Internet Governance discussed in Baku as activists consider impact on forthcoming Presidential elections.

The opening session of the Internet Governance Forum in Baku. (Photo: Mehman Huseynov).

The VII Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was held in Baku from 6-9 November 2012. In the run-up to the event, local and international human rights watchdog organisations have voiced concerns about freedom of expression online in Azerbaijan. Marion Kipiani followed the event and spoke to some of the participants.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is an annual meeting convened by the United Nations Secretary-General, bringing together governments, civil society and other stakeholders to discuss public policy issues related to the internet. This year’s IGF, hosted in Baku from 6 to 9 November 2012, focused on the role of Internet governance in promoting development. In addressing greetings to the participants of the IGF, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said his government was paying special attention to the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The President in his statement said Azerbaijan was respecting the freedom of the Internet, as shown by a number of Internet-based radio and TV stations, electronic newspapers and magazines, and the availability of social networks. The statement further noted that thousands of bloggers in Azerbaijan were freely engaging in their activity online. Local and international human rights watchdog organisations begged to differ.

In a briefing paper released just days before the start of the IGF, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted a “shrinking space for media freedom” in Azerbaijan. The government of Azerbaijan, HRW says in the briefing paper, has a “worsening record on freedom of expression, online and offline.” The paper details the cases of eight journalists and three human-rights defenders who are currently serving prison sentences, as well as cases of intimidation and harassment of independent journalists and civil society activists. HRW further states that the Azerbaijani authorities are misusing narcotic and defamation charges to silence criticism and unduly restrict the right of assembly. Giorgi Gogia, a senior South Caucasus researcher with HRW said in press statement that in order to fully realize the Internet’s potential for human development, “Azerbaijan should protect its citizens’ ability to express themselves online and off without fear of reprisal.” Fear of reprisals and the effects it can have on freedom of expression online was among the major concerns addressed by a pre-event to the IGF entitled “Human Rights and Internet Governance Must Go Hand-in-Hand”.

The pre-event was organised on 5 November by the Expression Online Initiative, a coalition of non-governmental organisations comprising the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Human Rights Club (HRC) and the Azerbaijan Media Centre (AMC), and featured United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue, as well as speakers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and international NGOs Freedom House and Index on Censorship.

The Expression Online Initiative launched during this event their report on the state of Internet freedom in Azerbaijan entitled “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan”. In presenting the key findings of the report, IRFS Director Emin Huseynov said that even though in Azerbaijan the use of filtering to block websites is not widespread, the country does have “Internet dissidents”. Mr Huseynov drew attention to the fact that journalists, human rights defenders and bloggers are being imprisoned for their online activities, and that this leads to the establishment of self-censorship in Azerbaijan. The IRFS Director also noted the poor quality of the Internet infrastructure in Azerbaijan, particularly in the regions. He told the event audience that these infrastructural problems could be solved by the government within one year, if only there were sufficient political will to do so.

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s Special Representative on Freedom of the Media, said in her keynote speech at the pre-event that it was not admissible anymore to divide freedom of expression into its online and “offline” aspects. “The Internet is not only a virtual space. It is already an important part of our lives. […] Freedom of expression has no boundaries,” Ms Mijatović told the audience. She noted as positive what she called an “open door” policy of the government of Azerbaijan and the readiness of the authorities to resolve problems, as exemplified by the recent release of several journalists and online activists from detention. Nevertheless, Ms Mijatović also emphasised that there are still journalists and bloggers imprisoned in Azerbaijan and that the arrest, physical harassment and any other form of pressure on journalists is absolutely inadmissible.

In comments to Caucasus Elections Watch Razi Nurullayev, Chairman of Board at “Region” International Analytical Centre (RIAC ) and Deputy-chairperson for Foreign Affairs of the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan noted that despite absence of massive gross violations of Internet freedom in Azerbaijan, specific persons who are politically and socially active are under surveillance. In addition, the websites of media critical to the government may suffer attacks. In this respect Mr Nurullayev mentioned the case of the opposition newspaper “Azadliq”, the online presence of which has been attacked several times. (The bank accounts of “Azadliq” were frozen last week in order to recover a fine imposed on the paper in a pending libel case brought by the son of the transport minister of Azerbaijan, Ziya Mammadov.)

Rebecca Vincent, the coordinator of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA) for Article 19 and a co-author of the Expression Online Initiative’s report, told CEW that cases of targeting of online activists are likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression online in the run-up to the presidential elections of October 2013. She noted that such cases usually become more frequent during politically sensitive times, citing recent experiences from the wave of protests in Azerbaijan in March and April 2011 following the Arab spring and around the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku in May 2012. Ms Vincent said human rights defenders in Azerbaijan feared that harassment and detention of online activists could again become more widespread in the pre-election environment. Any such attacks would definitely have a big impact on campaigning and the voting process, said Arastun Orujlu, Director of the East- West Research Centre think-tank in Baku, because the Internet is rapidly evolving as the most popular information source in the country and remains one of the few spaces of freedom of expression.

This view was echoed by Anar Mammadli, Chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre. Mr Mammadli told CEW in a comment that the Internet has turned into an alternative space for election campaigning in Azerbaijan particularly after the 2010 parliamentary elections. Former election candidates, political parties and civic groups have since developed new media strategies for their public outreach activities during the election process. However, these strategies are being hampered by the problems identified in the Expression Online Initiative’s report, especially by pressure exerted on social media activists through state organs and the low speed of dial-up Internet connections in the regions, which makes the upload and download of materials difficult. Nevertheless, Mr Mammadli said, the Internet will be playing a vital role for election watchdog groups in Azerbaijan in the context of the 2013 elections. Social media will be giving these groups increased opportunity to communicate with voters to receive evidence on the violation of electoral standards during voter registration, the pre-election campaign and on voting day. In addition, they will be used to recruit volunteer election observers as well as bloggers and citizen journalists for civic watchdog processes, and to distribute information on election monitoring and voter education materials.

The state of the Internet in Azerbaijan therefore will be a crucial determinant of how voters in Azerbaijan will form their electoral choices, of how contenders will be able to bring across their messages, and of what impact election watchdogs can have on the voting environment. With the spotlight of the Internet Governance Forum now receding, both international and local stakeholders will need to keep up their efforts of defending freedom of expression online.

Report prepared for CEW by Marion Kipiani