Prison may be just a click away for many Internet users in Azerbaijan now that the energy-rich, but rights-poor country has made online defamation and offensive languagea criminal offense. The move is seen by critics as an attempt to censor the Web ahead of this October's presidential election.
Human rights watchdogs have long maintained that Facebook-organized anti-government rallies, YouTube videos satirizing officials and other online activity have resulted in imprisonment of government opponents on various trumped-up charges. Now, they imply, prosecutors may not need to bother with tales of drugs or brawls to jail or fine critics.
What constitutes defamation or offensive language will be left to Azerbaijan’s government-loyal courts to decide. Judges can pick the preferred punitive measure from a list of punishment options for offline defamations and verbal abuse – a fine, corrective labor, or prison.
Rights groups have called on Azerbaijan to scrap the new law as a bad for democracy, something international watchdogs believe already is in short supply in the ex-Soviet republic.
"The authorities must not use the upcoming presidential election as a pretext to silence critical voices and a meaningful debate,” Amnesty International said.
Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, called on President Ilham Aliyev not to sign the bill into law, arguing that not only is Azerbaijan reneging on its promise to the OSCE to de-criminalize defamation, but it is making it worse by extending the defamation laws to the Internet.
But the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party is having none of it. The law, claimed Party Secretary Murbaz Gurbanli, is all about taking "responsibility for the information distributed on the Internet," Trend reported.
While journalists already must take responsibility for their words under Azerbaijani law, online are not only journalists, he informed listeners, "but everyone else," too. And this undefined "everyone else" must, apparently, learn to do the same.