The crackdown is the first application of new media-law provisions that allow courts to shut down news companies if they are found guilty of such transgressions twice in the space of one year.
Critics charge that claims of defamation long have become synonymous with government criticism in Azerbaijan, which international rights-watchdogs rank among countries with the least amount of press freedom.
Prosecutors, for now, have delivered a warning to eight-plus news outlets (Mia.az, Cumhuriyyət, Qaynarinfo, Gündəminfo, Criminal.az, Strateq.az, İstiqlal.az, JAM.az “and others” ), but warned that next time they might not spare the rod.
The press-freedom organization Reporters without Bordersearlier described the amendments, signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev on November 2, as fresh evidence of continued governmental harassment of independent media in Azerbaijan.
Russia is relaxing its visa requirements for Georgians, possibly trumping the European Union’s best card in the ongoing game of influence between the two powers.
“The Russian side confirmed its readiness to continue the liberalization of the visa regime for Georgian citizens visiting Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry announced in a November 19 précis of the latest bout of talks between Moscow and Tbilisi. Georgian officials confirmed that efforts are in progress to ease travel for their citizens to Russia, even though the two countries remain irreconcilably at odds over the location of Georgia’s borders.
Georgia ended its diplomatic relations with Russia after the 2008 war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The visa-liberalization announcement came two days after Georgia went to Brussels for talks about visa-free travel to the European Union. The prospect of visa exemption, largely contingent on Georgia’s ability to keep illegal migration in check, is seen as the major impetus for keeping the Caucasus country on track to closer integration with Europe.
Visa-liberalization had been seen as a chance for Brussels to present a tangible benefit of Georgia’s EU alignment. In explaining Russia’s announcement, Georgian State Minister for European Integration Davit Bakradze emphasized that the talks with Moscow are centered on simplification, rather than cancelation of the visa regime.
A fire that left most of Azerbaijan offline on November 16 appears to speak to the insecurity of the Internet supply in the South Caucasus, where nationwide Internet dim-outs are nothing new.
Early on Monday, a cable caught fire in a ganglion of lines belonging to Delta Telecom, Azerbaijan’s all-but-monopoly Internet supplier. The blaze eventually affected roughly 90 percent of the country’s networks, according to internet connectivity tracker Renesys.
Careful in its wording, the communications ministry termed the problem “a partial breakdown” in equipment, caused by a melting cable and smoke.
The incident lead to a roughly seven-hour-long Internet outage and brought down many locally hosted websites. As Azerbaijan’s main gateway to the Internet, Delta Telecom sells international traffic to nearly all internet service providers. The company also hosts on its servers several government websites.
Azerbaijani officials stressed that mission-critical operations — banking and the country’s bread-and-butter, oil-and-gas extraction – were not affected. The Internet connection was mostly restored late on the same day, but the outage left Internet users, both corporate and individual, in a huff.
“The government should take immediate measures to prevent such incidents from happening again and also to make the field more competitive and make alternative infrastructure available,” advised the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, a non-governmental coalition.
A Georgian-language blog that claims to represent Islamic State terrorists is spreading alarm in the South Caucasus country of Georgia in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris.
Self-described as the Islamic State’s “Information Website,” the Wordpress blog posts updates about jihadist “successes,” such as the November 13 carnage in France and alleged military victories by the so-called Islamic State, alongside appeals to the Caucasus’ Muslims to take up arms.
“Young Muslim sisters and brothers from Georgia… awaken and see the truth before it is too late, while you are still alive and can profess bayat (allegiance) to the Caliph,” reads a November 9 post by an individual named Abu Mariam al-Jurji (“the Georgian” in Arabic).
Georgian speakers have peppered the post with angry comments, larded with obscenities and hate speech. Some advised these “sisters and brothers” to come to their senses and switch to the “true faith,” Georgian Orthodox Christianity, the dominant religion in Georgia.
The “successes stories” shared on the blog also include human-interest pieces, such as jihadists making shawarma during a break in their fighting and photo-reports on daily life in various ISIS-controlled Syrian towns. A perfume shop in Raqqa, a car market near Aleppo, rows of public busses in Manbij – all are cited as testimony that ISIS is working and that Allah is great.
The blog often describes Georgia as a wilayah, an administrative unit within the greater caliphate. The calls to allegiance to the Islamic State particularly target Muslim minorities, including ethnic Kists, Azeris and Abkhaz.
A bitter tug-of-war for control of Georgia’s top TV channel, Rustavi2, has impacted not only the country’s media-freedom credentials, but also raised nagging questions about the integrity of its legal system.
In a new, dramatic twist in the standoff over Georgia’s leading national TV broadcaster Rustavi2, the Tbilisi City Court has dismissed the current management of the channel. Critics term the decision a contravention of the Constitutional Court’s earlier order that no ownership-changeover could take place until the case had gone through the appeals process.
Under the November-5 order, the station, the most prominent source of media-criticism of the government, will be transferred to the temporary care of managers and executives appointed by businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who, three days ago, regained full ownership of the channel. Since that ruling is under appeal, he himself cannot yet take control of the station.
The managers designated by the Tbilisi City Court to act in his stead are another former Rustavi2 owner, Davit Dvali, and Remaz Sakevarishvili, a former director of the privately owned national broadcaster Imedi.
At a late-night rally on November 5, Rustavi2 General Director Nika Gvaramia, flanked by his news crew, said he will not obey the court order to step down. The station accuses the government, led by the Georgian Dream coalition, and the coalition’s founder, ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, of trying to seize the channel and squash its critical coverage of government policies.
The order has been vocally challenged by Rustavi2’s lawyers and supporters, and prompted strong statements of concern from the US embassy and EU Ambassador Janos Herman.
In the space of a week, the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan have visited Georgia amid talk of a far-reaching potential shift in the region’s energy-transit status quo. Hovering over the discussions in Tbilisi are bigger players like Russia and Iran, both looking to increase energy exports via the South Caucasus.
Emerging after a long, November 5 meeting in Tbilisi, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reaffirmed the exemplary friendship between their two countries, but, reportedly, did not mention the bear in the room — Russia’s Gazprom, which many Georgians perceive as undermining this friendship by trying to pump more Russian gas into Georgia. It currently mainly runs on Azerbaijani gas.
“Our relations will resist any test,” Margvelashvili said. Also full of praise, Aliyev on November 6 rejoiced that the pair does not have “a difference of opinions [on] any issues . . .” Azerbaijani-Georgian cooperation in energy- transit “boosts the significance of our countries in the world,” he stressed earlier.
Aliyev missed just by a few days his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, who came to Tbilisi on October 30. Sargsyan also spoke of friendship with Georgia, but the widespread perception is that he really came to talk about gas. Armenia depends almost entirely on Gazprom’s supplies.
With almost every day bringing a new recording about ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and friends’ alleged plans to thwart any takeover of government-bashing broadcaster Rustavi2, online parodies of the conversations have become the thing in Georgia, even as public concerns about violations of privacy are growing.
Borrowing the graphics used in the original online leaks, the send-ups replace the ex-president and his allies with various entertaining exchanges between real and fictional characters.
“Keto, I am going to come over tomorrow at dusk. Let’s try, perhaps it can work out between us,” a man called Khirkhal tells his small-town paramour in a clip ripped from the 1980 Georgian musical comedy, “Everyone Wants Love.” “Come, come through the breach in the fence, but don’t let anyone see you,” Keto whispers passionately.
While the online satires and opinion polls indicate public fatigue with Georgia’s main political forces and their ways, the original leaks paint a far less entertaining picture. “Blood will be spilt there… a hundred percent,” Saakashvili supposedly predicted in reference to the standoff around Rustavi2, a channel long sympathetic to the former president’s political base in Georgia, the United National Movement Party.
Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, added that he is as certain of such a turn of events as the fact that he is not coriander. This herbal metaphor makes only slightly more sense in colloquial Georgian, in which it can also carry crude connotations depending on usage.
But, in any case, the turn of phrase does not appear to be helping either Misha, as he is known, or the current Georgian leader, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, cut a particularly dignified figure.
In a controversial ruling,Tbilisi City Court Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze ruled on November 3 to restore the ownership rights of former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi to Rustavi2, Georgia's main broadcasting outlet.
Rustavi2's counsel, Zaza Bibilashvili, told the TV station he plans to appeal the decision.
The lawsuit has been at the center of a months-long struggle that has accerbated a bitter political crisis between the ruling Georgian Dream and former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, which claims that the lawsuit serves as a government-takeover. Khalvashi maintains that he only wantes to restore the rights he supposedly illegally lost during Saakashvili's first, 2004-2008 term in office.