Azerbaijani authorities tighten screws on independent media

A man uses his laptop in a Baku street. Azerbaijan has extended its press freedom crackdown to include bloggers and social media users. (Reuters/Stoyan Nenov)

When officials in Baku released several high-profile journalists, including investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, from prison in May last year, the international media rights community breathed a sigh of relief. But any optimism was short-lived, with authorities in recent months prosecuting journalists and bloggers, and passing restrictive online media laws.

At least six journalists have been arrested or detained by authorities in recent months. The most recent prosecution came on January 12 when a regional court in Jalilabad sentenced Afgan Sadygov, an independent journalist, to two and a half years in prison on charges of assault, according to regional media reports. The charges were filed after Sadygov refused to remove critical reports from his website Azel, after being summoned to a meeting by the head of the city’s executive branch, his lawyer told Kavkazsky Uzel.

His prosecution came in the same month that Mehman Huseynov, a blogger who covered issues including police brutality and corruption, was detained. Huseynov, who used his Facebook page Sancaq, which has over 300,000 followers, and other social media platforms to share videos and reports, was held overnight on January 9 before being fined 200 manat (US$106) for posting video reports about villas owned by high-ranking government officials, his lawyer told CPJ. The lawyer added that Huseynov had told him that police beat him and put a bag over his head.

Other journalists arrested or summoned by police include Zamin Haji, an opposition journalist with the daily Yeni Musavat, who was questioned over a Facebook post that criticized authorities; Ikram Rahimov who, according to reports, was sentenced November 25 to one year in prison on libel charges over articles on corruption in the opposition news website Hurriyet; Fikret Faramazoglu, chief editor of the news website Journalistic Research Center, who is currently on trial for extortion; and Teymur Kerimov, a reporter for the online outlet Kanal-13, who was detained for about nine hours on December 1 over an altercation with a man who the journalist said had pushed him while he interviewed displaced people in the Barda region, Kavkazsky Uzel reported.

In Haji’s case, he was summoned to a Baku police station on November 28 and “advised” not to post any critical materials about Azerbaijan “where stability rules,” his lawyer Elchin Sadygov told the Berlin-based independent news agency Meydan TV. It was the third time in six months that Haji had been ordered to report to police.

Sadygov is also representing Faramazoglu, who has been in jail since June. The lawyer told CPJ on December 12 that the journalist was being punished for reporting on allegations that restaurants were operating as brothels under the protection of law-enforcement agencies–a charge he denies. Faramazoglu’s wife Faiga Nusrati told CPJ in a December 9 email that her husband had been beaten while in detention and has several teeth missing. (Faramazoglu was not included on CPJ’s annual prison census because CPJ did not know about the journalistic links to his case at the time.)

Ismayilova, who cheered Huseynov on his release on January 10, told CPJ that bloggers have become a target for authorities because nearly all the country’s independent media outlets have been closed and their journalists jailed or forced into exile. “Independent journalism became nearly non-existent in Azerbaijan, there are no mainstream media that are not government-controlled,” said Ismayilova, who is still under a travel ban that was imposed on her release.

The oldest opposition newspaper Azadliq was the last to fall prey in the government’s hunt against traditional media. It has not been published since September due to financial difficulties incurred following the arrest in August of the paper’s financial director Faiq Amirov on religious extremism charges, according to regional and international media reports. Amirov, who denies wrongdoing, is in custody awaiting trial.

The internet, albeit slow and expensive in Azerbaijan, has provided journalists and bloggers with more opportunity for freedom of expression and dissent than traditional media. However, parliament adopted two legislative amendments in November that increased penalties for online defamation and insult. Journalists using a pseudonym face a prison term of up to two years and a fine of up to 1,500 manat (US$840) — a steep price in a country with a minimum monthly wage of US$180. If authorities consider a report insulting to the president, the journalist can be jailed for up to three years, the semi-official Azeri Press agency reported. It is also now a crime to criticize the president on social media: punishable by a fine of up to 1,000 manat or a prison term of up to two years, local media reported.

“The laws have become stricter. The punishment for defamation is harsher. The authorities treat social media as traditional media and internet users as journalists. That makes it easier to target critical voices,” Mehman Aliyev, director of the independent news agency Turan, told CPJ.

Access to online outlets has also been blocked. The website of Azadliq was blocked in Azerbaijan on December 24, the newspaper’s 27th anniversary, according to Qurium, a hosting provider for independent media outlets, including Azadliq. Qurium did not say why the news site had been blocked, but it reported that Azadliq had been accessible from abroad during this time.

The Azeri-language websites of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America, as well as Meydan were blocked between November 28 and December 2, and again on December 12, according to Qurium and RFE/RL’s Azeri Service.

Qurium analyzed the website blocking in Azerbaijan and concluded that two largest providers, Azertelecom and Delta Telecom, had blocked the traffic. They are the only operators licensed to connect international IP traffic, according to the Azerbaijani communications ministry.

The Communications Ministry, Azertelecom and Delta Telecom did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

Ismayilova, whose release was made possible in part due to international criticism of Baku during the 18 months she spent behind bars, says foreign governments and international financial institutions should continue putting pressure on Azerbaijan.

“Everyone involved in persecution and harassment of journalists–from police officers who arrest journalists and conduct investigations to prosecutors, judges and the highest government officials–should face sanctions by the U.S. and European governments,” she said.

Both Ismayilova and Aliyev said they believed it would bring results because Azerbaijan is facing an economic crisis due to falling oil prices and is in need of foreign investments.