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Image: Baku, government officials clamping their hands over the protesters’ mouths as they shouted slogans for freedom, equality and free elections. 
Copyright: IRFS, irfs.az

Despite concerns over freedom of speech, Azerbaijan hosts UN-initiated forum

Last week Baku hosted the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) – a global UN-initiated forum debating the future of internet freedom. At the time there were nine journalists and three human rights defenders held in jail in Azerbaijan. Five of these cases are linked to online criticism of authorities.

Sunday, 11 November 2012, by HRH London, based on Index on Censorship, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders information.

The seventh annual IGF took place from 6 to 9 November 2012. This multi-stakeholder talking-shop was established by the United Nations in 2006.

The annual meeting convened by the United Nations Secretary-General brought together governments, civil society, private corporations, and others as equal partners to discuss public policy issues related to the Internet. This year’s theme was the role of Internet governance in promoting development. The discussions also included human rights and freedom of expression.

With the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku in May, this is the second time in six months that Baku is hosting a major international event. Eurovision Song Contest and the IGF were the government’s two propaganda victories enabling it to show the country’s modern veneer. Yet it is important to look behind the scene and have in mind Azerbaijan‘s shocking record on free expression.

Journalists are taking big risks

Rebecca Vincent, a freelance human rights consultant and expert on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, warns that any Azerbaijani who dares to exercise their right to free expression in Azerbaijan is taking a big risk.

“Overstepping the mark on certain taboo subjects online — in particular official corruption and mendacity — has serious repercussions. There has been a string of high-profile cases of punitive action against online government critics”, she says.

Among the journalists behind bars in Azerbaijan is Avaz Zeynalli, editor of Khural, a newspaper known for its tough criticism of public officials. Zeynalli’s reporting implicated in corruption a member of parliament from the ruling party who pressed dubious extortion charges against him. She subsequently resigned from her seat as a result of a separate corruption scandal. Zeynalli was arrested in October 2011 and is currently on trial, Human Rights Watch reports.

Victim of a blackmail attempt
Earlier this year, Khadija Ismayilova, left, a journalist with the Azerbaijani arm of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and an avid social networker, was the victim of a crude blackmail attempt.

She received an envelope containing pictures of a personal nature and a note saying: “Whore, behave, or you will be defamed”. She refused to be silenced — and a week later a film of her having sex taken by a hidden spy camera was posted online. It transpired, after an investigation conducted by her lawyer and other journalists, that illegal monitoring of her activities began days after she published a story about Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family’s businesses.

Charged with drug use and organising mass disorder

The regime has also used trumped-up charges to persecute critics. The editor of the website azadxeber.org, Nijat Aliyev, has been in detention since his arrest in May on drugs-related charges, and faces up to three years’ imprisonment. He has no previous convictions for drug use and is not known to friends as a drug-user. Before his arrest he had attacked government policies on religion and LGBT rights and criticised the cost of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku this year.

Khayal TV executive director, Vugar Gonagov, and editor-in-chief, Zaur Guliyev, are also in detention. They are accused of uploading a YouTube video showing a regional mayor making derogatory comments about local residents. The video sparked protests and led to the mayor’s dismissal. The both journalists face up to 10 years in jail if convicted on charges of organising mass disorder and abuse of office.

Freelance journalist Faramaz Novruzoglu, right, is serving a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence on charges of appealing for mass disorder and crossing the border without proper documentation. Before his arrest, Novruzoglu was outspoken on social networking sites, criticising the authorities and calling for protests.

Human rights defenders behind bars
One of the human rights defenders in prison is Vidadi Isganderov, a lawyer by training, who was sentenced to three years in prison in August 2011. After running for office in the November 2010 parliamentary elections, Isganderov submitted a complaint to the authorities alleging vote rigging in his district, Human Rights Watch reports.

Despite video footage and other materials that supported Isganderov’s allegations, the authorities failed to investigate. Instead, they brought charges against him, and he was found guilty of interfering with the election.

Human rights defender Taleh Khasmammadov is serving a four-year prison sentence on hooliganism charges. He was arrested in November 2011 after he posted a series of videos on YouTube containing interviews with victims of crimes committed by a gang in the region, which the victims alleged had connections to local police officers.

Opposition newspaper on the verge of non-existence
On 5 November 2012 Azeri court decided to freeze the bank accounts of the opposition newspaper Azadlig.

“Exorbitant fines and a deliberate attempt to squeeze its circulation have put the newspaper in a precarious position, further exacerbated by its bank account being frozen. The paper’s survival is under greater threat than ever, which is precisely the intention of the courts”, underlines free speech organization Reporters Without Borders.

The organization says that most of the opposition newspapers in Azerbaijan have been closed, one after another and broadcast outlets are controlled by the authorities. In these circumstances, Reporters Without Borders say, the closure of Azadlig would be a fatal blow for media pluralism in Azerbaijan.

Azadlig has been the target of a series of prosecutions in recent months. In the past year, no less than ten complaints have been lodged against the daily, mostly by people close to the government. As a result, the newspaper has been forced to pay a series of exorbitant fines totalling more than 65,000 euros.

Azadlig’s accounts were frozen in order to recover the one of the fines, amounting to 4,200 euros, which was levied as a result of a complaint by the businessman Anar Mammadov, the son of the transport minister, Ziya Mammadov.

Yet the newspaper lodged an appeal against the verdict a week ago. Under the law on the application of court decisions, a court ruling cannot be executed while an appeal is pending. The editor of Azadlig, Ganimat Zahid, told that the court’s decision was illegal. “We are still publishing the newspaper, but if this situation continues we won’t be able to hold out for very long”, he said.

Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd of 179 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

HRH London, based on Index on Censorship, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders information.

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