Social network policy of government and development of youth activist

Jasur Mammadov, Vusal Azizov (GIPA (Georgia) MA students)

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INTRODUCTION

After the event of the “Arab Spring,” social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, became popular in Azerbaijan. Facebook was employed in political mobilization. In 2012, a number of political events were created with the use of Facebook . The Government used the police against demonstrators. It even created the commission on the use of Internet Commission, subordinated to the Press Council, aimed at keeping social networks under control.

This research intends to explore the effects of Azerbaijani government’s new Internet use policy on the youth activism. This topic is important to explore, as youth activism is the key, if not the only, form of active social and political movement in Azerbaijan, and the policy may become potentially restrictive of this movement. This study will contribute to the knowledge about governments’ response to social network use in political youth activism in the developing countries.

FACEBOOK AND POLITICAL MOBILIZATION

Public demonstrations, boycotts, and other forms of protest are normal forms of achieving political change for citizens in mature democracies. The same is not true for those who live in countries that experienced the Third Wave of democratization in the 1970s and 1980s. For them, disillusionment with the performance of democratic regimes led to a decline in protest behavior. Political action movements in Third Wave democracies have had three elements in common: the dominant role of youth; the absence of political parties as the main organizers; and the widespread use of social media as means of political action. It is the latter trend, of course, that is most interesting from a communication perspective. Considering their disengagement from conventional politics, the key role played by youth is also noteworthy (Valenzuela, 2012).

In the few years prior to the 2011 revolution, Egyptian political activists specifically sought out strategies through new media tools to (a) educate citizens to recognize their unjust social circumstances; (b) achieve consensus that the lack of justice must be redressed; (c) mobilize large groups of citizens to demand their rights and exercise their public will in street protests; (d) achieve and maintain discipline during protests and to respond to police brutality with nonviolence; and (e) inform the international community about the regime‘s debasement and suppression of ordinary Egyptian citizens (Khamis, Gold, Vaughn, 2012).

Interestingly, each of the new media tools was best suited to play a different role during the revolution. For example, Facebook was effective as a means of finding others with similar political views and planning street protests; YouTube was well suited to promoting citizen journalism by broadcasting activists‘ videos which were then picked up by satellite television channels and seen around the world; and Short Message Service (SMS) and Twitter enabled on the-move coordination and communication. Twitter was also used for outreach to the international media and diasporic communities. Such widespread and easy access to these online communication tools posed new and threatening challenges to autocratic regimes and their censored media outlets. The simultaneous and coordinated utilization of all these different types of social media created a very strong communication network which became difficult to disrupt (Khamis, Gold, Vaughn, 2012).

It is clear that the Facebook is one of the most important tool for political conversation among the younger citizens. What is Facebook, and what kind of network is it? Facebook, Myspace and other social networking sites (SNS’s) are defined as sites that have three features.

– First, SNS’s allow their users to construct a profile, available either to everyone on the Web, every member of the site, or only to their friends on the site itself.

– Second feature of an SNS is that it allows users to build a network of “friends” or connections to other users. Users can send messages to these friends, write on their public spaces (in Facebook users have “walls” where their friends can leave comments, pictures, and links), and browse one another’s profiles. This profile typically features pictures and personal data like interests and tastes. In other words they allow you to take your existing social network and publicly articulate it.

– The third feature is the ability to browse your own connections or friends and those of other people in the system. The degree of browsing freedom varies from site to site, but even when profiles are closed to you on Facebook, you can still browse that person’s friend list. The history of SNS’s is replete with individuals using the sites for purposes other than those intended by the designers. For instance, Myspace was launched to compete with the failing SNS Friendster, but almost immediately became a platform for bands to share their music, advertise upcoming gigs, and gain new fans.

Primary function of Facebook is to connect people virtually. But it serves other functions including as tool of political discussions (Valenzuela, 2012). Logically, we derive that Facebook is also useful for political discussion by the opposition members

Facebook was intended as a closed network for Harvard students, and has evolved into an organizing tool for political oppositions in authoritarian systems, among many other uses (Faris, 2008).

For starters, in an authoritarian system in which opposing the state can earn you an arrest or worse, Facebook allows you to identify other individuals who share your antipathy to the regime, and, crucially, you can check out that persons friends list to see if they are on the up-and-up.

The group function is particularly popular on Facebook, where the application allows each group’s administrators to post a mission-statement on the front page, manage their own wall, and coordinate activities together. Joining a group allows you to come together with a set of like-minded people on any particular issue. There is a sense of legitimation in this kind of group-formation. Crucially, forming a group on Facebook costs no more for the individuals involved than paying the costs of internet access. According to the different experts the people of Facebook are sons of the middle class….located throughout the country (Faris, 2008).

The crucial point is that if weak ties are critical to building bridges between different tight-knit social networks, then blogs and social networking sites like Facebook might have an incredibly important role to play in amplifying weak ties, making them transparent and usable, and simplifying the process of activating them. In other words, Facebook takes dormant social ties and makes them active, takes musty acquaintances and wipes the cobwebs from them, and can potentially plug you into social networks you never even knew you wanted to be a part of. This is important for the idea of social movements because of past difficulty in simply transmitting information to people who might conceivably want to join your group if they wanted to. It helps build “bridging capital” between diverse groups of people who might otherwise not think to work together for a common cause. For activists seeking to oppose the state, the disembodied networking of blogs, social networking sites, wikis and other forms of technological opposition all make it both more difficult to take out hubs, and lessens the consequences of doing so. A large number of nodes need to be removed from the system before the network itself will cease to operate properly. To put it more directly, while the state can conceivably shut down any one human rights organization, it cannot erase the accumulated experiences, knowledge, and wisdom of its members, which exists independently of their physical headquarters and is situated in a larger, denser network. On the other hand, it is exceedingly easy for the state to reach out and use repression on individual members of the network (Faris, 2008).

FACEBOOK IN AZERBAIJAN

Facebook in Azerbaijan has 1,072,400 users and grew by more than 171,800 in the last six months. Facebook penetration in Azerbaijan is 12.92% compared to the country’s population and 25.37% in relation to number of Internet users. The largest age group usage is currently 18-24 (48 %), followed by the age 25-34 (24%) users. The are 65% male users and 35% female users in Azerbaijan (http://www.socialbakers.com, 2013, April 1).

65-70 percent of Facebook users live in Baku. About 15 percent users live in the cities like Sumqayit, Ganca, Lenkoran and Shirvan. About 15-20 percent users live elsewhere in the country (Jasur Mammadov, 2013).

Facebook users often share political videos. For instance, in 2012 head of executive power of Guba district Rauf Khabibov in the meeting with residents of Guba  said “Guba residents are betrayal of  nation, the state, the land and their own families”. The video of his speech was posted on Youtube on December 2011 and it went viral among district residents. The video outraged the public and in February 2012  thousands of protestors gathered outside the administration  building of Guba and demanded Rauf Khabibov’s resignation. Some demonstrators also set Khabibov’s house on fire. Protesters destroyed and looted regional administration building.

The strength of Youtube was huge in those protests. It arises question would residents know how government official stigmatized them if the social network did not exist?

By 2013, excitation and tension among the users of social networks began to increase. The first rally which was planned via Facebook was held in January 12 and was devoted to soldier deaths. Then social networks were main tools to organize the protest action in Ismayilli  region of Azerbaijan where people demanded the resignation of a top official because his relative insulted residents. Government deployed a lot of   forces to this region and used different tear gas, water cannon and rubber  bullets to  disperse the crowd  of people. In January 26, rally in Baku related to protest  in Ismayilli was planned via Facebook. The next rally which was held in March 10 was also devoted to soldier deaths and differed with the majority of  participants.

After these rallies police took into custody young people  and the court decision states that the activists, who are accused of making calls on Facebook, placed “illegal” appeals on Facebook and invited citizens to take part in illegal protest and procession. The activists reiterated in their testimonies and at court hearings that they did nothing illegal by disseminating invitations on Facebook for participation in peaceful protest and that on the contrary, this right is given to them by the Constitution of Azerbaijani Republic.

In the beginning of the June, two famous Facebook pages of Azerbaijan opposition – “Istefa” (“Resign”, with more than 200 000 members) and “Xilas” (“Salvation”, with more than 150 000 members) were disappeared. And three pro-govermental pages (which supported Ilham Aliyev and his policy) “Prezidentə dəstək – 2013 (“Support to President – 2013”, with more than 100 000), “Azərbaycana baxış” (“View to Azerbaijan”, with more than 200 000), “Azərbaycan 2013: Qələbə!” (“Azerbaijan 2013: Victory”, more than 100 000) were disappeared too. Opposition representatives suspect  that there was a role of government.

During 2013, Facebook played critical role of planning the protest actions.  For example, the invitation to participate in the January 12’s action was sent to about 120,000 people. For the January 26 event the figure is 70,000, and for March 10 it was 180,000. The number of people who participated in the actions is 20 percent of the people who “confirmed” his or her participation via Favebook. For January 12 about 17,000 people confirmed their participation. For January 26, 5,000; for March 10, 22,000 (Jasur Mammadov, 2013).

GOVERNMENT POLICY

Some governments think that social media, especially Facebook is threat for them. But the authorities’ efforts to block out information, ended up “spurring people to be more active, decisive and to find ways to be more creative about communicating and organizing (Huang, 2011)

For example Turkey’s Transportation, Maritime and Communication Minister Binali Yıldırım said that social media could “provoke great masses”. He announced that the country is planning to block access to Facebook and Twitter in order to prevent a “threat to public safety.” (Rial, 2012). This statement was sounded before Gazipark protest action in Istanbul. Likewise, the minister stated that these platforms facilitated the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, calling them “revolutions of communication.” He said that social media may have caused “good things to happen there but it could also be used to provoke great masses and misguide them.”

During May, 2013, 25 persons have been detained by Turkish police for circulating misinformation on social networks. According to government authorities these people  are accused of “calling on people for protest.”

Prime Minister Rejep Taip Erdogan also clarified that social networks are the mechanism of circulating lies and create threat to unity (BBC, 2013).

Turkey has 31 million Facebook users and 9 million Twitter users; 18,4 million of them use internet 34 hours per month (Rial, 2012).

In the case of Syria, the Assad’s regime has severely censored Internet use, blocked access to global websites and social media platforms (especially Facebook and YouTube), and monitored bloggers, who face intimidation, arrest, and torture, all of which has sharply limited Internet access and use (Khamis, Gold, Vaughn, 2012).

In the Egyptian context, activists and political figures have found their blogs and social media websites hacked, and on the other side of the political divide, anti-revolutionary figures have also had their websites targeted, including attacks by a group calling itself the ― Egyptian Knights. In addition, political parties and other organizations have also found their websites targeted, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Ikhwan Online web forum was attacked by the hacktivist group Anonymous. A Salafist party had its Facebook page defaced with photos of scantily clad women (Khamis, Gold, Vaughn, 2012).

The French organisation Reporters Without Borders released in March its list of the 12 “Enemies of the Internet”. China, Cuba, North Korea and Syria are at the top of the list, but other countries are under surveillance, such as Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia. However, with this new measure, Turkey may climb up soon a big number of positions (Rial, 2012).

In Azerbaijan, Government’s attack on  the freedom of expression and opposition activities on social networks came soon. The first, high level officials declared that some foreign powers are interested in destabilizing  the country and they use social networks, especially Facebook to realize their “crafty” plans. Then (May 4th) Bakcell and Azercell, two leading mobile operators in Azerbaijan, suspended providing free access to social networks “0.Facebook.com” and “Free Mobile Twitter” to their subscribers. Despite the fact that the message of the mobile operators states that temporary suspension of services is due to technical problems, some experts and opposition media  believe that the decision of the two leading mobile operators to stop providing free access to social networks at the same time, may have political background (Mammadov, 2013).

In May 14th, Azerbaijani Parliament adopted amendments to article 147 (slander) and 148 (insult) of the Criminal Code establishing a legal punishment of up to six months of imprisonment for slander and insult by the users of the social networks. The new amendments are primarily targeted the Facebook activists who have recently been enjoying freedoms in criticizing the Azerbaijani government on the Internet without much pressures from the Azerbaijani government. And in June 4, President Ilham Aliyev signed a bill passed by the parliament that would criminalize defamatory and offensive views expressed on the internet. Now it is possible to launch a criminal case against online activists posting critical views on the internet referring to the Articles 147 and 148 of the Criminal Code, and jail them for up to three years. Immediately after this Štefan Füle, Commissioner for EU enlargement  and European Neighborhood Policy shared his opinion via Twitter: “Azerbaijan: freedom of expression must be enhanced not limited, concerned by the final adoption of law on internet defamation”. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, expressed serious concern related to this issue. Wary of the chilling effect that these provisions are bound to have on those wishing to use the Internet to raise legitimate critical voices, Nils Muižnieks and Dunja Mijatović also expressed concern that the new changes will further erode the already limited space for free expression in the country (Reuters, 2013).

During this period some opposition youths complained that some videos about Azerbaijan officials were deleted from their Youtube profiles. They think that it might be related with complaints of some people close to  government  to Youtube company (Mammadov, 2013).

FACEBOOK AND POLITICS IN THE WOLRD

It is proved people who originally join Facebook to keep up with friends, hold discussions or admire their favorite singers or soccer teams become more involved in politics. Their attitude to facebook evolves in different way. Constant reading of posts, likes, comments, and shares on political issues make users more active and change their political views.

In most countries in the Arab world facebook has been one of the 10 most-visited Web sites, and two years before Egyptian revolution which toppled Husnu Mubarek in Egypt it ranked third, after Google and Yahoo. About one in nine Egyptians had Internet access, and around 9 percent of that group were on Facebook — a total of almost 800,000 members. (Shapiro, 2009). Like in Azerbaijan under Mubarek freedom of speech and the right to assemble were limited in Egypt. Facebook used by young people to speak freely to one another and encourage them to form groups, was irresistible as a platform not only for social interaction but also for dissent.

The tendency in such developing countries as Chile, Azerbaijan, Turkey etc. shows people that are unhappy with their government meet on facebook groups to debate and plan events. People who do not have access to regular media assemble virtually, communicate freely about their grievances thus venting their anger on posts which is very effective and potentially can influence on people’s opinion.

Research shows that it is technically possible for  government to block networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Orujlu, 2013). Because there is strong government control or a government-related monopoly over the internet infrastructure in Azerbaijan, it is possible to filter the internet in the country. If they block the social networks, it will be difficult to enter to these sites, but there will remain some opportunity to use these social networks. But experts don’t believe the government can block the social networks for a long time. It could be possible for a short time, for the election period, but it will cost the government. To close or limit social networks is a very sensitive and difficult issue (Novruzov, 2013).

2013 is an election year in Azerbaijan, and evidently the government understands the role of social networks in this important year, and it is possible that the government’s latest moves about the internet are related to elections. The government has increasingly attempted to exercise greater control over the Internet, though it remains much less restricted than print and broadcast media, which are the main sources of news for most citizens. In the Law on Mass Media of 1999, the Internet was categorized as part of the mass media. Because of this, all rules applied to the traditional media, which are considered to be highly problematic, could also be used for Internet regulation (Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, 2013).

Research shows that the issue is not related that how the government will use technology to limit entrance to social networks. The issue is how Government wants to create fear in society, and what will be the psychological effect of these plans. But they have the technical means to follow people who are active on social networks. Some developed partner countries provide the special technologies which will be used to control the social networks (Novruzov, 2013). So, the government doesn’t think about total control over social networks users. They think about the scenario to punish about 3-5 active people, and then make a special PR campaign about it and create general fear in society. But if they close Facebook in Azerbaijan, it would be one of the main factors against the government (Orujlu, 2013)

LITERATURE REVIEW

Sebastia´n Valenzuela, The Social Media Basis of Youth Protest Behavior: The Case of Chile, Journal of Communication, 2012.

Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Azerbaijan’s Free Expression Crackdown Continues, 2013 First Quarterly Report on Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan. Retrieved from: http://www.irfs.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2013-Q1-FoE-Report.pdf

David Faris, Revolutions Without Revolutionaries? Network Theory, Facebook, and the Egyptian Blogosphere, Arab Media & Society, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.arabmediasociety.com/articles/downloads/20080929153219_ams6_david_faris.pdf

Samantha M.Shapiro, Revolution, Facebook-Style – Can Social Networking Turn Young Egyptians Into a Force for Democratic Change? – NYTimes.com, 2009. Retrieved from: http://173.201.102.115/eslefl/miscstudent/downloadpagearticles/facebookrevolutionegypt-nyt.pdf

Jasur Mammadov, Facebook role in democratization of Azerbaijan, 2013. Retrieved from: https://facebookcafe.wordpress.com

Arastun Orujlu, interview, 2013. Retrieved from: https://facebookcafe.wordpress.com

Ali Novruzov, interview, 2013. Retrieved from: https://facebookcafe.wordpress.com

Carol Huang, Facebook and Twitter key to Arab Spring uprisings: report, The National, 2011. Retrieved from: http://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/designprocess/files/2012/08/TheNational_FacebookandTwitterKeytoArabSpringUprising.pdf

Nerea Rial, Turkey to ban Twitter and Facebook, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.neurope.eu/article/turkey-ban-twitter-and-facebook

BBC, Turkey protesters demand dismissal of police chiefs, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22783127

Reuters, Europe criticizes Azeri leader over Internet defamation law, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/06/us-azerbaijan-rights-idUSBRE9551D620130606

Sahar Khamis, Paul B. Gold, Katherine Vaughn, Beyond Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” and Syria’s “YouTube Uprising:” Comparing Political Contexts, Actors and Communication Strategies, University of Maryland, College Park, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.arabmediasociety.com/articles/downloads/20120407120519_khamis_gold_vaughn.pdf

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Storyline of Social Media Censorship

After the event of the “Arab Spring,” social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, became popular in Azerbaijan. Facebook was employed in political mobilization. In 2012, a number of political events were created with the use of Facebook . The Government used the police against demonstrators. It even created the commission on the use of Internet Commission, subordinated to the Press Council, aimed at keeping social networks under control. This research intends to explore the effects of Azerbaijani government’s new Internet use policy on the youth activism. This topic is important to explore, as youth activism is the key, if not the only, form of active social and political movement in Azerbaijan, and the policy may become potentially restrictive of this movement.

Timeline of censorship

TIM copy

“Facebook – is the first technology that authorities can not control it” (Interview)

David Bloss, regional editor of Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP):

“I think, in any country of the world authorities are afraid of Facebook. It must be so, because to take it under their control is not possible. Facebook – is the first technology that authorities can not control it. And that’s normal…

…. The situation in the country seems to be fairly calm. But in reality, the emotional temperature in June in Azerbaijan is quite high. This can be seen in the government, civil society, media and business. And the temperature rises. From such pressures Facebook and other social networks become stronger.

(newspapers Ayna and Zerkalo, June 21, 2013)

FACEBOOK’S ROLE IN DEMOCRATIZATION OF AZERBAIJAN (the development of events – chronology) – news updates

 By Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, the director of the “Doctrine” Journalists’ Military Research Center, now he is studying MA at Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), Faculty Journalism and Media Management.

June 2013

June 15. “We are not exercising control over the Internet. Approving annexes and amendments to the Criminal Code we are regulating the norms carried out in the sphere of ICT. The international organizations’ critical remarks are biased,” said chief of the Presidential Administration Political Analysis and Information Provision Department Elnur Aslanov, APA reports.

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and security Policy Catherine Ashton and EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle criticized Azerbaijan after President Ilham Aliyev confirmed the parliament’s law on the application of the Criminal Code articles # 147 (slander) and 148 (insult) to internet resources. Commenting on this, the Presidential Administration official said that in all countries the process of preventing the release of extremist reports is regulated through the law: “Why should a person, who insulted another one, remain unpunished? Why should a person not bear a responsibility for insult or slander? Otherwise, there may be chaos on the internet. Many years ago a number of laws and norms were adopted in the European countries and US for regulation of the relations and realization of ethical rules on the internet. In these countries internet became a norm of life a long time ago, while in our country internet is just becoming a norm of life. Social networks have already become an inseparable part of our life. Sometimes the decisions passed in this regard can be admitted carefully by our society. But these decisions are based on the practice of Europe, all developed countries,” he said.  The official of the Presidential Administration said the reason of the position of the European Union representatives on Azerbaijan regarding this issue is that they can not realize the essence of the decisions passed in Azerbaijan.

June 6. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, expressed serious concern today at the promulgation by the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, of amendments extending the application of criminal defamation provisions to online expression on 4 June 2013. Muižnieks and Mijatović, both of whom had explicitly called on the President not to sign these amendments into law following their adoption by Parliament on 14 May 2013, regretted this step, which clearly contradicts Azerbaijan’s commitments and obligations relating to the decriminalization of defamation and freedom of expression in general. Wary of the chilling effect that these provisions are bound to have on those wishing to use the Internet to raise legitimate critical voices, Nils Muižnieks and Dunja Mijatović also expressed concern that the new changes will further erode the already limited space for free expression in the country. Noting that the Azerbaijani authorities are currently engaged with the Council of Europe Venice Commission on the reform of Azerbaijan’s defamation legislation, the officials strongly urged the Azerbaijani authorities to deploy genuine efforts to ensure that this process results in legislation that complies fully with the European Convention on Human Rights and OSCE commitments on freedom of the media, both online and offline. Mijatović is in Cologne attending the 25th Medienforum.

June 6. From today, the questions asked by citizens will be answered on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s Facebook page with the participation of the persons responsible for various spheres. A related announcement has been posted on official Facebook page of Azerbaijan’s President. According to the announcement, taking into account that 2013 is the year of Information Technologies in Azerbaijan, the first topic is dedicated to this sphere. “You can ask questions through comments to this status. The questions will be received on June 6-10, 2013 and will be answered gradually. In order not to repeat questions, look through the questions asked earlier. You can also offer topics or spheres that interest you so that we can take into account your wishes while choosing topics.”

June 6.  Štefan Füle, Commissioner responsible for the enlargement of the EU and for the policy towards neighbours: “Azerbaijan: freedom of expression must be enhanced not limited,concerned by the final adoption of law on internet defamation”. Via Twitter.

June 5. The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) resolutely President Aliyev’s signing the draconian amendments to the Criminal Code that make defamation over the Internet a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment.  The amendments represent a major blow to freedom of expression ahead of a presidential election in the already tightly controlled environment.

‘These amendments represent serious steps away from international norms. They would criminalize many exercises of freedom of expression online and empower the security services to take action’, comments IRFS CEO and Chairman Emin Huseynov.  IRFS also continues to call for an end to the campaign of harassment against critics of the government. ‘The draconian Internet defamation law, unfortunately, do not represent a step in the right direction’, Huseynov noted.

IRFS emphasizes that the approval of these amendments is a disrespect not only to the government’s commitments to uphold the freedom of expression and internet, but also the president’s own order to improve the national legislation (through, inter alia, the ‘National Action Program for increasing the efficiency of the protection of human rights and freedoms in the Republic of Azerbaijan’) to an end to criminal defamation laws which encourage self-censorship thereby restricting freedom of expression.  While hosting the UN Internet Governance Forum in November of 2012, Azerbaijani authorities tried to convince the world community that Azerbaijan is country with a free internet, and the government intends to carry out more important reforms in this field. Last of such persuasions was made by President Ilham Aliyev on May 29 at Azerbaijan-US: Vision for Future Forum, where he tried to convince hundreds of US politicians attending the event that ‘Azerbaijan is an area of fully free media and internet’. However approval of these amendments by the president shows that his pledges regarding human rights and the real actions taken in this area are in contradiction to one-another.  IRFS reminds that following adoption of these amendments by the parliament on May 14, a number of local and international organizations, including OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks, sent an appeal to the president calling on him to refrain from signing the amendments and put a veto on this bill. But despite of all this, the president signed these amendments. Apart from being in contradiction to both Azerbaijani Constitution and the country’s international obligations, the criminal prosecution of journalists and bloggers for their free opinions exert ‘chilling effect’ on the media.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the independent body of experts that provides the definitive interpretation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has said that ‘defamation laws must be crafted with care to ensure that they… do not serve, in practice, to stifle freedom of expression. … States parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty’.  Despite of being a state party to the ICCPR, Azerbaijan ignores its provisions, which shows that international legal instruments the country has ratified have little importance for her. IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to live up to the standards and commitments reflected in the European Convention of Human Rights, the Helsinki Accords, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Toward that end, IRFS urges the government of Azerbaijan to repeal the laws that would constrict fundamental freedoms and human rights and fulfill the country’s human rights obligations undertaken before international organizations. IRFS further calls on the international community, in particular the Council of Europe and the OSCE, to take a stronger stance and exert greater pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to fulfill their international human rights obligations.

June 5. The president of Azerbaijan Internet Forum Osman Gunduz said to AzVision.az that it could be connected with content of these pages. He thought that there are special rules on Facebook and if you creat some pages on FB, you have to follo these rules.

June 5. Two famous Facebook pages of Azerbaijan opposition – Istefa (resign) and Xilas (rescue) were disappeared. And three pro-govermental pages (whic are supported Ilham Aliyev and his policy) “Prezidentə dəstək – 2013 (Support to President – 2013), “Azərbaycana baxış” (View to Azerbaijan), “Azərbaycan 2013: Qələbə!” (Azerbaijan 2013: Victory) were disappeared too. Oppositon representatives said that this is the result of action of government.

June 5.  The official from Ministry of Internal Affairs Orkhan Mansurzade told to APA that the person who created the false profil of name of minister Ramil Usubov was determined. But he said that unknown person created the news profil for Ramil Usubov.

June 4. President Aliyev signed a bill passed by the parliament that would criminalize defamatory and offensive views expressed on the internet.  Now it is possible to launch a criminal case against online activists posting critical views on the internet referring to the Articles 147 and 148 of the Criminal Code, and jail them for up to three years.

May 2013

May 24. The official from Ministry of Internal Affairs Orkhan Mansurzade told to “Bizim Yol” newspaper that, there are not any officla page of Ministry of Internal Affairs, Internal Troops and other structures on Facebook. He said that the appropriate measures will be taken on the fake profiles created.

May 23. According to the local media the president of SOCAR Rovnag Abdullayev wil answer the questions of citizens via Facebook page of SOCAR soon. This is the news project of SOCAR and it will realize as video format. Abdullayev will answer the questions which collect more “like”.

May 22-23. Azerbaijan`s Minister of Labor and Social Protection of Population Fuzuli Alakbarov answered the questions of citizens via Facebook page of Ministry. This is the first time when official figure answered the question via social networks.

May 22-23. In Stockholm was held Global security and human rights in the internet age conference. The chairman of the Human Rights Club (HRC), Rasul Jafarov told about the problems with social networks in Azerbaijan.

May 14. The Azerbaijani Parliament adopted amendments to article 147 (slander) and 148 (insult) of the Criminal Code establishing a legal punishment of up to six months of imprisonment for slander and insult by the users of the social networks. The new amendments are primarily targeted at the Facebook activists who have recently been enjoying freedoms in criticizing the Azerbiajani government on the Internet without much pressures from the Azerbaijani government. The initiative to have these amendments adopted by the parliament belongs to the Attorney General of Azerbaijan Zakir Garalov.

May 14. The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) issued a statement attacking the newly adopted bill as a serious step in the direction of stregnthening the authoritarianism in Azerbaijan. Below is the full text of the statement: Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) resolutely condemns the adoption of the draconian amendments to the Criminal Code that allow for harsh penalties for defamation and insult posted on the internet. IRFS believes that the hasty adoption of this bill serves the purpose of having a chilling effect on critical bloggers and online activists, thus making citizens less active in the year of election. “Amendments to the Criminal Code, which were passed on today by the Parliament, was a blatant political move and a shabby attempt to hijack online freedoms amid mounting pre-election crackdown,” comments IRFS CEO and Chair Emin Huseynov. IRFS considers that using the criminal justice system to punish journalists and bloggers for freely expressed views is contrary to Azerbaijan’s constitution and international obligations, and has a chilling effect on journalists throughout the country. IRFS recalls that the government has committed (through, inter alia, the ‘National Action Program for increasing the efficiency of human rights and freedoms in the Republic of Azerbaijan’) to an end to criminal defamation laws which encourage self-censorship, thereby restricting freedom of expression. IRFS therefore urges the Azerbaijani president to refrain from approving these amendments as they are incompatible with the National Action Program for increasing the efficiency of human rights and freedoms. The UN Human Rights Committee, the independent body of experts that provides the definitive interpretation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has said that ‘defamation laws must be crafted with care to ensure that they… do not serve, in practice, to stifle freedom of expression. … States parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty’. Azerbaijan is a state party to the ICCPR and is bound by its provisions. The right to freedom of expression and information is guaranteed and protected by the provisions of international instruments, and treaties signed and ratified by the Government of Azerbaijan, notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 19, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 19, and Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights, Article 10. IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to live up to the standards and commitments reflected in the European Convention of Human Rights, the Helsinki Accords, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Toward that end, IRFS urges the government of Azerbaijan to repeal the laws that would constrict fundamental freedoms and human rights.IRFS further calls on the international community, in particular the Council of Europe and the OSCE, to take a stronger stance and exert greater pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to fulfill their international human rights obligations (Azeri Report).

May 4. The head of Internet Forum Osman Gunduz, who studies social media in Azerbaijan, said: “The increasing number of the users in social networks affects their activity. Facebook has acquired an important role in shaping public opinion in Azerbaijan. Apparently, the authorities are concerned with the fact that Facebook has become a tool of expressing the civic activity”.

May 4. Bakcell and Azercell, two leading mobile operators in Azerbaijan, suspended providing free access to social networks “0.Facebook.com” and “Free Mobile Twitter” to their subscribers. Despite the fact that the message of the mobile operators states that temporary suspension of services is due to technical problems, some experts believe that the decision of the two leading mobile operators to stop providing free access to social networks at the same time, may have political background, the media says.

May 2. According to Emin Huseynov, the chairman of the Institute of Reporters’ Freedom and Security (IRFS), this initiative demonstrates the government’s consistent policy to destroy freedom of speech in Azerbaijan.  Huseynov said that Azerbaijan special government structures buy different special technologies to control the internet in Azerbaijan. These opinions were shared at the conference “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media” which was held on May 2 in Baku. The conference focused on the serious threats that the new initiatives mean for control of the media and the Internet.  http://www.irfs.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2013-Q1-FoE-Report.pdf

May 2. The director of Media Rights Institute in Azerbaijan, Rashid Hajili, said there is a lot of tension related to social networks in Azerbaijan. “Social networks are followed by government structures,” he said. “The people are registrated. We can see it clearly related with young political activists who are active on social networks. When they are invited to police stations, the police officials ask them about their social networks activities. It is clear that the government is afraid of social networks, where people are free to express themselves. “We should consider that the number of youths on social networks is more than the youth who read the newspapers and watch TV. The social networks are effective platform for youth for their improvment and enlightment,” he said. What about the predicted limitation of  social networks activities in Azerbaijan? Rashid Hajili said it is technically possible the  government could block networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “Because there is strong government control or a government-related monopoly over the internet infrastructure in Azerbaijan, it is possible to filter  the internet in the country,” he said. “If they block  the social networks, it will be difficult to enter to these sites, but there will remain some opportunity to use these social networks. I don’t believe the government can block the social networks for a long time. It could be possible for a short time, but it will be expensive for the government.”

May 2. Rasul Jafarov, chairman of the Human Rights Club, thinks the government “has the desire to interfere in social networks, but they have not the opportunity. To close or limit social networks is a very sensitive and difficult issue.” Jafarov said that the ammendments to the Criminal Code are to be considered as a psychological attack on the people who use the social networks.

May 2. Blogger Ali Novruzov said that he is worried about the government’s internet plans.  “The government tries to make definite limitations to the freedom of expression on the Internet. They want to make it a regulation,” he said. “I think that this is very sensitive issue. That’s why the government has to take into consideration the different interests of people, online media, civil society, business and consumers. Everybody has to participate in making any rules related to the Internet. But it seems that the Azerbaijan government tries to do this process one-sided. For example, they created the Internet Commission under the Press Council, and they  continue to make amendments to the Criminal Code. So the government tries to take control over the Internet. But this process is doubtful. It is very difficult to take control over the one million people who are Facebook users in Azerbaijan. “In reality, these amendments are dangerous for people because they could be used  selectively. For example, if someone insults another citizen on Facebook, and that person complains to the court, officials may be not interested in punishing that person. But if someone writes some criticism about officials, that person could be punished. My main worry is related with this issue.”  Novruzov said the role of social networks role in Azerbaijan is very important. “It has been a long time since Azerbaijan TV program content included the reaction to the issuess which are discussed on social networks,” he said. “This is an election year in Azerbaijan, and evidently the government understands the role of social networks in this important year, and it is possible that the government’s latest moves about the internet are related to elections.”

May 2. The director of the East-West Research Center, Arastun Orujlu, said the issue is not about how the government will use technology to limit entrance to social networks. “The issue is how Government wants to create fear in society, and what will be the psychological effect of these plans. But they have the technical means to follow people who are active on social networks. Some developed partner countries provide the special technologies which will be used to control the social networks,” Orujlu said. According to Orujlu, the government doesn’t think about  total control over social networks users. “I think they think about the scenario to punish about 3-5 active people, and then make a special PR campaign about it and create general fear in society,” Orujlu said.

April 2013

April 30. It seems Azerbaijan authorities wish to strengthen control over internet activity. The parliament is going to confirm special amendments to the Criminal Code. These amendments were discussed at the April 30 meeting of the Parliament committee on legal policy and state-building. Committee chairman Ali Huseynli said that according to the proposed amendments, punishments are imposed for personal insult and slander in media outlets or public information internet resources.Under the Criminal Code’s articles 147 (slander) and 148 (insult), the punishments will be imposed in accordance with information released on internet resources. Fines from AZN 100-500 and public work up to 240 hours, corrective work up to a year, or six months imprisonment are designated for slander. Severe cases could bring sentences of public work up to two years, or three years imprisonment. Fines from AZN 300-1000, public work up to 240 hours, corrective work up to a year or six months imprisonment are designated for insult. The draft law was recommended to the plenary meeting of the Azerbaijani parliament.

April 28. According to independent estimates, 65-70 percent of Facebook users live in Baku. About 15 percent users live in the cities of Sumqayit, Ganca, Lenkoran and Shirvan. About 15-20 percent users live elsewhere in the country.

April 25. According to http://www.socialbakers.com, which researches and analyzes social network statistics in different countries, on April 1 there were 1,072,400 Facebook users in Azerbaijan. “Our social networking statistics show that Facebook penetration in Azerbaijan is 12.92% compared to the country’s population and 25.37% in relation to number of Internet users. The total number of Monthly Active Facebook Users (MAU) in Azerbaijan is approximately 1,072,400 and grew by more than 171,800 in the last six months. Facebook demographics are other social media statistics we monitor. The largest age group usage is currently 18-24 with 522 860 users, followed by the age 25-34 users. The are 65% male users and 35% female users in Azerbaijan, compared to 59% and 41% in Palestinian Territory and 45% and 55% in Georgia,” socialbakers.com stated.

April. An MP from the ruling party of Yeni Azerbaijan, Aydin Mirzazade, thinks  the main goals of NDI are to change the government in Azerbaijan and create instability in the country. The chief of the public policy department for the Presidential Administration, Ali Hasanov, said the Azerbaijani government is studying information in the media regarding the activities of NDI and promised to give an  assessment after completion of the study.

April. Azerbaijan media wrote that using Facebook in different internet clubs in Azerbaijan was prohibited. There were reports  that the owners of  internet cafes in the Garachuxur and Guneshli districts of Baku prohibited Facebook use.  According to other reports, police ordered the owners of internet clubs in Ismayilli region to keep  a list of users.

April. Young activist and blogger Habib Muntazir who lives in Germany and is very active on social networks, said Azerbaijani youth could declare their different thoughts and opinions via Facebook. “The government in Azerbaijan prohibited all free platforms for discussions. Therefore, using social networks is very important and useful,” Muntazir said. He doesn’t think the Azerbaijan government could close Facebook now. “But they are able to amaze us every time. They closed the Free Thought University and it is an example of how the Azerbaijan government can amaze us. But if they closed Facebook in Azerbaijan, it would be one of the main factors against the government,” Muntazir said. Muntazir said he highly admires the protest action which was planned via Facebook: “I think that it is the appearance of a youth movement in Azerbaijan,” he said. “At the same time it is evidence of a social media revolution in Azerbaijan. The people have interest in Facebook events. At the least. it is a demonstration of unity by people who support this action even online. If we consider that Azerbaijan society is still gripped with fear, it is normal that there are some differences in crowd estimates at events, and the number of participants is fewer than the number of people who declare on Facebook that they will join an action.” Muntazir said that he never organized a protest action in Azerbaijan. “I think I don’t have the right to organize an action from a foreign country, if I couldn’t participate in this action. I shared the information about these events. In general, I think that these rallies will continue.”

April. One of the organizers of protest actions in Azerbaijan via Facebook, Free Youth Organization representative Ilkin Rustamzade said that today social networks like Facebook are free platforms for youths or any people to declare their opinion. He said government took control of all the media and limited the opportunity of free expression in the country. “TVs belong to Government, print media belongs to Government, and they prohibited free gathering,: he said.  “In this case, social networks fill the emptiness. For me, Facebook is the airhole in Azerbaijan.” Rustamzade doesn’t believe the Azerbaijan government can totally stop the activity of Facebook. “If they do that, it will mean that they want to build North Korea in Azerbaijan,” he said. Rustamzade talked about the last two protest actions: “These two actions were great events which informed and involved more people and created huge resonance. These events demonstrated the power of social networks. For example, the invitation to participate in the January 12 action was sent to about 120,000 people. For the January 26 event the figure is 70,000, and for March 10 it was 180,000. The number of people who participated in the actions is 20 percent of the people who “confirm” his or her participation via Favebook. For January 12 about 17,000 people confirmed their participation. For January 26, 5,000; for March 10, 22,000.” Rustamzade think that contination of the protest actions will depend on the  situation. “I am sure that we – youth people – will never change our way,” he said.

April 18. Thomas Melia, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,  was in Azerbaijan  April 17-18 and said at a  press conference that the NDI administration visited Azerbaijan in mid-April and held talks on the institute’s activity in the country. “I hope misunderstandings around this issue will be eliminated,” said Melia, noting that NDI is a famous organization implementing programs on democracy and elections and working with civil society in a number of countries. “This organization should be regarded as a resource. The civil society should enjoy this resource,” he said.

April 17. The deputy executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (NAP), MP Mubariz Gurbanly, told the radio station “Voice of America”  that revolution via Facebook is not possible in Azerbaijan. He said the recent arrests of youth activists were made because proponents of “radical opposition” conducted several illegal actions on Fountain Square, although the site is not intended for this purpose. Referring to discussions in social networks, he said the government is not afraid of discussions on Facebook, and that the Internet in Azerbaijan is completely free. “I reiterate the position of the (ruling party) NAP. We stand for freedom in social networks,” he said. At the same time, Gurbanly said that no one can make a revolution in Azerbaijan through Facebook. “To carry out a revolution in the country, there should be reasons for unrest and anti-government protests. If there is no reason for this, it is impossible to make revolution through Facebook in the country. Did participants in the meeting at the Cairo’s Tahrir Square gather through Facebook? Most of them did not even know about Facebook and had no access to social networks,” he said. With regard to NDİ, Gurbanly said: “NDI has been working in Azerbaijan and continues its activity. For us, NDI is not a source of danger. There has just been made a public journalism investigation of the removal of cash by an employee of NDİ from a bank account and the use of these funds. The office of the prosecutor quite rightly asked the U.S. Embassy to inquire. I read the response of the U.S. Embassy, and I think that’s not enough. They have to respond to the arguments identified by the investigative journalism. In this matter, there can be no pressure on NDI.”

April 10. One of the organizers of protest actions in Azerbaijan via Facebook, Free Youth Organization representative Ilkin Rustamzade, was called to the procurator’s office. He was asked about a protest action which was held on March 10 against soldier deaths in Azerbaijan army.

April 10. Representatives from procurator’s office closed the doors of the Free Thought University, which is popular among youths. The officials said they are inspecting the financing of this structure.

March 2013

March 29. General prosecutor Zakir Garalov sent a letter to US Ambassador Richard Morningstar which stated that press articles about the NDI office caused a great public disturbance. According to the media, the inspections held by the prosecution bodies revealed that the NGI office issued grants via its offices and regional information centers in Baku, Ganja, Tovuz, Shirvan, Yevlakh, Shaki, Khachmaz and Jalilabad which were not registered and certified in the due manner and violated a number of laws.

March-April. Some MPs from the ruling party and others from pro-governmental parties declared that the activity of Facebook in Azerbaijan should be limited. They think that it is necessary to create a special structure to control Facebook and other social networks.

March-April. The head of the Baku office of NDI, Alex Grigoriev, cannot enter Azerbaijan. NDI president Kenneth Wollack said:  “the repetition of untrue information does not make it true. NDI and its local partners help the organizers of the public community, young leaders and other citizens in their peaceful and constructive cooperation with local authorities for the improvement of their communities.” According to the statement, the NDI activity in relation to Azerbaijani authorities was completely transparent and all finances allocated to the NDI office and its representatives in Baku were used solely for the goals of the organization. According to the statement, the NDI office has been registered with the Ministry of Justice. In line with this registration, NDI submits financial reporting to the Ministry of Finance, as required by the law.

March. Some Azerbaijan official claim that the office of the American NGO National Democratic Institute (NDI) supported different political activities on Facebook in order to start a revolution in Azerbaijan.

March. Eynulla Fatullayev, former political prisoner and now the editor of the website haqqin.az, wrote that NDI spent $2 million on  youth organization in Azerbaijan to realise a “Facebook Revolution” in the country. Fatullayev claimed there is no transparency for money spent by NDI in Azerbaijan.

March 18. National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov has said telecom companies should help monitor social networking sites, as they are being used to recruit extremists.

March 14. Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of the presidential administration, has alleged that certain international organizations are paying and organizing young people via social networking sites. “The views of those who make provocative calls on Facebook about various events do not coincide with the views of the majority,” Mehdiyev told the state news agency Azertag. “Those calls on social networks are the emotions of young people supported and incited by the treacherous radical opposition.”

March 12. Azerbaijani Interior Minister Ramil Usubov has commented on the messages posted on social networks regarding protests. Addressing the event marking the 21st anniversary of the Interior Troops, Usubov said: “Some forces, who are interested in destabilizing the republic, took advantage of some families’ tragedies for their political interests and incited by these forces a group of young people posted messages on Facebook calling on citizens to join an illegal protest; this is a failed attempt aiming to create mistrust, and an artificial confrontation between the society and army.”

March 11. MP and “Motherland” Party chairman Fezail Agamali said that there is “the threat of Facebook. I see it and I think that at the time of election we can expect a series of unpleasant events.”  According to Agamali, Facebook serves as a tool against the government: “Compatriots living abroad, the Armenian lobby and the radical opposition in Azerbaijan take part in this campaign. I think that the authorities should think about it now.” Agamalı also said thousands of people go into the street due to Facebook and  it shows that the Facebook is now a real danger: “I am not against any of the actions,” he said. “But the fact is that these actions can be used for other purposes.”

March 10. Protest action against soldier deaths in Army was planned via Facebook.

February 2013

February – May. After recent events, some young activists in Azerbaijan are in prison for their Facebook use. Seven people from the “Nida!” (translation is the exclamation point) movement was arrested after the March 10 rally against soldiers deaths in the army. Procurator’s officials claimed they had handmade weapons for the purpose of using against the government. But representatives of the youth organisation claimed the seven were arrested for their political views and opinions which were published on different social networks. “Nida!” is one of the active youth organizations which struggles for democracy in the country.

February 1. 

The Expression Online Coalition (EOC) strongly condemns the Azerbaijan’s government crackdown on the Internet freedom after the regime sentenced a well known blogger Emin Milli and other civil society activists to the administrative detention and ordered them to pay huge fines for organizing a peaceful protest via Facebook. As such, based on the Article 298.1[1] of the Administrative Error Code, the court sentenced Emin Milli to 15 days of administrative detention and imposed 2,500 AZN(2.348 EUR) fine[2] on youth activist Turgut Gambar, for using Facebook to make calls for participation in the opposition protest held in the center of Baku on January 26, 2013.  The court decision states that the activists, who are accused of making calls on Facebook, placed “illegal” appeals on Facebook and invited citizens to take part in illegal protest and procession. The activists reiterated in their testimonies and at court hearings that they did nothing illegal by disseminating invitations on Facebook for participation in peaceful protest and that on the contrary, this right is given to them by the Constitution of Azerbaijani Republic.

The authorities have increased surveillance of the Internet and social networks since the 7thInternet Governance Forum that Baku hosted last year, said Emin Huseynov, EOC member and Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) Chair. The wave of authorities’ crackdown on Internet includes pressure on internet-café owners in Ismayilli city not to open their cafes until the protest ended, slow-down of the speed of internet in Ismayilli and cyber attacks on news portals on the day of Baku protest (January 12).

‘There is a contradiction between these restrictions on the freedom of internet and the repeated statements of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that internet is completely free in Azerbaijan’, said Emin Huseynov.

‘Above all, these actions contravene the Universal Declaration of human rights which says people have the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,’ Huseynov said. The Expression Online Coalition believes that such actions can indirectly lead to self-censorship among internet users. The Expression Online Coalition calls on the government to ensure Azerbaijan upholds international standards regarding the right to freedom of expression and this right is respected and guaranteed both offline and online. The coalition calls on the government to guarantee unlimited Internet access and communication for every citizen of Azerbaijan. Specifically, the Expression Online Coalition calls on the Azerbaijan’s government to:

– Immediately release Emin Milli who received 15 days of administrative detention for his Facebook activity;

– Immediately withdraw 2,500 AZN fine imposed on Turgut Gambar for his Facebook activity;

– Immediately release journalist Faramaz Novruzoglu, who was arrested in 2012 for statements he posted on Facebook, and journalists Vugar Gonagov and Zaur Guliyev, who were arrested for uploading a video on Youtube; and

· Launch objective Investigation into the case of intimidation of the Internet café owners during social unrest in Ismayilli.

The Expression Online is a pioneer campaign launched in May 2012 by a consortium of Azerbaijani freedom of expression organizations including the Azerbaijan Media Center, the Human Rights Club and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS). The Expression Online Coalition seeks to develop best practices and promote an informed public dialogue to advance Internet access and freedom in Azerbaijan.

January 2013

January 26. Rally related to protest action in Ismayilli which demanded the resignation of a top official because his relative insulted residents was planned via Facebook.

January 12. Protest action against soldier deaths in Army was planned via Facebook.

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Facebook’s role in democratization of Azerbaijan (analyse)

Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli*

30 April 2013

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Research shows that beginning this year social networks, especially Facebook, are increasing their influence on different groups of people, included officials in Azerbaijan. At least three protest actions (January 12 – against soldier deaths in army; January 26 – related to protest action in Ismayilli which demanded the resignation of a top official because his relative insulted residents); March 10 – again against soldier deaths in army) were planned via Facebook, and according to different estimates, 2000-4000 people participated each of these actions. After “Arab Spring” events in other countries, Facebook became the most popular way to share information about social problems, according to independent experts.

FACEBOOK – THE MAIN FREE PLATFORM OF DISCUSSION

According to www.socialbakers.com, which researches and analyzes social network statistics in different countries, on April 1 there were 1,072,400 Facebook users in Azerbaijan.

“Our social networking statistics show that Facebook penetration in Azerbaijan is 12.92% compared to the country’s population and 25.37% in relation to number of Internet users. The total number of Monthly Active Facebook Users (MAU) in Azerbaijan is approximately 1,072,400 and grew by more than 171,800 in the last six months.

“Facebook demographics are other social media statistics we monitor. The largest age group usage is currently 18-24 with 522 860 users, followed by the age 25-34 users. The are 65% male users and 35% female users in Azerbaijan, compared to 59% and 41% in Palestinian Territory and 45% and 55% in Georgia,” socialbakers.com stated.

According to independent estimates, 65-70 percent of Facebook users live in Baku. About 15 percent users live in the cities of Sumqayit, Ganca, Lenkoran and Shirvan. About 15-20 percent users live elsewhere in the country.

After recent events, some young activists in Azerbaijan are in prison for their Facebook use.

Seven people from the “Nida!” (translation is the exclamation point) movement was arrested after the March 10 rally against soldiers deaths in the army. Procurator’s officials claimed they had handmade weapons for the purpose of using against the government. But representatives of the youth organisation claimed the seven were arrested for their political views and opinions which were published on different social networks. “Nida!” is one of the active youth organizations which struggles for democracy in the country.

ARGUMENTS OF OFFICIALS

High-level officials seem to be worried about the role of social networks in society.

National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov has said telecom companies should help monitor social networking sites, as they are being used to recruit extremists. Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of the presidential administration, has alleged that certain international organizations are paying and organizing young people via social networking sites. “The views of those who make provocative calls on Facebook about various events do not coincide with the views of the majority,” Mehdiyev told the state news agency Azertag. “Those calls on social networks are the emotions of young people supported and incited by the treacherous radical opposition.”

Azerbaijani Interior Minister Ramil Usubov has commented on the messages posted on social networks regarding protests. Addressing the event marking the 21st anniversary of the Interior Troops, Usubov said: “Some forces, who are interested in destabilizing the republic, took advantage of some families’ tragedies for their political interests and incited by these forces a group of young people posted messages on Facebook calling on citizens to join an illegal protest; this is a failed attempt aiming to create mistrust, and an artificial confrontation between the society and army.”

Some MPs from the ruling party and others from pro-governmental parties declared that the activity of Facebook in Azerbaijan should be limited. They think that it is necessary to create a special structure to control Facebook and other social networks.

MP and “Motherland” Party chairman Fezail Agamali said that there is “the threat of Facebook. I see it and I think that at the time of election we can expect a series of unpleasant events.”  According to Agamali, Facebook serves as a tool against the government: “Compatriots living abroad, the Armenian lobby and the radical opposition in Azerbaijan take part in this campaign. I think that the authorities should think about it now.” Agamalı also said thousands of people go into the street due to Facebook and  it shows that the Facebook is now a real danger: “I am not against any of the actions,” he said. “But the fact is that these actions can be used for other purposes.”

Beginning in April, Azerbaijan media wrote that using Facebook in different internet clubs in Azerbaijan was prohibited. There were reports  that the owners of  internet cafes in the Garachuxur and Guneshli districts of Baku prohibited Facebook use.  According to other reports, police ordered the owners of internet clubs in Ismayilli region to keep  a list of users.

WHY FACEBOOK IS USEFUL IN AZERBAIJAN?

Young activist and blogger Habib Muntazir lives in Germany and is very active on social networks. He said Azerbaijani youth could declare their different thoughts and opinions via Facebook.

“The government in Azerbaijan prohibited all free platforms for discussions. Therefore, using social networks is very important and useful,” Muntazir said. He doesn’t think the Azerbaijan government could close Facebook now. “But they are able to amaze us every time. They closed the Free Thought University and it is an example of how the Azerbaijan government can amaze us. But if they closed Facebook in Azerbaijan, it would be one of the main factors against the government,” Muntazir said.

Muntazir said he highly admires the protest action which was planned via Facebook: “I think that it is the appearance of a youth movement in Azerbaijan,” he said. “At the same time it is evidence of a social media revolution in Azerbaijan. The people have interest in Facebook events. At the least. it is a demonstration of unity by people who support this action even online. If we consider that Azerbaijan society is still gripped with fear, it is normal that there are some differences in crowd estimates at events, and the number of participants is fewer than the number of people who declare on Facebook that they will join an action.”

Muntazir said that he never organized a protest action in Azerbaijan. “I think I don’t have the right to organize an action from a foreign country, if I couldn’t participate in this action. I shared the information about these events. In general, I think that these rallies will continue.”

One of the organizers of protest actions in Azerbaijan, Free Youth Organization representative Ilkin Rustamzade, was called to the procurator’s office on April 10. He was asked about a protest action which was held on March 10 against soldier deaths in Azerbaijan army.

Rustamzade said that today social networks like Facebook are free platforms for youths or any people to declare their opinion. He said government took control of all the media and limited the opportunity of free expression in the country. “TVs belong to Government, print media belongs to Government, and they prohibited free gathering,: he said.  “In this case, social networks fill the emptiness. For me, Facebook is the airhole in Azerbaijan.”

Rustamzade doesn’t believe the Azerbaijan government can totally stop the activity of Facebook. “If they do that, it will mean that they want to build North Korea in Azerbaijan,” he said.

Rustamzade talked about the last two protest actions: “These two actions were great events which informed and involved more people and created huge resonance. These events demonstrated the power of social networks. For example, the invitation to participate in the January 12 action was sent to about 120,000 people. For the January 26 event the figure is 70,000, and for March 10 it was 180,000. The number of people who participated in the actions is 20 percent of the people who “confirm” his or her participation via Favebook. For January 12 about 17,000 people confirmed their participation. For January 26, 5,000; for March 10, 22,000.”

Rustamzade think that contination of the protest actions will depend on the  situation. “I am sure that we – youth people – will never change our way,” he said.

“FACEBOOK REVOLUTION”

Some Azerbaijan official claim that the office of the American NGO National Democratic Institute (NDI) supported different political activities on Facebook in order to start a revolution in Azerbaijan. Eynulla Fatullayev, former political prisoner and now the editor of the website haqqin.az, wrote that NDI spent $2 million on  youth organization in Azerbaijan to realise a “Facebook Revolution” in the country. Fatullayev claimed there is no transparency for money spent by NDI in Azerbaijan.

An MP from the ruling party of Yeni Azerbaijan, Aydin Mirzazade, thinks  the main goals of NDI are to change the government in Azerbaijan and create instability in the country. The chief of the public policy department for the Presidential Administration, Ali Hasanov, said the Azerbaijani government is studying information in the media regarding the activities of NDI and promised to give an  assessment after completion of the study.

General prosecutor Zakir Garalov sent a letter to US Ambassador Richard Morningstar which stated that press articles about the NDI office caused a great public disturbance. According to the media, the inspections held by the prosecution bodies revealed that the NGI office issued grants via its offices and regional information centers in Baku, Ganja, Tovuz, Shirvan, Yevlakh, Shaki, Khachmaz and Jalilabad which were not registered and certified in the due manner and violated a number of laws.

The head of the Baku office of NDI, Alex Grigoriev, cannot enter Azerbaijan. NDI president Kenneth Wollack said:  “the repetition of untrue information does not make it true. NDI and its local partners help the organizers of the public community, young leaders and other citizens in their peaceful and constructive cooperation with local authorities for the improvement of their communities.” According to the statement, the NDI activity in relation to Azerbaijani authorities was completely transparent and all finances allocated to the NDI office and its representatives in Baku were used solely for the goals of the organization. According to the statement, the NDI office has been registered with the Ministry of Justice. In line with this registration, NDI submits financial reporting to the Ministry of Finance, as required by the law.

Representatives from procurator’s office closed the doors of the Free Thought University, which is popular among youths. The officials said they are inspecting the financing of this structure.

The deputy executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (NAP), MP Mubariz Gurbanly, told the radio station “Voice of America”  that revolution via Facebookis not possible in Azerbaijan. He said the recent arrests of youth activists were made because proponents of “radical opposition” conducted several illegal actions on Fountain Square, although the site is not intended for this purpose.

Referring to discussions in social networks, he said the government is not afraid of discussions on Facebook, and that the Internet in Azerbaijan is completely free. “I reiterate the position of the (ruling party) NAP. We stand for freedom in social networks,” he said.

At the same time, Gurbanly said that no one can make a revolution in Azerbaijan through Facebook. “To carry out a revolution in the country, there should be reasons for unrest and anti-government protests. If there is no reason for this, it is impossible to make revolution through Facebook in the country. Did participants in the meeting at the Cairo’s Tahrir Square gather through Facebook? Most of them did not even know about Facebook and had no access to social networks,” he said.

With regard to NDİ, Gurbanly said: “NDI has been working in Azerbaijan and continues its activity. For us, NDI is not a source of danger. There has just been made a public journalism investigation of the removal of cash by an employee of NDİ from a bank account and the use of these funds. The office of the prosecutor quite rightly asked the U.S. Embassy to inquire. I read the response of the U.S. Embassy, and I think that’s not enough. They have to respond to the arguments identified by the investigative journalism. In this matter, there can be no pressure on NDI.”

Thomas Melia, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,  was in Azerbaijan  April 17-18 and said at a  press conference that the NDI administration visited Azerbaijan in mid-April and held talks on the institute’s activity in the country.

“I hope misunderstandings around this issue will be eliminated,” said Melia, noting that NDI is a famous organization implementing programs on democracy and elections and working with civil society in a number of countries. “This organization should be regarded as a resource. The civil society should enjoy this resource,” he said.

PUNISHMENT FOR FACEBOOK STATUS?

It seems Azerbaijan authorities wish to strengthen control over internet activity. The parliament is going to confirm special amendments to the Criminal Code. These amendments were discussed at the April 30 meeting of the Parliament committee on legal policy and state-building. Committee chairman Ali Huseynli said that according to the proposed amendments, punishments are imposed for personal insult and slander in media outlets or public information internet resources.

Under the Criminal Code’s articles 147 (slander) and 148 (insult), the punishments will be imposed in accordance with information released on internet resources. Fines from AZN 100-500 and public work up to 240 hours, corrective work up to a year, or six months imprisonment are designated for slander. Severe cases could bring sentences of public work up to two years, or three years imprisonment. Fines from AZN 300-1000, public work up to 240 hours, corrective work up to a year or six months imprisonment are designated for insult. The draft law was recommended to the plenary meeting of the Azerbaijani parliament.

According to Emin Huseynov, the chairman of the Institute of Reporters’ Freedom and Security (IRFS), this initiative demonstrates the government’s consistent policy to destroy freedom of speech in Azerbaijan.  Huseynov said that Azerbaijan special government structures buy different special technologies to control the internet in Azerbaijan. These opinions were shared at the conference “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media” which was held on May 2 in Baku. The conference focused on the serious threats that the new initiatives mean for control of the media and the Internet.

WHAT IS THE PLAN FOR FACEBOOK?

The director of Media Rights Institute in Azerbaijan, Rashid Hajili, said there is a lot of tension related to social networks in Azerbaijan. “Social networks are followed by government structures,” he said. “The people are registrated. We can see it clearly related with young political activists who are active on social networks. When they are invited to police stations, the police officials ask them about their social networks activities. It is clear that the government is afraid of social networks, where people are free to express themselves.

“We should consider that the number of youths on social networks is more than the youth who read the newspapers and watch TV. The social networks are effective platform for youth for their improvment and enlightment,” he said.

What about the predicted limitation of  social networks activities in Azerbaijan? Rashid Hajili said it is technically possible the  government could block networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “Because there is strong government control or a government-related monopoly over the internet infrastructure in Azerbaijan, it is possible to filter  the internet in the country,” he said. “If they block  the social networks, it will be difficult to enter to these sites, but there will remain some opportunity to use these social networks. I don’t believe the government can block the social networks for a long time. It could be possible for a short time, but it will be expensive for the government.”

Rasul Jafarov, chairman of the Human Rights Club, thinks the government “has the desire to interfere in social networks, but they have not the opportunity. To close or limit social networks is a very sensitive and difficult issue.”

Jafarov said that the ammendments to the Criminal Code are to be considered as a psychological attack on the people who use the social networks.

Blogger Ali Novruzov said that he is worried about the government’s internet plans.  “The government tries to make definite limitations to the freedom of expression on the Internet. They want to make it a regulation,” he said.

“I think that this is very sensitive issue. That’s why the government has to take into consideration the different interests of people, online media, civil society, business and consumers. Everybody has to participate in making any rules related to the Internet. But it seems that the Azerbaijan government tries to do this process one-sided. For example, they created the Internet Commission under the Press Council, and they  continue to make amendments to the Criminal Code. So the government tries to take control over the Internet. But this process is doubtful. It is very difficult to take control over the one million people who are Facebook users in Azerbaijan.

“In reality, these amendments are dangerous for people because they could be used  selectively. For example, if someone insults another citizen on Facebook, and that person complains to the court, officials may be not interested in punishing that person. But if someone writes some criticism about officials, that person could be punished. My main worry is related with this issue.”

Novruzov said the role of social networks role in Azerbaijan is very important. “It has been a long time since Azerbaijan TV program content included the reaction to the issuess which are discussed on social networks,” he said. “This is an election year in Azerbaijan, and evidently the government understands the role of social networks in this important year, and it is possible that the government’s latest moves about the internet are related to elections.”

The director of the East-West Research Center, Arastun Orujlu, said the issue is not about how the government will use technology to limit entrance to social networks. “The issue is how Government wants to create fear in society, and what will be the psychological effect of these plans. But they have the technical means to follow people who are active on social networks. Some developed partner countries provide the special technologies which will be used to control the social networks,” Orujlu said.

According to Orujlu, the government doesn’t think about  total control over social networks users. “I think they think about the scenario to punish about 3-5 active people, and then make a special PR campaign about it and create general fear in society,” Orujlu said.

American media expert Rich Riski think that social networks’ role in the democratisation process is growing. He remembered “Arab spring” events and said that the political process in these countries was planned via Facebook. Riski witnessed  two protest actions in Baku. According to his observations, social networks in Azerbaijan are gradually going to be popular. He thinks that this process will positively influence the democratization of Azerbaijan.

Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli is the director of the “Doctrine” Journalists’ Military Research Center, now he is studying MA at Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), Faculty Journalism and Media Management. 

Video

Azərbaycan hakimiyyəti sosial şəbəkələrə qarşı: Hansı tədbirlər görülə bilər?

“Doktrina” Jurnalistlərin Hərbi Araşdırmalar Mərkəzinin sorğusuna aşağıdakı şəxslər cavab verirlər:

Rəşid Hacılı, Media Hüquqları İnstitutunun direktoru,
Rəsul Cəfərov, İnsan Hüquqları Klubunun sədri,
Əli Novruzov, blogger,
Ərəstun Oruclu, “Şərq-Qərb” Araşdırmalar Mərkəzinin direktoru