By Alan Finlay
“Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, government has shown much desire to regulate the internet. The uprising in the Guba district in March 2012 has shown the pivotal role that social media can play in Azerbaijani political life,” says Vugar Gojayev, in an interview related to a forthcoming report he wrote for the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch 2011 Update I).
APCNews: In your report you suggest that the government’s strategy for controlling the internet is quite unique: it leaves the internet relatively unfettered, but in doing so, it allows it to monitor “rebellious activities”. Does it work?
VG: Azerbaijan is near the bottom in international rankings on media freedom for already many years. Libel continues to be a criminal offense, while the authorities extensively use defamation, drug possession, hooliganism and other politically-motivated charges to muzzle voices of dissent in society. Azerbaijan’s online activists compensate for a lack of traditional avenues for freedom of expression and assembly by using social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs to disseminate and discuss politically sensitive issues. In doing so, the activists reach large numbers of people both in Azerbaijan and abroad and exchange information, which could hardly be covered in mainstream media.
The government does not seem happy at all with the widespread use of the internet platform by regime critics. Fearing online activism’s potential for political mobilisation, the authorities are expanding methods to control, shape and monitor digital media content and intimidate online activists. It is true that there is no systematic censorship of websites, but the cost is too high if a journalist writes on politically sensitive issues. 2009 and 2011 saw a number of online activists arrested on fake charges. Among them were Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and Jabbar Savalan, who were arrested on trumped-up charges in March 2011 after they used Facebook to organise and call for protests against governmental corruption. The recent detention of blogger Zaur Gurbanli, the activist associated with the Nida Youth Group, is a clear sign of continuing repressive policies of the government against cyber-activists.
The government’s campaign against social media has so far been unsuccessful and it is likely that the social media will continue to grow as a platform for communication to disseminate content that is critical of the government.
APCNews: One result is that self-censorship is high in the country, and adoption the internet amongst women is low – can you say more about this phenomenon?
VG: Almost every journalist, blogger and human rights activist in the country resorts to self censorship out of fear of possible legal or physical repercussions. If you are talking or writing articles criticising or investigating the vast corruption cases in government or related to powerful individuals and business interests of the ruling Aliyev family, you have to fear consequences.
Bloggers and social media activists are no exception. The government-orchestrated harassment and arrest of online activists has created a climate of fear and sent warning signals to the online media community about the consequences they might face for critical reporting. The fact is that those using the internet as a political tool are increasingly at risk of imprisonment or violence. But this has not stopped online activists from using social-networking sites, which are routinely used to disseminate content that is critical of the government.
The Azerbaijani internet population is mostly young and urban male dominated. More than 70 percent of internet users, as well as Facebook users, are men, while only 14 percent of Azerbaijani women have ever used the internet. Internet cafés always have considerably less female users than males.
The capital city of Baku, as a rapidly growing cosmopolitan urban centre, has large numbers of women using the internet. This record is poorer in rural areas. Framing the social media tools as immoral and unsafe spaces has made men in highly conservative rural families hesitant to allow their female family members gain access to the internet, primarily to social media tools. It is no coincidence that women, mainly those living in rural areas, are rarely seen actively engaging in discussion forums.
APCNews: What role do social media play in social activism in Azerbaijan?
VG: With the years of crackdown on media, the government has virtually managed to close the usual channels for expressing dissent. With the traditional media stagnating under total government control, the internet has become one of the most important ways of sharing and distributing information and galvanizing support for civil society campaigns and actions.
Social networking tools have become popular with a population facing increasing clampdowns on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Facebook and YouTube significantly grew as platforms for mass communication between people on various political, social and economic issues, which would almost never be covered in local mainstream media because of the existing censorship.
Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, government has shown much desire to regulate the internet, mainly social media. By monitoring online activism, the authorities try to prevent the population from considering alternative forms of political engagement. The uprising in the Guba district in March 2012 has shown the pivotal role that social media can play in Azerbaijani political life.
APCNews: Yet when it comes to social media, the authorities seem ready to harass bloggers and – unofficially – blocking websites?
VG: The arrest of two bloggers in 2009, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada, was seen by many as a warning signal to the online media community. Following their arrests, social media networks were placed under strict government control, and some critical websites were hacked or blocked from time to time. During the spring events in 2011, several online activists were punished and given harsh prison sentences.
Pro-opposition and critical websites continue to be subject to blocking and cyber-attacks initiated from within the country. The Musavat, Azadliq and Bizim Yol newspapers, the Turan News Agency and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service, have occasionally been denied access in past years. Other popular websites, for instance, www.tinsohbeti.com, which had satirical articles, caricatures, videos about government corruption, and www.susmayaq.biz, which was a website for public campaigning and denunciation of the increase in energy prices, were shut down.
APCNews: The government now plans to license internet TV – what impact will that have on free speech in Azerbaijan?
VG: The country’s internet television outlets enjoy popularity because of their independent coverage and focus on problems of public interest. The more popular such outlets become, the more the online media community fears restrictions might be imposed. As those online TV outlets very often touch the politically sensitive issues, the authorities have initiated a measure to require the licensing of those online TV “stations”. Besides that, the government-controlled Press Council said it would start monitoring online news sources for their compliance with the rules of professional journalism.
Particularly given the lack of pluralism in the country’s media, the authorities’ requirement on licensing online TVs is directly aimed to gain further control over alternative media and the free flow of information. This worrying sign could effectively restrict opportunities for free debate and could give more space for the government to control public discourse. As the country goes to presidential polls next year, the risk of additional restrictions being imposed on the internet is growing by the day.
Note: The full GISWatch 2011 Update I report will be released mid-October.