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APCNews has interviewed Rebecca Vincent, a human rights consultant and a former U.S. diplomat. She is currently working with ARTICLE 19 to coordinate the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan, a coalition of international organisations working to promote and protect freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. We were particularly interested in her point of view on the human rights situation on Azerbaijan’s internet.
APCNews: The President of Azerbaijan has a Twitter account. Is this a statement in favour of freedom of expression on the internet?
It is interesting that the government has chosen to engage with the Azerbaijani public in this way. The use of Twitter and other social media platforms in Azerbaijan is on the rise, but unfortunately so, too, are attempts by the authorities to restrict individuals’ right to freedom of expression online. We are working with several of our national partner NGOs on a report which will examine the issue of freedom of expression online in Azerbaijan, to be released about a month ahead of the Internet Governance Forum, which will take place in November in Baku.
APCNews: What are the main issues with which journalists and human rights defenders are faced with when they work online in Azerbaijan?
Journalists and human rights defenders face many of the same issues in exercising their right to freedom of expression online as they do via other fora. Those who express opinions critical of the authorities in Azerbaijan are undertaking risks no matter how they do it, facing potential harassment, intimidation, threats, blackmail, imprisonment, or attacks. The difference is that it’s not only professional journalists and human rights defenders who can be targeted when using the internet, but anyone who posts online. We’ve seen some cases in Azerbaijan where bloggers or online activists were imprisoned on seemingly unrelated, politically motivated charges in connection with posting satirical videos or calling for protests via the internet. The fact that defamation remains criminalised in Azerbaijan also means that someone could be imprisoned for posting something online.
APCNews: Please provide a short assessment of the freedom of association online in Azerbaijan.
Along with freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, freedom of association is a fundamental right which is under attack in Azerbaijan, as the authorities often target individuals who are affilated with critical groups, such as NGOs promoting democracy and human rights and opposition political parties. This has sometimes manifested itself online, such as in the case of Jabbar Savalan, a young activist affiliated with the opposition Popular Front Party who served nearly a year in prison on politically motivated charges of drug possession following his criticism of the authorities and calls for protest via Facebook. Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and Elnur Majidli were also targeted after being listed as founders on a Facebook event page calling for protests; Hajiyev spent nearly a year in prison on politically motivated charges of evading military service, and Majidli, who lives abroad, faces up to 12 years’ imprisonment on politically motivated charges of publicly appealing for the violent overthrow of the government, if he returns to Azerbaijan.
APCNews: A resolution on internet and freedom of expression was passed by consensus and supported by 82 States, among them Azerbaijan. What does this mean for journalists and human rights defenders in Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan’s support for the UN Human Rights Council’s Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet is a positive step. This is not the first time Azerbaijan has commited itself to protecting freedom of expression online; for example the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Azerbaijan has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of expression regardless of frontiers. In practice, however, the authorities often do not uphold these commitments, and there have been cases where journalists and human rights defenders were targeted for expressing critical opinions online, such as bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, who spent 17 months in prison on politically motivated charges of hooliganism after posting a satirical video to YouTube which was critical of the authorities.
APCNews: Eurovision (May 2012) and the Internet Governance Forum (November 2012) are two major international events that put the projectors on Baku. Did civil society and the media manage to make progress on freedom of expression around Eurovision? What progress for Azerbaijan do you expect from the IGF, where freedom of expression will be discussed?
The Eurovision Song Contest provided an excellent opportunity for local civil society groups and media representatives to expose the freedom of expression situation and other human rights issues in Azerbaijan to the international media and wider public in a period of unprecedented pop-cultural interest in the country. Unfortunately, rather than improving the freedom of expression situation in light of this international scrutiny, the authorities took steps to silence those who expressed critical opinions in the run-up to and aftermath of the song contest (see for example http://azerbaijanfreexpression.org/library/statements/freedom-of-express...). We are hoping that the authorities will take steps to improve the country’s alarming freedom of expression situation in the run-up to the Internet Governance Forum, particularly with regards to the freedom of expression situation online.
For more information:
International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan: http://azerbaijanfreexpression.org
ARTICLE 19: http://www.article19.org