Cursing the president online has become a criminal offense in Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet republic that is big on energy, but, critics say, short on freedom. On November 30, the Azerbaijani parliament amended the country’s criminal code to protect the long-serving President Ilham Aliyev from online insults, defamation and trolls.
Azerbaijan already had a ban in place against online defamation, but, ever solicitous about the country’s 54-year-old ruler, the general prosecutor’s office apparently felt the need to prohibit the online “defamation, and derogation of honor and dignity” of the president as well.
Violations of the new amendment will be subject to a fine of up to 1,000 manats ($570) or two years of community service or two years in prison, depending on the instance.
Those with an urge to rail against Aliyev (or any successor) are not advised to hide behind fake social-media profiles. The amendment stipulates that individuals using “fake profiles and nick-names” and allegedly defaming or insulting the president could face a 1,500-manat ($866) fine, two years of community service and even one year of imprisonment.
American singer Pharrell Williams became the only visiting celebrity to call for freedom in Azerbaijan during Baku's June 16-19 Formula One race, an event criticized for “sports-washing” the country’s authoritarian ways. Activists say it has been a struggle to coax world celebrities performing in Baku on its rich government’s tab to put human rights first.
The Sport for Rights coalition of international rights groups said most singers, who visited Baku to provide musical acts for the European Grand Prix, snubbed calls to push for change in the repressive ex-Soviet republic. “It has historically been very difficult to engage celebrities on human rights issues in Azerbaijan,” Rebecca Vincent, the coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Chris Brown and Enrique Iglesias completely ignored our calls,” Vincent said of two other star singers who performed in Baku during Formula One. “We received no response from their managers or publicists, and they have performed without uttering a single word about the situation in the country – [a] real shame, as they have become part of the Azerbaijani regime’s propaganda machine.”
F1 managers did not prove cooperative, either. Williams, who capped the entertainment program, was the only exception. “Make some noise for the youth of Azerbaijan!” he said at his June 19 performance. “Those beautiful children: they are the future! When they grow up they will change things not only here, but around the world and no one can stop them.”
An image of Ismayilova emerging from prison on May 25 with a smile and a here-I-am gesture spread online as a symbol of a collective victory over the powerful political machine that tried to silence her. "That's how you leave prison, smiling, [like] you've been to a nice vacation in Italy," said Keti Abashidze, South Caucasus coordinator for the Human Rights House Foundation. Abashidze along with several other of Ismayilova's friends, colleagues and supporters gathered in Tbilisi, Georgia on the reporter's 40th birthday, May 27.
They recalled that it was with that same smile that Ismayilova in late 2014 dismissed friends' pleas not to return from Strasbourg to Baku, where she was to face certain arrest. "Even the prison officials were asking me why I'm smiling all the time," Ismayilova said in videoed comments to RFE/RL, one of the outlets for which she worked.
Her globally acclaimed work and the positive attitude she has kept through her ordeal, which included blackmail with a sex tape, turned her into an international investigative journalism icon. As various celebrities and public figures spoke up for her, her imprisonment became an embarrassment for the international-spotlight-seeking Azerbaijani state.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney’s April 26 remarks to the BBC have hit a raw nerve in Azerbaijan, the ex-Soviet petrocracy where her client, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, is kept prisoner.
After Clooney described the political reasons for Ismayilova’s arrests, the Azerbaijani government apparently did what it always does when pressed on its human rights record -- claimed a global Armenian conspiracy.
No matter if Clooney’s case at the European Court for Human Rights involves an Azerbaijani journalist’s struggle against the Azerbaijan state. Azerbaijan’s state propaganda will find an Armenian connection even if there is none.
“Turns out that Armenia indeed has a weapon that we could not even dream of… the ‘deadly weapon’ that Armenia is using against Azerbaijan is the quite well-known, failure-of-a-lawyer Amal Clooney, née Alamuddin,” Day.az sniped.
The smear campaign, waged loyally by Azerbaijan's predominantly pro-government mainstream media, comes shortly after Azerbaijan and longtime archenemy Armenia fought a brief, so-called four-day war earlier this month. The seemingly endless feud between the two neighbors began after a bloody war in the late 1980s and early 1990s over separatist Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the eviction of the enclave’s entire ethnic Azeri population.
The Azerbaijani government has taken aim at Meydan TV, one of the few independent Azeri-language news outlets, after the station alleged that Baku under-reported the number of Azerbaijani deaths in this month’s fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, the station says.
The Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office has not released any public information about its investigation, but a lawyer for Meydan, Elchin Sadigov, stated that 15 Azerbaijanis have been named in a government investigation into supposed tax evasion and illegal business activity; the usual charges against journalists and those who refuse to toe the government’s line.
“We consider this as a declaration of war against independent journalism in Azerbaijan,” Meydan’s founder, activist Emin Milli, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
None of the individuals has yet been charged, though the station reports that the government banned “a number of journalists” from leaving Azerbaijan as well as searched their residences and took work equipment without a warrant.
The government has not responded to these reports. Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.
Earlier, Meydan TV had come under attack from mainstream, pro-government news outlets and officials alike for its critical coverage of the so-called Four-Day War, the April 2-5 flare-up in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over separatist Nagorno Karabakh. Amidst the fighting, all sides – Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Karabakhi separatists – made grand claims of losses inflicted on their respective enemies.
Azerbaijan was welcomed at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC on March 30 as an international energy security and counterterrorism asset, while the country’s repressive ways gained only a faint mention.
US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Aliyev for making it to the March 31-April 1 summit and praised Azerbaijan’s role in helping Europe meet its energy needs. “Azerbaijan is located in a complex region right now and I think President Aliyev has been very studious and thoughtful about how to respond to some of those needs, particularly with his leadership on the Southern Gas Corridor,” Kerry said.
In his public remarks, Kerry skipped the controversial matter of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. Only a post-meeting press release took note of Azerbaijan’s “recent positive steps” and urged “further progress” on the human-rights front.
In a sudden display of lenience, Azerbaijan’s strong-armed leader, President Ilham Aliyev, pardoned 137 inmates, including his critics, in one fell swoop on March 17.
Lawyer and rights defender Rasul Jafarov, prominent democracy advocate Anar Mammadli, several members of the youth movement NIDA and opposition party Musavat are among the prisoners to be freed under the amnesty. International civil liberty watchdogs have long insisted these individuals were persecuted in retribution for their criticism of the government and had pressed for their release.
Earlier on the same day, an Appeals Courts in Baku ordered the release of a controversially arrested journalist, Rauf Mirkadirov. The Appeals Court overturned Mirkadirov’s six-year sentence on charges for spying for Armenia, Azerbaijan neighbor and enemy. Amidst protests from international human-rights advocates, Mirkadirov spent two years in prison.
Late last year, a well-known peace and democracy activist, Leyla Yunus, who, like Mirkadirov, was engaged in civil diplomacy activism with Armenia, was freed from prison because of poor health. Her husband was also freed, but she was not cleared of charges that included spying for Armenia, an accusation seen as preposterous by civil-rights watchdogs.
“Clooney targets Turkic states in her path to fame,” screamed a headline in AzerNews, an outlet long busy with whitewashing the Azerbaijani government’s human-rights record. “We would like to note that Amal Clooney is an ethnic Armenian and she represented Armenian interests in the European Court for Human Rights,” echoed the hawkish Haqqin.az news service.
Clooney and the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), a British charitable organization, will represent Ismayilova in a case brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) over the reporter's extended pre-trial detention, MLDI attorney Nani Jansen emailed in response to a query from EurasiaNet.org. Ismayilova, 39, was detained in December 2014 on charges of allegedly having prompted a co-worker to attempt suicide. She remained in custody even after the co-worker had dropped his charges.
The MLDI also is representing Ismayilova before the ECHR concerning the government's failure to prosecute those involved in a sex-video blackmail attempt against Ismayilova, and the violation of her right to privacy.
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.
Google, Bing, Yahoo, all move aside. In a first for the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan is working on its own web-search service. Officials in the tightly controlled energy-exporter say that both national security and commercial considerations prompted the idea.
Under the guidance of the Ministry of Communications, the government body that oversaw the launch of the world’s first Azerbaijani satellite, Azerbaijani coders have already developed a web crawler and are now working on a software application, Trend news agency reported on September 23.
A government-run technology developer, Dilmanc, said that the national search engine will bring more information security to Azerbaijan. The ministry has not elaborated about perceived threats, but some rights activists likely would surmise that government critics are among the ministry’s main concerns.
The government, however, already has a reputation for pressing for netizen loyalty. Democracy-watchdog Freedom House reports that online activists and bloggers have faced growing harassment over the past few years.
On the other hand, Dilmanc’s director, Abulfat Fatulayev, claims the national search engine offers attractive money-making opportunities -- always a consideration amidst low oil prices and an economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbons.