained. According to the officials, the investigation is ongoing.

According to reporting by Azerbaijan service for Voice of America, the video was filmed at one of the Baku subway stations. In the video, the man appeared to be holding a tool, resembling an ax wrapped in a bag.

Such threats are not surprising in a country where there is no legislation protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and an environment of impunity said activists in interviews with Voice of America. The most recent example is that of Avaz Hafizli, journalist and LGBTQ+ rights activist who was personally targeted by Azerbaijani blogger Sevinj Huseynova. Huseynova openly made homophobic incitements targeting other members of LGBTQ+ community in the past but no measures were taken against the blogger despite criticism by local activists. Hafizli, was brutally murdered as a result of this targeting by a family member in February 2022.

In a Facebook comment, feminist activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva wrote she was personally told by the State Security Services that they don’t take interest in threats leveled against LGBTQ+ because there is nothing in the national legislation about them. “Maybe, the Ministry of the Interior is also going to say, that the man with an ax did not threaten anyone, because LGBTQ+ people are not considered humans.”

Speaking to Voice of America, lawyer Samad Rahimli said, “the criminal legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan does not contain references to hatred as a separate provision in an aggravating circumstance of murder or an aggravating circumstance of harming health. Therefore, committing a crime motivated by hatred cannot be described as an aggravating circumstance in Azerbaijan.”

Javid Nabiyev, an LGBTQ+ activist from Azerbaijan, shared the video of the man making the threat on Facebook and demanded authorities take action tagging both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ombudsman office. “I came across this video on Instagram. Although it was shared today, it is unclear when it was taken. But it is certain that right now, a man with an ax in his hand, walking around the city, and threatening to behead anyone he spots who have their eyebrows done and behaves like a woman [in the video, the man swears to God he would do that]. I am out of words. To the attention of the Ministry of the Interior, you have to find this person immediately before another hate crime takes place. You were powerless to take measures against blogger Sevinj who shared the same mindset. I hope this time you won’t say, “we can’t do anything because the law doesn’t mention LGBTQ+ people.”

Voice of America reports that the man was detained and that criminal proceedings have been initiated.

According to ILGA Europe, an international non-governmental organization advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms, Azerbaijan occupies the last place among 49 countries on the organization’s Rainbow Index. The community is not only targeted by homophobic narratives of the likes of Huseynova and Mammadov but also the state itself. In recent years, the authorities too have consistently targeted LGBTQ+ community with arrests, torture, and blackmail.