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Web Freedom Claims Ring False in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijani communications minister Ali Abbasov (centre) addresses a UN-backed internet conference in Baku. (Photo: Idrak Abbasov)
As Azerbaijan hosted a United Nations-backed internet forum this week, officials boasted of the freedom of the web enjoyed by citizens.
Bloggers, however, said the picture painted by officials was deeply misleading. Instead, they said, people in Azerbaijan could be jailed for writing the wrong thing online.
The Internet Governance Forum, established in 2006 to bring together officials, businesses and pressure groups, held its seventh meeting in Baku on November 6-7.
Official figures indicate that 60 per cent of Azerbaijanis have access to the internet.
“Azerbaijan enjoys freedom of the internet,”a message from President Ilham Aliyev read out at the forum said. “Internet-based radio and TV programmes, electronic newspapers and journals, and foreign and domestic social networks have gained wide currency. Thousands of bloggers operate freely in Azerbaijan’s internet space.”
But the blogger Emin Milli, jailed for two-and-half years in 2009 after posting a video online called “press conference with a donkey”, mocking the president, said free speech was as elusive on the internet as it was in everyday life.
“People have the right to use the internet in Azerbaijan, but they are not free in what they write. In reality, using the internet can lead to punishment,” he said. “In Azerbaijan, people live in constant fear – they are afraid of losing their job, their parents and their close friends. If you find the courage not to be afraid, it will cost you dear.”
According to a local group called the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, IRFS, at least ten people have been arrested for things they have written on the internet.
Emin Huseynov, head of IRFS, said nine people who had used the internet for campaigning were currently in prison. They included Vugar Gonagov, executive director of Khayal television; Zaur Guliyev, editor-in-chief of Khayal television; Nijat Aliyev, editor-in-chief of azadxeber.az; Faramaz Novruzoglu, contributor to the Millatim newspaper; and Araz Guliyev, editor of xeber44.com. Blogger Taleh Khasmammadov and freelance investigator Fuad Huseynov are also imprisoned for their activities on social networking sites.
“Except for Faramaz Novruzoglu, who was arrested for inciting people to join protests, these people were arrested on false charges like resisting police or possession of drugs or guns,” Huseynov said.
Among others who believe they have been targeted because of their online activities isZaur Gurbanli, a blogger and member of NIDA, an opposition youth movement. Police officers told him he had crossed a “red line” when they arrested him on September 29. He was jailed for 15 days for resisting arrest.
“I posted an appeal we wrote to attract new members to NIDA, and then I was arrested on the false charge of resisting the police. After being arrested, I lost my job and now I can’t find work,” Gurbanli said.
The government denies that individuals are arrested or persecuted because they are journalists and bloggers, and insists they arrested for breaking the law.
“Bloggers are not persecuted in Azerbaijan and not one is in prison at present,” Ali Hasanov, head of the political department in the president’s office, told the Internet Governance Forum. “They can easily express themselves. That proves there is freedom of the internet in Azerbaijan.”
Dunja Mijatovic, special representative on media freedom at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, disagreed. She hailed the release of bloggers like Emin Milli, Adnan Hajizade, Jabbar Savalan, Zaur Gurbanli and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, but noted that other bloggers and journalists are tortured, persecuted and arrested.
“The internet and human rights mutually complete each other. These are inseparable notions,” she said.
John Kampfner, formerly chief executive of Index of Censorship and an adviser to Google, expressed concern that some western countries were beginning to place restrictions on the internet, and that could have a negative influence on countries like Azerbaijan.
He said parliaments around the world, including the British one, had discussed laws regulating access to the internet, which the Azerbaijan government duly cited if it faced criticism for doing the same thing.
The government of Azerbaijan has discussed enforcing online security and preventing cybercrime, but Communications Minister Ali Abbasov told the Forum the government did not intend to control people or restrict their freedom of expression.
Idrak Abbasov is a freelance journ alist in Azerbaijan.
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