How Azerbaijan’s Telegram Channels Fuel Intimidation

With little oversight, toxic disinformation and threats thrive on the encrypted platform. 

How Azerbaijan’s Telegram Channels Fuel Intimidation

With little oversight, toxic disinformation and threats thrive on the encrypted platform. 

Telegram app used on a smartphone.
Telegram app used on a smartphone. © Carl Court/Getty Images
Tuesday, 25 October, 2022

Telegram’s stated philosophy against censorship and state pressure has made the encrypted messaging app, boasting over 700 million active users, a boon for anti-government protesters worldwide.

But it has also made the social media platform a sanctuary for politically motivated vitriol and toxic disinformation. 

In Azerbaijan, the app has become a nexus for hate speech, propaganda and the repression of dissent.

Its use surged during the 2020 war over Nagorny Karabakh, the region internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians since the mid-1990s. 

When fighting re-erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan on September 12 2022, claiming the lives of more than 200 servicemen over two days, the Khacherubka Telegram channel began sharing atrocities committed by Azerbaijan servicemen against Armenians. One video, ostensibly filmed by an Azerbaijani soldier, showed the desecration of an Armenian servicewoman’s body. 

Even the title of the Russian-language channel, created in July 2022, is disturbing. The word khach is a racist expression that may refer to people of Caucasian origin, but specifically and more often to Armenians. Rubka can translate as “chopping”. 

Khacherubka has over 7,300 subscribers and a backup channel in case of the removal of the main channel. It continues to share graphic images and videos of killed Armenian soldiers, accompanied by highly dehumanising language.

But hate-filled Russian-language Telegram channels related to Azerbaijan are not a novelty. The now-closed Dirçəliş 22/30 (Revival) targeted feminists and queer activists. Such bullying resulted in the suicide of a 19-year-old girl in November 2021 after the channel shared some intimate photos. A 17-year-old man was charged with leaking the images and was sentenced to four years and-a-half in prison. 

In March 2021, LGBTQ+ magazine Minority reported that a channel called Pure Blood also targeted members of the Azerbaijani LGBTQ community. Other targets are young Azerbaijanis in Russia who are in romantic relationships with people of Armenian origin. 

These channels’ target audience are young Russian-speaking Azerbaijanis mirroring Russian ultra-conservative, misogynistic culture. 

Russian group Muzhskoe Gosudarstvo (Male State) gained popularity in mid-2021, before the country’s authorities banned it for extremism in October 2021. The group’s founder Vladislav Pozdnyakov reportedly thanked the app’s co-founder Pavel Durov for his position against blocking channels.

The Russian tech- entrepreneur and his brother Nikolai launched Telegram In April 2013 “over worries about government surveillance in Russia”. Pavel shaped the idea of the app in 2011 after he came under police pressure to remove pages of political opposition from VKontakte, Russia’s largest messaging app that the two brothers had created five years earlier.


Durov, who lives in Dubai, has repeatedly said that the platform will not censor its users regardless of the groups using it or the misinformation or harassment shared.

This has turned Telegram into a popular platform used globally by citizens in authoritarian regimes or conflict zones, but also by militant groups and right-wing extremists. The untempered regulation does have exceptions, including over content related to terrorism. 

The app has long been used to target civil society activists or to distort political narratives. In early 2022, the BBC published an investigation on Telegram’s content moderation policies - or lack thereof - when investigating harassment specifically targeting women. Telegram declined an interview. 

On February 27, in a rare comment, Pavel, however, admitted that "Telegram channels are increasingly becoming a source of unverified information related to Ukrainian events”.

Telegram does not publish transparency reports and the app’s report chatbot has no available data. As a result, it remains unclear whether the platform has handed user data or complied with government requests for content removal or account takedown over its nearly a decade of existence. 

IWPR requested a transparency report from Telegram – something other platforms regularly make available - but at the time of writing, its management had not replied.

Despite its reputation for privacy, the end-to-end encryption, which ensures that just the two people talking can see the message, is available only with the app's secret chat option, which users must enable. The setting is a default on secure chat apps like Signal and WhatsApp.

Telegram claims that its cloud servers are scattered across the world to make it harder for governments to force the platform to share private user data. However, that does not mean that data remains private. 

Former employees have stated that “absolutely all groups, all channels, are stored on the Telegram servers,” meaning that the platform has access to that information and that even private chat data could be intercepted if encryption between user and cloud server was deactivated.


In December 2021, a coalition of human rights organisations urged Telegram to keep users safe through improving measures that ranged from a transparent content governance framework to accessible communication channels, appeal procedures and better safety and data security.

The call particularly resonated with Azerbaijani activists who have become targets.

In March 2021, multiple Telegram groups were identified in Azerbaijan sharing sex tapes and nude photographs of women. Among the victims were journalists, civic activists and female family members of exiled political activists as well as ordinary women. The groups and pictures were reported to Telegram, but it took weeks before they were taken down. The damage to the women targeted was done. 

The channels shared sensitive videos of journalist Fatima Movlamli, the sister of exiled dissident blogger Mahammad Mirzali, civic activist Narmin Shahmarzade and Gunel Hasanli, daughter of opposition party leader Jamil Hasanli. 

According to Shahmarzade, two groups were set up to target her specifically and gathered thousands of members in a short amount of time: pictures of her received over 10,000 views.

The two groups were eventually taken down. However, administrators closed the reported channel just to open a new one as a private group, making it harder to track and join. 

Virtual intimidation does not necessarily stay online. In March 2021, Mahammad Mirzali, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and a well-known vlogger, started receiving threats from unknown numbers, with intimate videos of people close to him, including his sister. Attacks intensified after he gave an interview to Armenia’s news outlet Civilnet.

They were not empty threats:  the 27-year-old has survived being shot, stabbed and severely beaten in Nantes, France, where he lives as a political refugee. On June 12, 2022 French police arrested two hit men on suspicion of being sent to kill him. 

Arzu Geybulla is the founder of Azerbaijan Internet Watch, a platform that monitors and documents information controls in her native Azerbaijan.

Bahruz Samadov is a PhD candidate at Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic), whose research focuses on authoritarianism and nationalism in Azerbaijan. 

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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