Azerbaijan

Not Free
39
100
A Obstacles to Access 11 25
B Limits on Content 15 35
C Violations of User Rights 13 40
Last Year's Score & Status
40 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Azerbaijan

* 0 = most free, 100 = least free

A total score of 0–30 = Free, 31–60 = Partly Free, 61–100 = Not Free

header2 Overview

The already poor state of internet freedom in Azerbaijan continued to deteriorate during the coverage period. Access is inhibited by infrastructural challenges—illustrated by a major power outage in July 2018—and by state control over the information and communication technology (ICT) industry. The government manipulates the online information landscape, blocking websites that host unfavorable news coverage and using automated “bot” accounts to spread propaganda. Digital rights are not respected, and those who voice dissent online can expect prosecution if they reside in the country or various forms of intimidation if they live abroad.

Power in Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government remains heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev, who has served as president since 2003. Corruption is rampant, and after years of persecution, formal political opposition groups are weak. The regime has overseen an extensive crackdown on civil liberties in recent years, leaving little room for independent expression or activism.

header3 Key Developments, June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • An electricity blackout in July 2018 shut down internet access across the country, exposing lingering infrastructural weaknesses.
  • Violence in the city of Ganja that was linked to an assassination attempt against the mayor, also in July 2018, precipitated a wave of new website blocks as well as prosecutions aimed at both online journalists and ordinary social media users.
  • Popular mobilization, largely through social media, succeeded in compelling the government to grant certain concessions, including an imprisoned blogger’s release.
  • The government intensified its campaign of cyberattacks against activists and journalists.

A Obstacles to Access

Despite the government’s promises to improve service, internet access in Azerbaijan is expensive and of poor quality. Localized internet disruptions continue to occur during protests and political rallies, and much of the country was temporarily disconnected during a nationwide power outage in July 2018. Concentration in the ICT market remains a major challenge.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 4.004 6.006

Poor ICT infrastructure is a key obstacle to improving internet access and service quality across Azerbaijan.1 According to the latest data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), about 79 percent of the population used the internet as of 2017.2 This relatively high internet penetration rate obscures disparities in access and slow connection speeds.

Osman Gunduz, the president of the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, observed that in neighboring Georgia and Russia, one can enjoy 10 and sometimes 20 times the speeds for the same amount of money that Azerbaijani users spend on internet connections of 5 to 6 Mbps.1 This has been the case for several years, and little progress has been made toward improving service. The government’s Strategic Roadmap for Telecommunication and Information Technology Development seeks to provide average fixed-line internet speeds of 20 Mbps by 2020 and 50 Mbps by 2025.3 However, the government is not on track to achieve these goals: the average fixed-line download speed in Azerbaijan is just 14.62 Mbps, according to May 2019 testing by Ookla.4

State-run monopolies are another major obstacle to improving service. A member of the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Vahid Gasimov, has said it is impossible to expect high-quality service as long as the ICT sector is under government control (see A4).5

The majority of internet connections in Azerbaijan are based on ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber lines), with Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and third- and fourth-generation (3G and 4G) mobile network technology gradually expanding. According to a January 2019 report from the Asian Development Bank, Azerbaijan, a country of 10 million people, is home to about 1.8 million fixed broadband subscribers and 10 million mobile phone subscriptions.6

Users reach the internet predominantly via mobile devices, followed by home, work, and Wi-Fi hotspot connections.7 In early 2017, the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies (MTCHT) initiated a plan to establish free Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas around central locations in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. 8 Today, according to the MTCHT, there are more than 300 hotspots in Baku, including in city parks. In February 2019, the Azerbaijan Public Transport Company unveiled Wi-Fi on one of its bus routes.9

Mobile internet users report regular connectivity problems.10 Those with fixed-line access sometimes experience connectivity issues as well. Some claim that internet service providers (ISPs) cut off connections because they cannot accommodate high user demand. ISPs say this is not the case, blaming disruptions on “prophylactic work” carried out on servers.11 Others claim that ISPs intentionally slow down connections in compliance with government requests (see A3).11 Osman Gunduz has stated that he thinks the root cause of these disruptions is technical, not intentional, noting that bandwidth designated for one user is often divided and sold to multiple users.11

Temporary internet blackouts have occurred every few years in Azerbaijan. In early July 2018, the country experienced its worst blackout in decades after a fire broke out at the country’s largest power plant,12 leaving the population without electricity starting on July 2, and continuing throughout July 3 and 4. In some parts of the country, electricity was restored on July 4,13 but it took several more days to restore power nationwide.14 Though mobile internet services reportedly remained available throughout Azerbaijan during the outage,15 Dyn, an online performance research firm, observed a marked increase in connectivity issues on July 2 and 3.16

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 1.001 3.003

Internet access is somewhat expensive relative to monthly incomes, and Azerbaijan continues to lag behind neighboring countries such as Georgia and Russia, where faster connections are available at comparatively lower costs. Given the extent to which the ICT sector is controlled by the Azerbaijani state, it is not the market that sets prices but the MTCHT.1

According to the latest ITU data, the average monthly cost of an entry-level fixed internet connection as of 2017 was 1.71 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita, while that of a mobile internet subscription offering 1 GB of data per month was 0.68 percent of GNI per capita.2 Official statistics indicated that the average price of “internet services” decreased in 2018 vis-à-vis 2017.3

In February 2018, state-owned Baktelecom reduced tariffs for users of its Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON), a service that offers speeds of up to 100 Mbps using fiber-optic infrastructure. The service is currently only available to 30,000 households.4

There is a digital divide in terms of geography. Computer ownership continues to be higher in urban areas than in rural areas. The fixed broadband penetration rate is 20 percentage points higher in urban areas (63 percent) than in rural areas (43 percent).5 In addition, according to official figures, younger people are much more likely to use the internet than older people,6 and wealthier families are much more likely to own computers than poorer families.7 Low ICT literacy remains a problem.

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 4.004 6.006

The government exercises control over the internet infrastructure and intentionally restricted connectivity on two occasions during the coverage period. On January 19, 2019, attendees at an opposition rally reported that mobile internet and phone connections were down.1 Mobile networks were also disrupted during violence between police and civilians in the city of Ganja in July 2018,2 which had been set off by an assassination attempt against the mayor and an ensuing police crackdown.

Opposition activists have previously complained about connectivity issues, reporting that internet service sometimes slows down or stops working completely in the hours before rallies are set to begin. Residents in the vicinity of opposition rallies have experienced connectivity issues for the duration of these events. ISPs argue that the disruptions are directly connected to the number and density of users gathered in one place. Osman Gunduz says the phenomenon is a violation of existing laws and that, if a rally is authorized, all actors, including service providers, should ensure access.3

While social media platforms remain unblocked, connectivity issues sometimes prevent opposition activists and independent journalists from accessing them during rallies.

The MTCHT holds significant shares in a number of leading ISPs, and the government is authorized to instruct companies to cut internet service under broadly defined circumstances, including war, emergency situations, and national disasters.4

Wholesale access to international gateways is maintained by companies with close ties to the government. Only two ISPs, AzerTelecom and Delta Telecom, are licensed to connect to international internet traffic.5 Delta Telecom owns the internet backbone and is the main distributor of traffic to other ISPs. It controls the country’s sole internet exchange point (IXP).6

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 2.002 6.006

The ICT market in Azerbaijan is fairly concentrated in the hands of the government. The absence of regulatory reform also inhibits the development of the sector, though the Strategic Roadmap for Telecommunication and Information Technology Development calls for the removal of commercial authority currently exercised by the MCTHT.1

The fixed-line broadband market lacks equality between operators. Over 40 ISPs are present in the market, including three state-owned providers: Aztelekom, BakInternet (BTC), and AzDataCom.2 State-owned companies ultimately control about 50 percent of the market.3 In addition to being state owned, Aztelekom, the largest ISP operating outside Baku, has ownership ties to the family of President Ilham Aliyev.

There are three major players in Azerbaijan’s mobile service market: Azercell, Azerfon (operating under the brand “Nar”), and Bakcell. Azercell is the leading mobile service provider, with a market share of about 45.7 percent, as of September 2018.4 Bakcell and Azerfon follow behind, maintaining market shares of approximately 29.9 percent and 24.4 percent, respectively.4 Both Azercell and Azerfon are connected to the Aliyev family,5 and in 2018, the government formally assumed ownership of Azercell.6

Mobile service providers must obtain a technical license from the government in order to operate.7 These licenses are issued for a period of 10 years. There is no licensing regime for ISPs,8 but they must register with the MTCHT. If they fail to do so, they are subject to a fine ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880). Some providers have raised concerns with the MTCHT over the non-transparency of the registration process as well as the sensitivity of the information they must submit as part of it. The MTCHT claims that registration is carried out in accordance with the law and that no personal data is kept anywhere.9

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

The government has a major role in controlling the ICT sector through state-owned companies and government institutions. ISPs are regulated by the MTCHT, which lacks independence. The former Ministry of Communications and High Technologies was dissolved in 2017 and merged with the Ministry of Transport, creating the MTCHT.1

Osman Gunduz, the Azerbaijan Internet Forum president, has cited the avoidance of responsibility and a lack of legislation capable of holding providers accountable to users as obstacles to effective ICT regulation.2

  • 1. “Azerbaijan sets up a Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies”, apa.az, February 13, 2017, http://bit.ly/2qhyz5Tv
  • 2. “How Azercell lies to its users: under the banner of 4G they are not even providing 3G”, Azadliq.org, March 6, 2017, https://bit.ly/2u8wca7

B Limits on Content

The authorities blocked additional websites during the coverage period, and news sources that were blocked in earlier rounds of censorship remained inaccessible. Despite a variety of repressive measures designed to discourage online dissent, users continued to engage in activism on social media.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 3.003 6.006

Since 2017, the government has increasingly restricted access to websites, particularly those associated with the opposition or investigations into politically sensitive topics such as official corruption.1 During the coverage period, the government blocked dozens more websites.

In April 2019, an appellate court in Baku upheld a decision to block Meydan TV, an independent Azerbaijani news outlet based in Berlin. Meydan TV was first blocked in 2017, on the grounds that its stories were “detrimental to the interests of the state.”2

Also in April 2019, Arqument.az was rendered inaccessible and eventually blocked without any official notification. The independent news site’s editor, Shamshad Aga, said Arqument.az was hit by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack before it was blocked altogether (see C8). The outlet was previously blocked in August 2018,3 but it had won a rare reprieve from a judge.4

That month, August, a court in Baku order the blocking four independent news sites—Arqument.az, Az24saat.org, Monitortv.info, and Xural.com—that were accused of publishing allegedly defamatory stories about government officials.5 The order came after the outlets’ editors refused to take down the stories in question.5

The government also blocked Gununsesi.info, a website operated by former political prisoner Parviz Hashimli, in August 2018.6 Hashimli was stopped that month at the Azerbaijan-Georgia border while traveling with his father. He was informed that he was subject to a travel ban, and police interrogated him over 10 articles published on his website. In August 2019, Hashimli’s travel ban was lifted.

Separately in August 2018, the MTCHT began to block several pornographic websites, applying new legislation concerning “prohibited information” (see B3).7 The ministry did not specify which websites it blacklisted.8

In July 2018, the MTCHT blocked four online news outlets—Bastainfo.com, Criminalaz.com, Topxeber.az, and Fia.az—although the legal basis for this decision remains unclear.9 The Prosecutor General’s Office opened criminal proceedings against Bastainfo.com and Criminalaz.com for “spreading false information,”10 and the authorities accused Topxeber.az and Fia.az of “spreading unfounded, sensational claims in order to confuse the public.”10 Toward the end of 2018, the editors of Bastainfo.com and Criminalaz.com were charged with violating several articles of the criminal code for their coverage of violence in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city, in July 2018;11 they were later tried and convicted (see C3).

A fifth news outlet, Teref.az/Teref.info, was also blocked in July 2018 for reposting articles that criticized the government for that month’s power blackout.12

In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government’s 2017 decision to block several other online news outlets, including Azadliq.org (the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service), Azadliq.info (the website of a daily newspaper), Meydan TV, Turan TV, and Azerbaijani Saadi TV.13 Authorities initially restricted these websites in March 2017 for threatening national security and containing content that promoted “violence, hatred, or extremism” and “violated privacy or constituted slander.”14 The critical online news outlet Abzas.net was also blocked without explanation in 2017.15 An investigation by VirtualRoad, a secure hosting service, indicated that deep packet inspection (DPI) was used to interfere with access to the websites.16 Shortly before these outlets were blocked, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had reported on the financial affairs of individuals close to President Aliyev, including his family, in conjunction with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).17 Later in the year, the OCCRP’s website was itself blocked after it published a report titled The Azerbaijani Laundromat, which implicated the government in various money-laundering and lobbying schemes.18

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 2.002 4.004

During the coverage period, authorities continued using threats and pressure to force the removal of content. Prior to blocking nine online news outlets in July and August 2018 (see B1), the authorities petitioned their editors to remove several unfavorable articles.

In May 2019, Ali Mammadov, an Azerbaijani dissident living in Germany, was coerced into deleting antigovernment Facebook posts after Azerbaijani police threatened to detain a relative who was still living in the country.1

Facebook did not receive any takedown requests from the government in the latter half of 2018, according to its most recent transparency data.2 During the same period, Twitter similarly received no takedown requests from the government,3 while Google received three takedown requests on the basis of “defamation” from the government but did not comply them.4

Two independent YouTube channels, Azad Soz and Hamam Times, claimed during the coverage period that the government had misused the platform’s copyright infringement procedure to censor their content. They alleged that the Ministry of Internal Affairserior, posing as a private actor, submitted multiple bad-faith takedown requests, prompting YouTube to remove their videos.5

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 1.001 4.004

Decisions to block websites or otherwise censor the internet in Azerbaijan are arbitrary and politicized, clearly targeting independent and opposition outlets that are critical of the government. Court approval is not required before officially blocking a website, but it must be sought after the fact. Observers have noted that the courts are not independent and are unlikely to provide genuine oversight.1 There is no meaningful avenue for appeal, and no information on the total number of websites blocked at any given time. Under Article 13.3.6 of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Information Protection, the MTCHT is required to maintain a list of court-approved blocks on websites,2 but the ministry is currently in violation of this provision.3

Recent legislative changes have codified the state’s power to compel a website owner to take down certain information. In December 2017, amendments were approved that empower authorities to “restrict access” to “prohibited information” on the internet or otherwise impose fines for distributing such content.4 In March 2017, the Law on Information, Informatization, and Information Protection was amended to define “prohibited information” as content that, among other things, promotes extremism, separatism, or terrorism; calls for public disorder; constitutes a state secret; conveys hate speech; insults or defames; violates copyright; glorifies suicide; or contains information related to illegal drugs, gambling, weaponry, or pornography.5 This change also empowered the MTCHT to block “prohibited information” when a website owner fails to remove it within eight hours of receiving notification.

Content that reveals personal information without consent may be subject to removal under Articles 5.7 and 7.2 of the Law on Personal Data.6 A written demand from the individual concerned, a court, or the executive branch is required. Authorities can also remove online content in cases of defamation.7

Internet providers are immune from intermediary liability. However, they assume liability if they ignore court orders to block specific web resources.8

http://www.e-qanun.az/framework/3525 Online media outlets are not liable for comments posted by users.9

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 2.002 4.004

The ongoing government crackdown against independent and opposition media outlets, combined with arrests of online activists, has significantly limited the space for free expression in Azerbaijan. Some online journalists and commentators have resorted to self-censorship, especially if they are employed by state or progovernment media. Mehman Aliyev, the director of Azerbaijan’s last independent wire service, the Turan Information Agency, says self-censorship is high and is a product of fear.1

Self-censorship is pervasive even among ordinary social media users, who are aware that they may face criminal charges for their expression online. However, there has been a significant spike in criticism of government policies and decisions on social media platforms, which has sometimes proven effective in changing the course of government decision-making (see B8).2

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 1.001 4.004

The government attempts to tightly control the online information landscape, limiting the public’s access to unfavorable news. Many online outlets spread progovernment propaganda, in violation of the Law on Mass Media and the Code of Professional Ethics for Journalists.1

Government officials and institutions, notably the MTCHT, pressure independent and opposition online outlets, editors, and journalists to remove specific content. Often this content pertains to social grievances or government officials’ involvement in illegal activities.

During the reporting period, several online outlets were targeted, and their employees were summoned to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for questioning over articles deemed unfavorable to the government. Staffers were asked to remove the offending articles (see B2). There were no reports of compliance with these requests.

Progovernment commentators and political trolling continue to distort discussions online. Prominent activists are often harassed by trolls, as are independent and opposition journalists (see C7).2 A July 2019 report from Index on Censorship observes, “The comments sections of YouTube videos posted to OsmanqiziTV, MeydanTV, and other critical channels are full of comments from people with fake names and accounts. These comments often contain threats, insults, inane arguments or praise for the ruling regime.”3

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 0.000 3.003

The limits imposed on independent or opposition media make it difficult for them to attract advertising to sustain their work. IREX’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index found that most independent or opposition media “do not consider advertising due to existing political pressures.”1 Companies are reluctant to support these outlets due to the risk that they will lose their business licenses or face other reprisals from the government.

Laws regulating foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have made it easier for the government to target local civic groups and media outlets that receive grants from outside sources. In 2015, Aliyev signed amendments to the Law on Mass Media that allow courts to order the closure of any media outlet that receives foreign funding or that is convicted of defamation twice in one year.2 In 2014, Aliyev approved amendments to the Law on Grants, further limiting civil society.3 Requirements for receiving grants are now so complicated that they have forced prevented a number of online outlets, including Mediaforum,4 and Zerkalo/Ayna4 from continuing to operate.

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 2.002 4.004

The online information landscape in Azerbaijan lacks diversity, thanks in large part to the government’s practice of blocking independent outlets. Many outlets that have not been blocked are owned by state entities or by private figures with close ties to the leadership, and they generally produce progovernment content. The head of the Turan Information Agency, Mehman Aliyev, has observed that Azerbaijan’s independent media have struggled to stay afloat since the 1990s. According to IREX’s 2018 Media Stability Index, “There are 10 or so online outlets providing alternatives to monolithic state media, but access to them is restricted. The authorities block about half of them, but they use social media to partially bypass censorship.”1

Though social media platforms such as Facebook do provide a platform for free expression, especially for marginalized and otherwise suppressed groups like the country’s LGBT+ community, the ability of internet users to produce and disseminate uncensored content online is undermined by persistent government pressure. Azerbaijanis internet users can and do access blocked websites through virtual private networks (VPNs).

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 4.004 6.006

Activists continue to use social media to disseminate information and organize campaigns. Consequently, the government has indicated that it is interested in regulating platforms, with one lawmaker describing social media as an instrument for “moral terrorism.”1 In February 2019, members of the parliament began discussing plans for new legislation. Musa Guliyev proposed creating a national social network and restricting access to all other platforms in order to “prevent people from slandering Azerbaijan.” Another member, Ziyafat Asgarov, suggested amending the Law on Mass Media to prevent social media users from insulting “the lawful actions, the personality, the honor or the dignity” of others.2 That same month, Aliyev signed a decree aimed at establishing a Social Research Center, which will monitor public opinion online, primarily through polling.3

These statements came in the aftermath of a series of heated public discussions online. Among them was a campaign to drop newly levelled charges against imprisoned blogger Mehman Huseynov that would have extended his two-year sentence by an additional seven years (see C3). Huseynov went on hunger strike shortly after the new charges were announced, prompting an outpouring of support on social media under the hashtag #FreeMehman. In January 2019, thousands of people rallied in Baku to protest the government’s persecution of Huseynov.4 The rally, organized online, was among the country’s largest protests in recent years.5 The new charges were eventually dropped, and Huseynov was released in March 2019, after serving his two-year sentence.6

Also in January 2019, Aliyev met with several families who were denied compensation as part of a 2018 financial assistance program for relatives of Nagorno-Karabakh war victims. The families had organized large-scale protests, which were covered by independent media, prompting Aliyev to respond. During the meeting, he decreed that they would be compensated.7

Azerbaijani authorities prevented opposition activists from holding any new gatherings in February and March 2019.8 In March, for instance, a group of feminists who attempted to hold Azerbaijan’s first International Women’s Day march, which they organized online and publicized via live streaming, were dispersed by police, who tore down their posters and signs.9

While social networks remained unblocked, connectivity issues (see A3) prevent opposition activists and journalists from accessing them during rallies.

C Violations of User Rights

Authorities regularly arrest and prosecute editors and journalists for their internet-based work. Online activists and their family members also continued to face intimidation during the coverage period.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 2.002 6.006

The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution,1 and Azerbaijan is a signatory to binding international agreements including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the government frequently fails to protect freedom of expression and other fundamental rights, both offline and online.

Amendments to the law on the armed forces that were approved in 2017 provided additional legal grounds for censorship,2 restricting journalists’ ability to report on matters related to the military.3

Azerbaijan’s judiciary is not independent, and the courts do not serve as a check on rights violations by executive authorities.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 2.002 4.004

A host of problematic laws allow users to be punished for speech and other online activities that would be protected under international human rights standards. These laws are often applied in practice.

Libel is perhaps the most common criminal charge used against government critics, and the courts have confirmed that libel laws apply to social media posts.1 In 2013, general provisions on defamation and insult were expanded to include criminal liability for online content.2 Article 147.1 of the criminal code criminalizes the “dissemination, in … a publicly displayed internet information resource, of knowingly false information discrediting the honor and dignity of a person or damaging his or her reputation.”3 Punishments can include 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880) in fines, 240 to 480 hours of community service, up to one year of corrective labor, or up to six months in jail. According to Article 147.2, falsely “accusing [a person] of having committed a serious or especially serious crime” may result in corrective labor for up to two years or imprisonment for up to three years.3

Article 148 of the criminal code similarly criminalizes “deliberate humiliation of the honor and dignity of a person, expressed in an obscene manner … through a publicly displayed internet information resource.”3 Punishments can include fines of 300 to 1,000 manat ($180 to $590), 240 to 480 hours of community service, up to one year of corrective labor, or imprisonment for up to six months. A 2016 amendment to Article 148 criminalized insults disseminated online using fake “usernames, profiles, or accounts,” with 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880) in fines, 360 to 480 hours of community service, up to two years of corrective labor, or imprisonment for up to one year.4

Also in 2016, changes to Article 323 of the criminal code introduced a maximum prison sentence of two years for defaming the president in mass media, which include social media. Defaming the president through fake “usernames, profiles, or accounts” may result in a three-year prison sentence.5 Falsely accusing the president of “having committed a serious or especially serious crime” online may result in a five-year prison sentence.2 In 2017, the fines associated with these offenses were increased.6

Under the code of administrative offenses, individuals, officials, and legal entities can be fined for publishing “prohibited information.”7

Since 2013, the code of administrative offenses has allowed courts to hold individuals in administrative detention for up to 90 days.8 Administrative detention, which can be imposed for offenses such as disorderly conduct, has been used to punish activists and journalists.

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 1.001 6.006

Online activists and journalists are often prosecuted based on trumped-up charges. While some 50 high-profile political prisoners were released during the coverage period, new arrests and human rights violations also took place.

In May 2019, blogger Sakhavat Mammad was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention, ostensibly because he had not made his child care payments. However, observers suggested that the sentence was punishment for a blog post, since deleted, in which he commented on the resignation of the chief of staff of Azerbaijan’s armed forces.1

Also in May 2019, online journalist Anar Mammadov, the editor of Criminalaz.com, was summoned to the Baku prosecutor’s office and “advised” to stop writing stories about SOCAR, the state oil monopoly.2 In March 2019, Mammadov had received a 5.5-year suspended prison sentence and a two-year travel ban for his website’s reporting on the July 2018 violence in the city of Ganja. He was found guilty of “making public calls against the state, abuse of professional duties, and forgery” under Articles 281.2, 309.2, and 313 of the criminal code.3

Similarly, human rights activist Oqtay Gulaliyev was interrogated in early May 2019 by the Prosecutor General’s Office about his critical Facebook posts. During the interrogation, Gulaliyev was warned to tone down his posts; otherwise, a criminal case would be opened against him for calling for “civil disobedience.”4

The same month, after the online news agency BakuPress published a story about official involvement in the illegal sale of pharmaceutical drugs in Azerbaijan, BakuPress editor Shafag Agajan was arrested and remanded for at least three months of pretrial detention.5

In April 2019, the editor of the news site Az24saat.org, Vugar Gurdganli, was summoned for questioning at an anti–organized crime unit in Baku. Gurdganli said the summons may have been linked to threats he had received after republishing a story that was first released by Meydan TV about the business dealings of Internal Affairs Minister Ramil Usubov.6

In March 2019, the editor in chief of Teref.az/Teref.info, Nureddin Ismayilov, received a 5.5-year suspended prison sentence after being convicted of publishing “antistate appeals.” Ismayilov had criticized the state-run electrical power company Azerenergy after the July 2018 blackout.7 He later appealed his conviction, but it was upheld.8

In February 2019, the editor of Bastainfo.com, Mustafa Hajibeyli, similarly received a 5.5-year suspended sentence for his outlet’s coverage of the blackout and the violence in Ganja.9 The website has been blocked since July 2018 (see B1).

In December 2018, Huseyn Malik, a member of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare (ADR) party, was arrested and sentenced to 25 days of administrative detention for Facebook posts that were critical of President Aliyev. Malik said he was unable to access his Facebook account after his release from detention, claiming that the police changed his log-in information.10

In August 2018, the founder and editor of the news portal Strateg.az, Elkhan Shukurlu, was questioned by the Prosecutor General’s Office about a story published in 2017, though it was not publicly known which article was in dispute. Shukurlu said that several other editors at the site had been questioned about the matter. He was released after questioning, and Strateg.az remained accessible.11

In the aftermath of the July 2018 violence in Ganja,12 at least 14 people were sentenced to administrative detention of between 10 and 30 days for “supporting terrorism” and disrupting “socio-political stability” through their social media posts about the unrest.13

The releases of imprisoned bloggers during the coverage period came as part of a March 2019 pardon by President Aliyev. The pardon affected more than 400 prisoners, including bloggers and online opposition figures such as Nijat Aliyev,14 Fuad Gahramanli,15 Rashad Ramazanov,16 and Ilkin Rustamzade.17

Also that month, blogger Mehman Huseynov was released from prison after serving his full two-year sentence; with the help of a campaign on his behalf, he avoided a second set of charges that would have kept him behind bars (see B8).

Following the presidential amnesties in March 2019, the number of online activists and journalists behind bars dropped to six: Seymur Hezi, Afgan Mukhtarli, Fuad Ahmadli, Araz Guliyev, Elchin Ismayilli, and Ziya Asadli.18 After the coverage period, Hezi was released from prison.

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 3.003 4.004

All mobile phones in Azerbaijan must be registered, including the SIM card, phone serial number, and mobile network number. This requirement was introduced by the Cabinet of Ministers in 2011 without parliamentary approval.1 Mobile service providers are required to limit service to any unregistered devices.

In October 2018, a lawmaker proposed requiring internet users to register their social media accounts by linking them to their government-issued identity documents. The proposal had not yet been acted upon at the end of the coverage period.2

The use of encryption services is not prohibited, and many civil society activists rely on secure messaging applications to carry out their work. This, however, does not necessarily protect them from spear-phishing attacks (see C8). While no law specifically requires users to turn over decryption keys when they are arrested or detained, authorities gain access to encrypted accounts and devices in practice through intimidation or torture.

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

State surveillance is pervasive, though the exact extent to which security agencies monitor ICT activity or track users remains unclear. The government is believed to make use of Russia’s System for Operative Investigative Measures (SORM), in part because at least one Russian company involved in the manufacture of SORM-compliant interception hardware has done business with the authorities.1

In October 2018, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s Verint Systems had sold surveillance equipment and software to the Azerbaijani government, and that local police later used it to identify the sexual orientation of users on Facebook.2 The timing of the transaction overlapped with an unprecedented crackdown on the LGBT+ community in Azerbaijan in September 2017 and a number of seemingly random detentions and arrests.3

An April 2018 report by the Qurium Media Foundation revealed that the Azerbaijani government had purchased specialized security equipment from the Israeli company Allot Communications in 2015 for some $3 million.4 In 2017, the government began using the equipment’s DPI capabilities (see B1).

In 2015, leaked documents from the Italian surveillance company Hacking Team showed that the Azerbaijani government was a client.5 Citizen Lab had reported in 2014 that the government was using RCS (Remote Control System) spyware sold by Hacking Team.6 RCS allows anyone with access to activate a targeted device’s camera and microphone and to steal videos, photos, documents, contact lists, or emails. It has been used by governments around the world to spy on dissidents.

The Law on Operative-Search Activity (Article 10, Section IV) authorizes law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance without a court order in cases where it is regarded as necessary “to prevent serious crimes against the person or especially dangerous crimes against the state.”7 The vaguely written provision leaves the law open to abuse. It has long been believed that the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitor the phone and internet communications of certain individuals, especially foreigners, known activists, and business figures.

The 2010 personal data law regulates the collection, processing, and protection of personal data—that is, an individual’s name, date of birth, racial or ethnic background, religion, family, health status, and criminal record—as well as issues related to the cross-border transfer of personal data.8 It is not clear whether the law is enforced or respected in practice.

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 2.002 6.006

The Ministry of Communications requires all telecommunications companies to make their equipment and facilities available to the State Security Service.1

Mobile service providers are known to surrender the content of users’ phone conversations without a court order. For example, a mobile phone operator provided the Ministry of Investigation with journalist Parviz Hashimli’s communications, resulting in an eight-year prison sentence in 2014; Hashimli was released in 2016.2

After the government shut down mobile internet and phone services during a January 2019 political rally (see A3), scores of attendees were questioned by police based on location data taken from their mobile devices. Many took to social media platforms to accuse mobile service providers of disclosing the names, phone numbers, and location data of subscribers who attended the rally. When Azadliq Radio inquired about these accusations, mobile companies cited the need to comply with certain legislation. Media law expert Alasgar Mammadli noted that according to Article 39 of the Law on Communication, the service providers are obliged to provide government institutions with any requested subscriber data.3

During the coverage period, at least one lawmaker discussed the possibility of requiring companies to store data on Azerbaijiani users inside the country, which would ease official access to the information.4

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 2.002 5.005

Critical users are frequently harassed by the government, often through legal means such as arrests, detentions, and interrogations. However, there have also been credible reports of torture in custody, and the authorities wage campaigns of extralegal intimidation against perceived opponents who are not in custody.

The government uses travel bans to stymie prominent critics, as in the cases of journalists Khadija Ismayilova and Mehman Huseynov.1 A group of journalists affiliated with Meydan TV protested on World Press Freedom Day in May 2019, successfully petitioning the Prosecutor General’s Office to remove their travel bans.2 Huseynov’s travel ban was also lifted during the coverage period, after his release from jail in March 2019.

The government puts pressure on lawyers who represent defendants in freedom of expression cases. For example, throughout the coverage period, authorities prevented lawyer Elchin Sadigli from meeting with abducted and imprisoned journalist Afgan Mukhtarli.3

In order to suppress dissidents in exile, the government regularly intimidates dissidents’ relatives. According to an opposition group called Choose a Democratic Azerbaijan, the families of 47 dissidents in exile were targeted by Azerbaijani police in 2018.4 In May 2019, Tural Sadigli, a blogger who left Azerbaijan out of fear of persecution and whose family was targeted on numerous occasions, said his family was informed by authorities that they had opened a criminal case against him and issued an Interpol warrant for his arrest.5 Sadigli’s father and brother have previously been arrested on various pretexts. Similarly, in April 2019, Germany-based exile Vugar Niftiyev reported that his father and brother were interrogated by police,6 and family members of the Germany-based political refugees Parviz Abdullayev and Ali Mammadov have been summoned for police questioning on multiple occasions, including in connection with a May 2019 protest in Berlin.4

In December 2018, Ordukhan Teymurkhan, a Netherlands-based blogger and activist whose family members have been repeatedly prosecuted in recent years, was informed that officials in Baku had opened a criminal case against him and that an Interpol warrant for his arrest had been issued. Teymurkhan described this as an absurd move, given that he was never a citizen of Azerbaijan.7

The government’s proxies are also engaged in intimidation. In April 2019, the progovernment media outlet REAL TV attempted to silence US-based independent journalist Sevinc Osmanqizi, who runs the popular news program OsmanqiziTV on YouTube, by leaking a Facebook audio conversation between her and a fellow journalist based in Germany.8 Osmanqizi said she suspected that the conversation was recorded by Azerbaijani intelligence services. Weeks after the conversation was released, a REAL TV anchor threatened to air intimate video images of Osmanqizi as well.

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 0.000 3.003

Opposition news websites and activists continued to be targeted by cyberattacks, ranging from DDoS attacks to spear-phishing attempts that are believed to be state-sponsored.

On May 9, 2019, Meydan TV experienced DDoS attacks after it published a story about SOCAR, the state oil monopoly.1 The news outlet had suffered similar attacks in the past, apparently in retribution for its work.

On April 19, 2019, the news sites Az24saat.org, Abzas.net, Gununsesi.info, and Azadliq.info were subjected to DDoS attacks.2 A few months earlier, the Qurium Media Foundation reported DDoS attacks against Azadliq.info on December 18, 2018, that used DPI technology from Allot Communications of Israel and Sandvine of Canada.3 DPI has been in use in Azerbaijan since 2017, with the goal of blocking access to websites. According to Qurium, Azerbaijan debuted a new type of active blocking technology in April 2018.4

On August 4, 2018, Gununsesi.info and Azadliq.info were hit by DDoS attacks. An investigation by Qurium traced the attack through a proxy back to Azerbaijan’s Special State Protection Service.5

During the coverage period, several cases of spear-phishing and other hacking attempts against journalists and civil society activists were documented. Germany-based dissident Parviz Abdullayev reported several attempts to hack into his Facebook account.6 In April 2019, activist Fatima Movlamli reported a fake Facebook page that was sharing personal content. Movlamli also reported that the same page was sending inappropriate messages to her friends and colleagues. The page was taken down by Facebook.7

In November 2018, Baku-based journalist Aziz Karimov’s Facebook account was hacked. Karimov was removed from four Facebook pages that he administered, including that of the Turan Information Agency. Similarly, the Facebook page belonging to Azadliq Radio was hacked, and all of its video content including posts and photos were deleted.8

That same month, a journalist at Azadliq Radio was pressured by an unfamiliar Facebook account to reveal information about another colleague, and although the harasser’s account was taken down shortly after, the journalist who was targeted was severely shaken.8 The same month, human rights lawyer Nijat Mammadbayli reported being targeted by a spear-phishing campaign.8

On Azerbaijan

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    10 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    39 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes