Is online activism an alternative to street action? 1

The President of Azerbaijan has signed into law amendments that will steeply hike the penalties for unsanctioned public gatherings. Marion Kipiani talks to experts and activists as they ponder online activism as a possible alternative to street action.

The amendments to the law “On freedom of assembly”, to the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offences were passed by the parliament on 2 November and will come into force at the beginning of 2013. The legal changes mean that the fines for participating in an unsanctioned rally will be increased from the current seven to thirteen manat (approximately the equivalent in Euros) to a hefty 500 to 1,000 manat. (The average monthly salary in Azerbaijan currently stands at just under 400 manat, as eurasianet.org reports). Those who will be charged with organising such unsanctioned gatherings may face fines of up to 3,000 manat – and up to twice that amount, if they hold a formal position such as the leadership of a political party.

The city administration of Baku regularly denies civic movements and opposition parties permission to rally in the centre and instead proposes them venues at the outskirts of town. With the same regularity, these groups decline to make use of such offers and instead hold unsanctioned demonstrations in the centre, which are then broken up by police. The latest of these incidents occurred on 17 November, when the youth wings of the main opposition parties united in the “Public Chamber” organised a gathering in Baku’s central Fountain Square under the slogan “Dissolve Parliament-2”. This protest, like a similar rally on 20 October in the same location, came in the wake of a scandal triggered in September by the release of video recordings.

The materials, dating back to 2005, showed former Member of Parliament for the governing New Azerbaijan Party (YA P) Gular Akhmedova apparently bargaining with the then-Rector of the International University in Baku Elshad Abdullayev about the amount of bribes to be paid for securing a seat in the parliamentary elections. Both demonstrations – in October and November – did not draw a large number of participants and were broken up by police just as they actually got underway. In both cases, a number of participants were arrested and some were sentenced to administrative detention.

On 17 November, according to information released by the Public Chamber, approximately 65 protestors were detained, ten of which are being kept in administrative arrest for a period of five to seven days. In addition, as the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said in a statement, police harassed journalists and did not allow them to carry out their work at the protest venue. At least one media representative, Ilgar Faraimoglu, was arrested and physically attacked by law enforcement officers despite wearing a press identification vest.

It is to curb such unsanctioned gatherings that the legal changes were drawn up, says the parliamentarian who initiated the amendments, MP Rafael Jabrailov. Mr Jabrailov, who is an independent deputy but tends to vote with the governing YA P, stated that “[i]f someone pays a small fine for an illegal protest, he’s avoiding responsibility. A large sum will force him to consider his actions,” in comments reported by IWPR.

Opposition parties and civic activists, on the other hand, have decried the amendments as a deliberate attack on freedom of assembly in the run-up to presidential elections next year in Azerbaijan. Opposition party leaders say the increased fines will mean they have to exert greater caution when calling for street action. “Most of our supporters are young university students, who cannot afford to pay that penalty,” Tural Abbasli, chairperson of the opposition Musavat Party’s youth organization told eurasianet.org. He said that non-payment could lead to seizure of the property of activists’ family, a threat that party leaders would not want to bear responsibility for.

Hesen Kerimov, chairperson of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan’s Supreme Council, told eurasianet.org that taking the Baku city administration on its offer to move protests to the outskirts was not an alternative either: “[The city government] creates so many obstacles, such as stopping people from walking in the direction of the site of the protest [and] creating intended obstacles for taxis. They leave no option for us.” These restrictions on public gatherings mean that political and civic movements are increasingly considering using online social networks to press their causes. Mr Abbasli expressed hope that online activism would be but a first step toward more coordinated and larger protest activity that would at one point move back from cyberspace to the streets.

Razi Nurullayev, Deputy-chairperson for Foreign Affairs of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) and Chairman at “REGION” International Analytical Center (RIAC ), told Caucasus Elections Watch (CEW) that social networks are an effective way of reaching out to a large audience at the time, as shown by the role online activism played in bringing down the regimes particularly in Tunisia and Egypt. The thousands of Facebook events, groups, and pages created throughout the world every day to stand up against injustice, mobilise the masses and force greater accountability on authoritarian governments, are in Mr Nurullayev’s view the most effective forms of activism. As an example he mentioned the two latest protest rallies in Baku on 20 October and 17 November, which were organised through Facebook events. Mr Nurullayev told us that the number of Facebook users in Azerbaijan has reached almost 900,000, with the “Xilas” group (created by the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan) being the most influential and active group. With more than 200,000 users, this group is able by now to set an agenda for both online and offline activism.

Murad Gassanly, Director of the Azerbaijan Democratic Association (ADA-UK), a non-governmental organisation working to promote democratic values, human rights and social justice in Azerbaijan, is more sceptical about the possible impact of online activism, which he does not consider an effective replacement for real political work. Mr Gassanly said in comments to CEW that the Azerbaijani authorities recognise this fact and hence try through legislative measures to discourage and prevent protests and demonstrations. He assumes that this legislation will also be used against other political activities which involve public assemblies e.g. meetings with voters, canvassing or leafleting of the electorate. Mr Gassanly cites a study of the Foreign Policy Centre, which suggests that up to 80 percent of Azerbaijanis have never used the Internet, and that daily use is only about seven percent of the population. These users tend to be concentrated in the younger, more affluent urban segments of society, which experience has shown to be least interested in challenging the political status quo. Therefore, Mr Gassanly says, the mass-political impact of online activism might be rather limited in Azerbaijan. Social networks proved useful for information dissemination (especially for use on the international level) and networking amongst activists and campaigners, but not as a substitute for grass-root politics. In terms of, technology, the expansion of satellite TV might be a better way to reach out, as up to 80 percent of the Azerbaijani population have access to satellite receiving equipment. Sat-dishes, Mr Gassanly told us, are a ubiquitous sight in the countryside, even poorer regions, largely due to relatively low cost. Mr Nurullayev of the PFPA, on the other hand, said that rural residents often entered Facebook and Twitter through Internet-enabled mobile phones, which restricted their ability to comment and share materials but not to read the news. He also stressed that the PFPA made an effort to travel to the regions and mobilise as well as train activists in tools for online activism.

Both Mr Nurullayev and Mr Gassanly agreed though, that support for those who are at risk through targeted reprisals by the authorities as a result of their online activism should come as part of a wider challenge to authoritarianism. Mr Nurullayev said opposition parties made an effort to hire lawyers that supported their activists through all court instances up until the European Court of Human Rights. Other support measures include ensuring wide media coverage of their cases, linking to international organisations and embassies within Azerbaijan as well as providing them with food during arrest in detention facilities and in prison. Legal amendments on unsanctioned public gatherings and membership in political parties, as well as court cases brought against independent newspapers, journalists, and civic activists increasingly limit the space for freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled for October 2013.

Therefore, whatever the current merits and disadvantages of online activism, it may well be one of the few possibilities for opposition political groups and watchdog organisation to reach their audience.

Marion Kipiani contributed this article to Caucasus Elections Watch