As the host of the seventh annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in November 2012, Azerbaijan’s government has been eager to promote itself as a leader of information and communication technology (ICT) innovation in the region, with internet usage and online activism growing significantly in 2011. This growth has spurred increasing efforts by the authorities to exert greater control over the medium, though it remains much less restricted compared to print and broadcast media, the main sources of information for most citizens.
The internet was first introduced in Azerbaijan in 1994 and became available for all citizens in 1996. As a result of policies aimed at lowering prices that were enacted in 2007, the internet is now relatively accessible for businesses and individuals in urban areas; however, villages and communities outside of urban regions still have limited access. Despite a notable increase in internet penetration over the past few years, the quality of connections remains very low, with paid prices not corresponding to advertised speeds and many users still relying on slow dial-up connections.
The Azerbaijani government does not generally censor online content or restrict access to ICTs, but in 2011, there were occasional blocks imposed on certain opposition news sites such as Radio Azadliq, the website of the Azerbaijan service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In addition, there were numerous arrests, prosecutions, and incidents of extralegal intimidation and violence against online activists for organizing demonstrations or expressing critical views of the government on social media websites, particularly following a series of pro-democracy protests inspired by the Arab Spring events in early 2011. In many cases, detained activists were given jail sentences on trumped-up charges of criminal defamation, illegal drug possession, hooliganism, or other politically motivated allegations. Fearing further Arab Spring-inspired protests, in early 2012, the Azerbaijani authorities reportedly ramped up their surveillance capabilities through the installation of “black boxes” on the Azercell mobile phone network, enabling security agencies to monitor all mobile communications in real-time.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 50 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2011, a significant increase from 2006 when the penetration rate was roughly 12 percent. Fixed-broadband internet subscriptions also increased remarkably from 4,000 in 2006 to nearly one million in 2011, representing a broadband penetration rate of 10.5 percent. Nonetheless, access for residents outside of the capital Baku continues to be extremely limited.
Privately-owned but government-controlled Delta Telecom (formerly AzerSat) is the country’s largest satellite and fiber-optic backbone provider with approximately 40 ISPs operating in Azerbaijan on a retail basis.
Usage of mobile phones in Azerbaijan has continued to grow steadily, with mobile phone penetration increasing from 38 percent in 2006 to over 108 percent in 2011.There are three mobile service providers using the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard: Azercell, Azerfon, and Bakcell.
Azerbaijan does not have an independent regulatory body for the telecommunications sector, and the MCIT performs the basic regulatory functions pursuant to the 2005 Law on Telecommunications. The MCIT also has a monopoly over the sale of the “.az” domain, which cannot be obtained online and requires an in-person application, subjecting the process to bureaucratic red tape and possible corruption.
There are limited deletions of online content implemented based upon a take down notice system, primarily related to personal data. Subject to Articles 5.7 and 7.2 of the law “On Personal Data,” personal data published without the consent of an individual must be removed from websites following a written demand from the individual concerned, a court, or the executive branch.
The number of registered Facebook users grew from approximately 279,000 at the end of December 2010 to 700,000 in December 2011, with the largest contingent of Facebook users being young people between the ages of 18 and 24.
Despite these manipulative efforts, youth activists, organizations, and movements are widely represented in social media, providing information, organizing activities and events, and arranging flash mobs via the internet. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in early 2011, young activists in Azerbaijan used social media to organize demonstrations in March and April 2011 against the government’s authoritarian rule, calling for democratic reforms and an end to pervasive government corruption.
Article 47 of the constitution guarantees freedom of thought and speech. In addition, Article 50 provides the right to distribute information, guarantees freedom of the mass media, and prohibits censorship. In practice, however, the authorities aggressively use various forms of legislation to stifle freedom in the print and broadcast media. Libel is a criminal offense, and traditional media journalists who criticize the authorities are frequently prosecuted and imprisoned. Furthermore, the judiciary is largely subservient to the executive branch. Under the Law on Mass Media of 1999, the internet is designated as a form of mass media, thus all rules applied to traditional media can be used to regulate the online sphere as well. In November 2010, it was announced that the government-controlled Press Council would start monitoring online news sources for their compliance with the rules of professional journalism.
While there are no laws that specifically criminalize online expression in Azerbaijan, there has been a growing trend in recent years of the authorities broadly applying existing laws to prosecute journalists and citizens for their online activities. In an effort to clamp down on free expression and silence critical voices in both the traditional media and online, the Azerbaijani authorities have increasingly detained critics on tenuous charges not directly related to their work. In many cases, arrests have been made based on politically motivated allegations of criminal defamation, fabricated accusations of illegal drug possession, or other such trumped-up charges. This trend was particularly notable following the Arab Spring-inspired events in March and April 2011 when hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Baku to protest against government corruption, call for fair elections, and demand respect for human rights. The demonstrations resulted in numerous arrests, with some protesters sentenced to long prison terms based on unfounded allegations and following unfair trials. According to Amnesty International, 17 people convicted around the time of the protests are to be regarded as prisoners of conscience since there was no evidence that the imprisoned opposition activists had engaged in anything more than the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association.
Separately, on March 1, 2012, mass demonstrations took place in the remote town of Guba, prompted by the circulation of an online video. At least 17 people were subsequently arrested, including two journalists from the Khayal TV station who were accused of provoking the protests after posting the video on YouTube. The clip featured the regional governor Rauf Habibov allegedly insulting the local population. Its circulation prompted thousands of protestors to take to the streets demanding the governor’s resignation. In response to the unrest, the authorities searched several internet cafes in Guba to identify the individual responsible for posting the video. The authorities also tried to determine the authors of comments posted on social-networking websites that called for the demonstrations.
In a particularly worrying development ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest hosted in Azerbaijan in May 2012, a Swedish investigative documentary revealed in April 2012 evidence of a blanket mobile phone surveillance system employed by the telephone company Azercell.
Throughout 2011, some opposition news websites, including Yeni Musavat, Radio Azadliq, and the personal blog of the Popular Front Party’s chairman Ali Kerimli, were subject to constant attacks that resulted in temporary shutdowns (contact.az).