Internet freedom remains restricted in Azerbaijan. During the coverage period, the environment improved because more people accessed the internet, according to some measurement sources, and the government did not block social media platforms, as it did during the 2020 military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the government continued to manipulate the online information landscape, blocking numerous independent and opposition websites. The recently enacted media law places further restrictions on online media outlets and creates hurdles for those who try to establish a new outlet. The prosecutor’s office and the courts employed trumped up charges, usually relating to drugs or “hooliganism,” to prosecute activists who criticize government policies or figures online.
Power in Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime remains heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev, who has served as president since 2003, and his extended family. Corruption is rampant, and the formal political opposition has been weakened by years of persecution.
Editor’s note: This report’s coverage period ended before the Azerbaijani military launched attacks on Armenian territory in September 2022. The text does not reflect internet freedom–related developments that occurred during the attacks.
- The most recent internet measurements show the continued blocking of key opposition and independent news websites, including Abzas.net, Azadliq newspaper, Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's [RFE/RL’s] Azerbaijani language service), Gununsesi, Kanal 13 TV, and Meydan TV (see B1).
- In February 2022, President Ilham Aliyev signed a new media law compelling online media outlets to register with the government and obtain government permission before publishing news articles (see B3, B6, C4).
- Courts handed out prison sentences, including a ten-year sentence, to government critics, often accusing individuals of consuming drugs or engaging in “hooliganism,” despite the accused providing evidence that contradicts these claims (see C3).
- In July 2021, an investigation revealed that Azerbaijanis, including journalists, had been targeted with Pegasus spyware (see C5).
- Online activists who were arrested for their activities alleged that they were beaten by law enforcement while detained (see C7).
|Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections?||5.005 6.006|
Score Change: The score improved from 4 to 5 because of increased internet penetration rates and speed, according to some measurement sources.
Although measurement sources indicated that the internet became more accessible during the coverage period, state ICT monopolies remain a key obstacle to improving internet access and service quality across Azerbaijan.1 According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Inclusive Internet Index, around 78 percent of households have access to the internet.2 This relatively high penetration rate obscures disparities in access.
Internet speed in Azerbaijan increased over the past year. According to internet metrics company Ookla, the median fixed-broadband download speed in Azerbaijan rose from 13.1 Mpbs in June 2021 to 21 Mbps in May 2022. During the same period, the median mobile broadband speed increased from 29.3 Mbps to 32.2 Mbps.3
According to the 2021 data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Azerbaijan is home to 19.9 fixed-broadband internet subscriptions per 100 people, and 68.8 mobile-broadband subscriptions per 100 people.4
Both second-generation (2G) and third-generation (3G) mobile networks cover virtually all the population, while fourth-generation (4G) networks cover about half. In July 2020, in partnership with Nokia, leading mobile operator Azercell expanded its 4G geographic coverage, focusing on semiurban and rural regions.5
As of March 2022, fifth-generation (5G) technology is not in use in Azerbaijan,6 although the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport said it hopes to introduce the technology by the end of the year.7 However, local experts and users say it will take longer for 5G technology to reach Azerbaijan. According to economist Natig Jafarli, Azerbaijan must increase its scientific, technical, and production capacity as well as its purchasing power in order to introduce 5G technology.
According to the Mobile Economy Russia & CIS Report—released in 2021 by GSMA, a London-based industry group representing mobile operators worldwide—Azerbaijan is expected to join the 5G network by 2023.8 In 2019, Azercell and Sweden-based Ericsson signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) outlining a joint deployment plan for 5G projects,9 trials, and use cases in Azerbaijan. In November 2019, Azercell piloted 5G services in Baku’s city center for a short time.10
Users mainly access the internet via mobile devices. In October 2021, Azercell announced plans to further expand its long-term evolution (LTE) network coverage. According to the company, LTE network geographical coverage reached 74.3 percent in the first nine months of 2021, with the highest network speed in Baku.11
Users report regular connectivity problems. Outside of Baku, connectivity is poor and some users claim they struggle to access even 1 Mbps speeds during peak hours.12 According to Rovshan Rustamov, deputy minister of the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport, about 700 settlements do not have access to the internet at all.13 When there are connectivity problems, people have claimed that internet service providers (ISPs) cut off connections because they cannot accommodate high demand. Providers say this is not the case, often blaming disruptions on “prophylactic work” carried out on servers.14 Others claim that ISPs intentionally throttle connections in compliance with government requests (see A3).15 Osman Gunduz of the Azerbaijan Internet Forum noted that bandwidth designated for a single user is often divided and sold to multiple users.16
While widespread internet blackouts previously occurred every few years in Azerbaijan, no blackouts were documented during the reporting period.
- 1“Why Internet is expensive in Azerbaijan? [in Azerbaijani],” Qaynarinfo, September 4, 2019, https://qaynarinfo.az/az/azerbaycanda-internet-niye-bahadir-sebeb/; “Ministry: ‘...It is possible there are complains about internet quality’ [in Azerbaijani],” RFE/RL, September 3, 2018, https://www.azadliq.org/a/nazirlik-internetin-keyfiyy%C9%99ti-il%C9%99-….
- 2Economist Impact, “The Inclusive Internet Index: Azerbaijan: Availability: Usage: Internet users,” April 2021, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/performance/avai….
- 3“Global Speeds: Azerbaijan,” Speedtest Global Index, Ookla, accessed August 2022, https://www.speedtest.net/global-index/azerbaijan#fixed
- 4International Telecommunications Union (ITU), “Statistics: Mobile Broadband Subscriptions, Fixed Broadband Subscriptions,” accessed September 2022, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx.
- 5GSMA, “The Mobile Economy, Russia and CIS 2020”, 2020, https://www.gsma.com/mobileeconomy/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/GSMA_Mobi….
- 6“Ministry: Azerbaijan is not using 5G technology,” Apa, June 27, 2020, https://apa.az/az/infrastruktur/Nazirlik-Azrbaycanda-5G-texnologiyasi-t…; “How will Azercell’s 5G work, [in Azerbaijani], Azadliq Radio, November 15, 2019, https://www.azadliq.org/a/azercell-in-5g-si-nec%C9%99-i%C5%9Fl%C9%99y%C….
- 7“When can Azerbaijan move to 5G internet technology,” ARB24, February 3, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZPGw5OwKu0
- 8GSMA, “The Mobile Economy, Russia and CIS 2021”, 2021, https://www.gsma.com/mobileeconomy/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/GSMA_ME_R….
- 9“Azercell and Ericsson partner to develop 5G in Azerbaijan,” Ericsson.com, December 3, 2019, https://www.ericsson.com/en/news/2019/12/azercell-and-ericsson-5g-mou.
- 10“5G network tried in Azerbaijan for the first time,” [in Azerbaijani], Ona.az, November 12, 2019, https://ona.az/az/iqtisadiyyat/azerbaycanda-ilk-defe-5g-sebekesi-istifa…
- 11“Mobile internet speed increased by 30% in Baku and Absheron,” Azercell.com, October 30, 2021, https://www.azercell.com/en/about-us/press-releases/news/baki-ve-absher….
- 12“How many hours does it take to download 5gigabayt film in Azerbaijan [in Azerbaijani],” Azadliq.org, December 3, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/internetin-sureti/31592347.html.
- 13“In Azerbaijan 700 settlements have no internet,” Azadliq Radio, January 27, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/azerbaycan-internet/31673773.html.
- 14“Azerbaijan’s never ending internet problem – Expert opinion [in Azerbaijani],” Xeberler.az. September 23, 2020, https://xeberler.az/new/details/azerbaycanda-bitmeyen-internet-problemi….
- 15“Expert: There is a big difference between Azerbaijan and its neighbors when it comes to Internet [in Azerbaijani],” Azadliq Radio, May 22, 2019, https://www.azadliq.org/a/az%C9%99rbaycanda-internet-niy%C9%99-keyfiyy%….
- 16“Expert: There is a big difference between Azerbaijan and its neighbors when it comes to Internet [in Azerbaijani],” Azadliq Radio, May 22, 2019, https://www.azadliq.org/a/az%C9%99rbaycanda-internet-niy%C9%99-keyfiyy%….
|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. Given the extent to which the ICT sector is controlled by the state, the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport—not the market—sets prices.1
Price data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) put the monthly cost of a 5 GB fixed internet connection at 1.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita and a 2 GB mobile internet connection at 1.7 percent of GNI per capita in 2021,2 Official statistics indicate that the average prices of “communications services” and “internet services” increased from 2018 to 2021.3
In Azerbaijan, there is a digital divide in terms of geography. According to the official figures from 2021, household internet access rates were 81.6 percent in rural areas, and 87.5 percent in urban areas.4 Despite government pledges, ICT infrastructure beyond Baku is neglected, and the capital is the overwhelming beneficiary of state investment in ICT.5 A report released in March 2021 by the World Bank notes that there is a “20 percentage point gap between rural and urban households in fixed internet penetration,” which results from issues with infrastructure and digital literacy outside of the city.6 Independent media reports confirm accessibility challenges, especially in remote villages. 7
In January 2022, Ministry of Digital Development and Transport Deputy Minister Rustamov promised to provide broadband internet access to 150,000 households.8 In addition, in an effort to increase the availability and quality of communication services, the state-owned telecom provider AzTelekom began building Gigabyte Passive Optical Network (GPON) technology in several villages.9 However, according to Aztelekom’s website, this technology is currently only in use in the Absheron peninsula.10
The introduction of 5G technology could also impose additional costs on users. The average fee for a 5G-supporting mobile device on the market starts at 600 manat ($353) for Androids and 1,600 manat ($941) for iOS-operated mobile phones.11 As of January 2022, the minimum wage in Azerbaijan was 300 manat ($176) per month, according to official data released in December 2021.12
There is a gendered dimension to inequalities in internet access: the gap in internet use between men and women is 12 percent, according to the 2021 Inclusive Internet Index.13
- 1“Does the speed of Internet match the costs?” Azadliq Radio, July 17, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/internetin-sureti-qiymetine-uygundurmu/313636…; “Why internet speed is slow in Azerbaijan: providers do as they please,” Chip.az, October 9, 2018, https://chip.az/site/newsdetail/1330-azerbaycanda-internetin-sureti-niy….
- 2“ICT Price Baskets,” International Telecommunication Union, 2021, accessed September 2022, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Dashboards/Pages/IPB.aspx.
- 3“Price index of communication services,” State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan, last updated April 8, 2022, https://azstat.org/statHtml/statHtml.do?orgId=994&tblId=DT_BL_004&conn_….
- 4“Information Society in Azerbaijan,” State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 2021, https://www.stat.gov.az/source/information_society/en/002_21en.xls.
- 5“Uzaq rayonlara internet vədi - hökumətin milyonluq layihəsi niyə gerçəkləşmir?,” Azadliq Radio, June 10, 2020, https://www.azadliq.org/a/internet-regionlar-optika-azercell-aztelecom/….
- 6“Smart Villages in Azerbaijan: a Framework for Analysis and Roadmap,” World Bank, March 2021, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/35468/Smart-….
- 7“Students who climb atop of high heels to find Internet,” Azadliq Radio, October 20, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/rayon-kend-internet-problem/31520787.html.
- 8“Aztelekom and Baktelekom to combine,” Sputnik.az, January 27, 2022, https://sputnik.az/20220127/aztelecom-ve-baktelecom-birlesdirilir-43855….
- 9“AzTelekom introduced GPON technology in villages of Azerbaijan,” Developingtelecoms.com, May 21, 2021, https://developingtelecoms.com/telecom-technology/optical-fixed-network….
- 10Aztelekom, accessed September 2022, https://www.aztelekom.az/az/menu/142-qoshulma.
- 11“Is 5G coming to Azerbaijan? When will the almost-dead internet period end?” Azadliq Radio, January 4, 2022, https://www.azadliq.org/a/g-texnologiya-ne-vaxt-azerbaycan/31613858.html.
- 12“Azerbaijan Labor Ministry Announces Minimum Wage Increase for 2022,” Bloombergtaz.com, December 28, 2021, https://news.bloombergtax.com/payroll/azerbaijan-labor-ministry-announc…; “Minimum monthly wage increases in Azerbaijan,” Azernews.az, January 1, 2022, https://www.azernews.az/nation/187598.html.
- 13Economist Impact, “Inclusive Internet Index: Azerbaijan: Availability: Usage; Gender gap in internet usage,” April 2021, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/performance/avai….
|Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity?||4.004 6.006|
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the government did not throttle access to the internet or block access to major social media platforms as it did during the previous coverage period.
The government exercises control over internet infrastructure and has previously throttled access to the internet.
On September 27, 2020, the day that full-scale war erupted between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Ministry for Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies (MTCHT) throttled mobile and fixed-line broadband internet across Azerbaijan and blocked a number of social media platforms and websites, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype. The action lasted 46 days—Azerbaijan’s longest internet disruption to date (See B1). The MTCHT did not mention the duration of the outage or which services would be blocked in the country until October 12.1 In a November 11 statement, the MTCHT announced the lifting of restrictions on internet access, effective the following day.2
Since April 2020, Ali Karimli, leader of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front party (APFP), and his family have experienced a prolonged fixed- and mobile-internet outage, which continued through the coverage period.3 The outage appeared to be a targeted, individualized disruption. In January 2021, Karimli and his spouse, Samara Seyidova, said that they were taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) after having received no response from domestic courts. The ECtHR has not yet announced if the case will be heard.4
Opposition activists and nearby residents have reported experiencing connectivity issues in the hours before formally and informally held opposition rallies. According to Ali Karimli, internet disruptions were reported in May 2022 during his visit to the home of activist Agil Maharram, a member of the APFP who had recently been released from jail. According to Karimli’s personal account, connectivity disruptions prevented him from broadcasting the event live. Online television channels at the scene were reportedly only able to upload the videos after leaving the premises.5
The Ministry of Digital Development and Transport 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.6 In September 2020, President Ilham Aliyev declared martial law for the entire territory of Azerbaijan (see C1) as a result of the war with Armenia, with the approval of Parliament. The designation enabled the ministry—in coordination with military authorities—to restrict individuals’ and legal entities’ connection to the general telecommunication networks. It further granted the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport’s predecessor, the MTCHT, the authority to disconnect telephone lines from the network and suspend the provision of internet services to meet the needs of the military authorities. Martial law was lifted on December 11, 2020.7
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.8 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).9
- 1“Country-wide Internet Disruptions reported in Azerbaijan [updated],” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 27, 2020, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/country-wide-internet-disruptions-repo….
- 2Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, “Azerbaijan lifts restrictions on Internet Access,” November 11, 2020, https://mincom.gov.az/en/view/news/1050/azerbaijan-lifts-restriction-on….
- 3“Opposition leader’s mobile and internet cut off ahead of live interview,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, May 13, 2020, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/internet-is-reportedly-down-across-aze….
- 4“Ali Karimli headed for the European Court because of Internet,” Azadliq Radio, January 12, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/31043521.html.
- 5Ali Karimli’s Facebook post, June 3, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/karimliali/posts/563828171774077
- 6In an interview, media law expert Alasgar Mammadli explained that the MTCHT has control over 50 limited liability companies, many of control ISPs.
- 7“The issue of internet blocking should be reviewed in the interest of the country,” Turan News Agency, September 30, 2020, https://www.turan.az/ext/news/2020/9/free/Interview/en/128114.htm.
- 8“Information Technologies,” Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies of the Republic of Azerbaijan, accessed April 2022, http://www.mincom.gov.az/en/view/pages/10/.
- 9“A Sector Assessment: Accelerating Growth of High-Speed Internet Services in Azerbaijan,” Report No: AUS9195, GTIDR, December 18, 2014, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/585201468206662555/pdf/AUS919….
|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 sector’s development, though the government’s Strategic Roadmap for Telecommunication and Information Technology Development calls for the removal of the commercial authority currently exercised by the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport.1
Many ISPs are present in the market, including three state-owned providers: Aztelekom, Baktelecom (BTC), and AzDataCom.2 As of 2019, state-owned companies ultimately controlled about 50 percent of the market.3 Additionally, the ownership of Aztelekom, the largest ISP operating outside Baku, is linked to President Ilham Aliyev’s family. In January 2022, Deputy Minister of Digital Development and Transport Rustamov said that the ministry had plans to merge Baktelecom and Aztelekom; however. no specific dates were announced. Rustamov claimed the merger may help provide more households with broadband internet access.4
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 49 percent.5 Bakcell and Azerfon follow behind, self-reporting 3 million6 and 2.3 million7 subscribers, respectively. Both Azercell and Azerfon are connected to the Aliyev family,8 and in 2018, the government formally assumed ownership of Azercell.9 Bakcell is privately held by NEQSOL, a holding company owned by businessman Nasib Hasanov.
Mobile operators must obtain a technical license from the government in order to do business.10 These licenses are issued for a period of 10 years. There is no licensing regime for other ISPs,11 but they must register with the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport. If they fail to do so, they will face fines. Some providers have raised concerns with the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport over the lack of transparency in the registration process, as well as the sensitivity of the information they must submit to register. The ministry’s predecessor, the MTCHT, claimed that registration was carried out in accordance with the law, and dismissed concerns about improper data retention.12
- 1“Strategic Roadmap for Development of Telecommunications and Information Technologies in Azerbaijan,” Republic of Azerbaijan, December 6, 2016, https://monitoring.az/assets/upload/files/6683729684f8895c1668803607932….
- 2“Providers,” Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies, http://www.mincom.gov.az/az/view/pages/88; “Azerbaijan: Country Digital Development Overview,” Asian Development Bank, January 2019, https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/institutional-document/484586/a…; “About us,” AzDATACOM, https://web.archive.org/web/20200218234918/http://azdatacom.az/en/view/….
- 3“Azerbaijan: Country Digital Development Overview,” Asian Development Bank, January 2019, https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/institutional-document/484586/a….
- 4“Aztelekom and Baktelekom to combine,” Sputnik.az, January 27, 2022, https://sputnik.az/20220127/aztelecom-ve-baktelecom-birlesdirilir-43855….
- 5“Azercell reveals results of transformation year,” Azerbaijan State News Agency, February 22, 2020, https://azertag.az/en/xeber/__Azercell_reveals_results_of_transformatio….
- 6“About us,” Bakcell, https://web.archive.org/web/20200526230735/https://www.bakcell.com/en/c….
- 7“’Nar’ 4,5G baza stansiyalarının sayını 60 faiz artırıb [in Azerbaijani],” Azerbaijan State News Agency, January 17, 2020, https://azertag.az/xeber/__Nar_45G_baza_stansiyalarinin_sayini_60_faiz_….
- 8Khadija Ismayilova, “TeliaSonera’s Behind-The-Scenes Connection To Azerbaijani President's Daughters,” Eurasianet, July 15, 2014, https://eurasianet.org/teliasoneras-behind-the-scenes-connection-to-aze….
- 9“Azerbaijan’s ICT market: key events of 2018,” Azernews, January 1, 2019, https://www.azernews.az/business/143442.html.
- 10“Granting special permission (license) for some types of activities,” Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies, accessed April 2022, http://www.mincom.gov.az/en/view/pages/15/.
- 11“Information Technologies,” Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies, accessed April 2022, http://www.mincom.gov.az/en/view/pages/10/.
- 12“Expert: Everything is under control in Internet” [in Azerbaijani], Azadliq Radio, May 16, 2019, https://www.azadliq.org/a/ekspert-i%CC%87nternetd%C9%99-h%C9%99r-%C5%9F….
|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. Service providers are regulated by the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport, whose leadership is beholden to Aliyev. The ministry has undergone major changes in recent years, including in 2017, when the former Ministry of Communications and High Technologies was dissolved and merged with the Ministry of Transport, creating the MTCHT. In 2021, the MTCHT was renamed the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport.1 However, these changes have not had an impact on the overall quality of internet services across the country.
Local civil society groups like the Azerbaijan Internet Forum have been critical of the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport’s stewardship of the ICT sector. Osman Gunduz argues that the ministry has abused its regulatory and commercial powers to stymie private business, to the detriment of the ICT sector.2
- 1“Azerbaijan sets up a Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies,” apa.az, February 13, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20171228112918/http://en.apa.az/azerbaijan-….
- 2“Slow like a turtle: we don’t believe them, and they don’t understand us,” [in Azerbaijani], Sputnik.az, October 18, 2019, https://sputnik.az/tech/20191018/422055167/azerbaycanda-internetin-sure….
|Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards?||3.003 6.006|
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because social media platforms were not blocked during the coverage period, as they were in the fall of 2020.
During the coverage period, the government did not restrict access to any social media platforms, but continued to restrict access to websites, particularly those associated with the opposition or those that investigate politically sensitive topics, such as official corruption.1
The state continues to rely on deep packet inspection (DPI) technology to block content online. During the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, the Azerbaijani government—namely, the government-controlled backbone provider, Delta Telecom, worked with Sandvine Inc., a Canada-based company backed by a US-based private equity firm, to “urgently” install DPI technology to block livestreaming to YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.2 During the conflict, the MTCHT blocked access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zoom, and Skype for 46 days.3
In March 2022, access to several Russian government and media websites was throttled, reportedly including through virtual private networks (VPNs). Other websites, such as Russian state news agency RIA Novosti and Tass.ru, were periodically accessible. The Ministry of Digital Development and Transportation failed to provide an explanation for the blocking of these websites.4 As of June 2022, websites for the Russian president, Kremlin.ru, and Sputnik.ru were temporary inaccessible. The Ministry also issued a statement saying that RIA Novosti was blocked because it had run a story that defamed Azerbaijan.5
In October 2021, the Azerbaijani government blocked access to six pro-Iran websites—Deyerler (Values), Maide (Blessings), Ahlibeyt (Prophet's Household), Ehlibēt (Prophet's Household), Shia, and Islaminsesi (Voice of Islam)—that the state claimed were promoting Iranian and religious propaganda, following a rift in diplomatic relations between the two countries. According to Facebook user Elchin Alioglu, access to religious video series on YouTube were also blocked.6 As of May 2022, the websites and YouTube content remain blocked, with the exception of one website, aylibeyt.az.
According to the most recent measurements conducted by the Open Observatory for Network Interference (OONI), at least 10 websites present signs of blocking as of March 2022. They include online news sites Azerbaycansaati.tv, 24saat.org, Abzas.net, Azadliq.info, Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's [RFE/RL’s] Azerbaijani language service), Gununsesi,7 Kanal 13 (online) TV, Meydan TV, as well as the websites for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and RFE/RL.8 In violation of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information, the government has not made available a list of websites that have been blocked.9
In May 2020, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova reported that the MTCHT was seeking court approval to restrict users’ ability to access news websites already blocked in the country (namely, the newspaper Azadliq, Azadliq Radio, Meydan TV, and Turan TV) via Facebook, other social media platforms, and VPNs.10 These websites were initially blocked in March 2017 for allegedly threatening national security and hosting content that promoted “violence, hatred, or extremism” and “violated privacy or constituted slander.”11 A ruling in the MTCHT’s favor may legally oblige Facebook and other companies to prevent Azerbaijani users from seeing content from these websites.12 The authorities could also instruct ISPs to block these websites’ social media profiles, which would practically entail blocking entire social media platforms. During the coverage period, no steps were taken in this direction.
- 1From the author’s research using OONI probes in Azerbaijan.
- 2“Spotted: Sandvine back at it, this time, in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, October 8, 2020, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/spotted-sandvine-back-at-it-this-time-…; https://twitter.com/cavidaga/status/1451950302299631633?s=20&t=x8aeebQA…; “In latest Azerbaijan-Iran spat, Baku blocks pro-Iranian websites,” Iranintl.com, October 23, 2021, https://www.iranintl.com/en/20211023783816.
- 3“Social media restricted in Azerbaijan amid clashes with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh,” NetBlocks, September 27, 2020, https://netblocks.org/reports/social-media-restricted-in-azerbaijan-ami….
- 4“In Azerbaijan even the Russian President’s website won’t open: blocking or hacker attack?,” Meydan TV, March 4, 2022, https://www.meydan.tv/az/article/azerbaycanda-rusiya-prezidentinin-sayt….
- 5“Azerbaijan blockes RIA-Novosti – Russian language state news website – citing violation of the national law [updated June 7]”, Azerbaijan Internet Watch, June 6, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/azerbaijan-blocks-ria-novosti-russian-….
- 6“Azerbaijan blocks access to pro-Iran websites – multiple reports,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, October 27, 20121, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/azerbaijan-blocks-access-to-pro-iran-w….
- 7“Gununesi.org Blocked in Azerbaijan,” Qurium. https://www.qurium.org/alerts/azerbaijan/gununsesi-org-blocked-in-azerb…”; “2020 Country reports on human rights practices: Azerbaijan,” State.gov., March 30, 2021, https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-prac…
- 8“OCCRP blocked in Azerbaijan,” Meydan TV, September 5, 2017, https://www.meydan.tv/en/article/occrp-blocked-in-azerbaijan/; “Azerbaijan keeps blocking access to key independent news platforms – OONI April report,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, April 27, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-04-Azerbaij…
- 9“OONI Measurements indicate censorship remains,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, February 16, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/ooni-measurements-indicate-censorship-….
- 10Facebook post by Khadija Ismayilova, May 21, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/khadija.ismayil/posts/10213741677214731?__tn__….
- 11Mike Runey, “Azerbaijan: government escalates hacking campaign against dissidents,” Eurasianet, March 30, 2017, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/83041; “Azerbaijan Court Upholds Ban On RFE/RL Website,” RFE/RL, June 5, 2018, https://pressroom.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-court-upholds-ban-on-rferl-aza…; “Azerbaijan Court Orders Block On RFE/RL Website,” Voice of America, May 12, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/east-asia/azerbaijani-court-orders-block-rferl-….
- 12“Azerbaijan may end up blocking more online content,” Az-netwatch.org, June 9, 2020, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/azerbaijan-may-end-up-blocking-more-on….
|Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards?||2.002 4.004|
During the coverage period, authorities continued using threats and other forms of pressure to force the removal of online content.
In January 2022, Facebook user Namig Aliyev was found guilty of violating the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information for failing to remove a post about a Yeniavaz.com article exposing the Prosecutor’s Office for failing to investigate an attack on a veteran political activist (see C3). The following month, Yeniavaz.com was fined 1,500 manat ($882) for failing to remove comments on a Facebook post that concerned the conduct of the Prosecutor’s Office in response to the attack, which was allegedly carried out by members of the office.1
In January 2022, journalist Fikret Ibishbeyli, who writes under the name Fikret Faramazoglu, was accused of disseminating prohibited information on the internet. Faramazoglu was fined a total of AZN500 ($294) for “disseminating forbidden information on the internet” after a judge alleged that an article Faramazoglu published on Jamaz.info had caused “confusion” and “fear.”2
In December 2021, Sakhavat Mammad, a journalist writing for online news outlet Yenicag.az, was fined for publishing an investigative article about the Azerbaijani army, which contained information deemed prohibited under the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information. Mammad was forced to remove his post and fined a total of 500 manat ($294).3
In December, two websites, Olke.az and Manevr.az, were fined a total of 1,500 manat ($882) for violating Article 388.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.4
According to Twitter’s Transparency report, Twitter received two removal requests between January and December 2021 and complied with one of them.5 Google received a record 24 content takedown requests from the government between January and December 2021 (on copyright defamation, hate speech, religious offense, government criticism, privacy, and national security grounds). Google removed 6 percent of the content covered in the 21 takedown requests in the first half of 2021, and 92.9 percent of the content covered in the 3 requests in the latter half of the year.6 Facebook restricted one piece of content in response to a government request in 2021.7
In March 2022, several videos on news outlet Azad Soz’s YouTube channel were flagged by the platform in response to falsified takedown requests. An international nongovernmental organization (NGO), Access Now, helped Azad Soz to recover the videos. Azad Soz’s YouTube channel was previously targeted in 2019.8
- 1“Website fined for not removing comments on social media page,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, February 4, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/website-fined-for-not-removing-comment…; “Several social media users warned, one sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, January 26, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/several-social-media-users-warned-one-….
- 2“Journalist fined over published article,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, January 17, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/journalist-fined-over-published-articl….
- 3“Journalist fined in a midnight trial,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, December 22, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/journalist-fined-in-a-midnight-trial/; “Social media users questioned over coronavirus posts,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, June 26, 2020, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/social-media-users-questioned-over-cor… .
- 4“Journalist fined over published article,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, January 17, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/journalist-fined-over-published-articl….
- 5“Azerbaijan,” Twitter Transparency Report, accessed September 2022, https://transparency.twitter.com/en/countries/az.html.
- 6Google Transparency Report , “Government Requests to Remove Content: Azerbaijan,” accessed September 2022, https://transparencyreport.google.com/government-removals/by-country/AZ….
- 7Facebook Transparency Center, “Content Restrictions Based on Local Law: Azerbaijan”, accessed September 2022, https://transparency.fb.com/data/content-restrictions/country/AZ/
- 8Arzu Geybulla, “Surveillance and Internet Disruption in Baku,” Coda Story, February 21, 2019, https://codastory.com/authoritarian-tech/surveillance-and-internet-disr….
|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-affiliated news websites 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, despite the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport’s obligation to maintain a list of court-approved website blocks under Article 13.3.6 of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information.2 The law, alongside the Law on Media (see B6), regulates what constitutes prohibited information on the internet and the liability for violating these requirements.3
In December 2021, the parliament passed a new Law on Media, which President Ilham Aliyev enacted in February 2022. The restrictive measures of the law, combined with the Azerbaijani Agency for Media Development’s (AAMD’s) broad powers, raised concerns that the work of independent and opposition media platforms will be inhibited.4 The law consolidates government oversight and control over the media environment and journalistic activity, making it easier to punish media platforms and journalists (see B6). The law also forbids news outlets and individuals from publishing content about a crime committed by a person in the absence of a court decision. As such, journalists may face sanctions for publishing or disseminating information on corruption allegedly committed by government officials, even if these cases are already known to the public.
In January 2021, President Aliyev signed a decree “on deepening media reforms in the republic of Azerbaijan,” which transferred the authority of the now-defunct State Support Fund for Mass Media Development to the newly established AAMD. The decree grants the AAMD authority to “take measures to protect state and commercial secrets” and to alert authorities when it detects a violation of the restrictive Code of Administrative Offenses (see C2).
Additionally, authorities have the power to “restrict access” to “prohibited information” on the internet or otherwise impose fines for distributing such content.5 “Prohibited information” is defined 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.6 The Ministry of Digital Development and Transportation is also empowered 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.7 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.8
In February 2022, the Ministry of Justice was instructed to draft a new legal document outlining measures for violating the Law on Media. As of June 2022, the draft bill had not been submitted or made public.9
ISPs are immune from intermediary liability. However, they assume liability if they ignore court orders to block specific web resources.10
Policies that govern whether content about or from Azerbaijan is removed from popular, privately owned social media platforms—especially Facebook and YouTube—are opaque. They sometimes lead to the removal of content protected under international human rights standards (see B2).
- 1“Government blocks access to azadliq.info and azadliq.org websites in Azerbaijan,” IFRS, March 27, 2017, https://www.irfs.org/news-feed/government-blocks-access-to-azadliq-info…; “Online censorship rounds off Aliyev’s control of Azerbaijani media,” Reports Without Borders, May 3, 2017, https://rsf.org/en/news/online-censorship-rounds-aliyevs-control-azerba….
- 2“About Information, Informatization, and Information Security” [in Azerbaijani], Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan, http://e-qanun.gov.az/framework/3525.
- 3“Who regulates content online in Azerbaijan? Legal Analysis,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, May 17, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/who-regulates-content-online-in-azerba….
- 4“Fresh media reforms raise concern [updated],” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, January 14, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/fresh-media-reforms-raise-concern/.
- 5“Parliament approved the Internet penalties [in Azerbaijani],” Azadliq Radio, December 1, 2017, https://www.azadliq.org/a/28890427.html; “Azerbaijan: Parliament approves fines against online distribution of prohibited information,” Mapping Media Freedom, December 1, 2017, https://mappingmediafreedom.ushahidi.io/posts/21726.
- 6“Azerbaijan,” Media Sustainability Index 2018, IREX, 2018, https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index….
- 7“Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan on Personal Data,” State Committee for Family, Women, and Children of the Republic of Azerbaijan, http://scfwca.gov.az/store/media/NewFolder/Law%20of%20the%20Republic%20….
- 8“About Information, Informatization, and Information Security” [in Azerbaijani], Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan, http://e-qanun.gov.az/framework/3525.
- 9Presidential decree, February 24, 2022, https://e-qanun.az/framework/49244
- 10“Azerbaijani government on the verge of introducing censorship on the Internet,” Turan Information Agency, April 25, 2017, http://www.contact.az/ext/news/2017/4/free/Want%20to%20Say/en/61716.htm; “About Information, Informatization, and Information Security” [in Azerbaijani], Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan, http://e-qanun.gov.az/framework/3525.
|Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship?||2.002 4.004|
The long-running government crackdown against independent and opposition media, combined with arrests of online political activists and increasingly restrictive laws, has significantly limited the space for free expression. Some bloggers and journalists have resorted to self-censorship, especially if they are employed by state or progovernment media.
Self-censorship is pervasive even among ordinary social media users, who are aware that they may face criminal charges for their expression online. However, users can and do criticize government policies on social media platforms.1
According to the new media law (see B3 and B6), it is illegal to publish content concerning a criminal case that has yet to be ruled on in court, which could facilitate self-censorship.
In December 2021, the Prosecutor’s Office issued a public statement urging media entities and users of social networks to refrain from sharing what the office described as inaccurate and distorted information.2
During the coverage period, the Prosecutor’s Office continued to take measures against the dissemination of prohibited information on the Internet issuing warnings, and administrative offenses.3
- 1Austin Clayton, “As social media criticism grows, Azerbaijan weighs carrots vs. sticks,” Eurasianet, February 25, 2019, https://eurasianet.org/as-social-media-criticism-grows-azerbaijan-weigh….
- 2“Journalist fined over published article,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, January 17, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/journalist-fined-over-published-articl….
- 3“Who regulates content online in Azerbaijan? Legal Analysis,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, May 17, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/who-regulates-content-online-in-azerba….
|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.1 This tendency was on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic, as progovernment online outlets blanketed the Azerbaijani internet with letters praising the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev.2 Similarly, during the military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, footage widely circulated online both by government sources and government-affiliated media showed the destruction of Armenia’s military equipment, followed by patriotic text and celebrations by viewers.3
Progovernment commentators, including automated bots, continue to distort discussions online. The September 2021 trial against the executive director of the former State Media Support Fund, Vugar Safarli, shed further light on the state’s use of Facebook trolls to target those who criticize the authorities. Namely, the trial revealed that these trolls were deployed with the knowledge of the former presidential advisor and the former head of the presidential administration. Safarli confessed that the trolls were employed unofficially. In an interview with Azadliq Radio, an anonymous individual who worked as a troll reported that each troll operated a large number of fake profiles. Prewritten comments were sent to the trolls each day. According to the former troll, they were also given instructions to create content on various topics for publication on progovernment media platforms.4
Meta’s first quarter Adversarial Threat Report revealed that actors linked to the Ministry of Internal Affairs ran pages critical of activists and opposition figures and tried to gain access to their accounts (see C8).5
Additionally, a September 2021 investigation conducted by Azerbaijan Internet Watch revealed that 549 fake Facebook accounts had targeted a Facebook post shared by Azadliq Radio, posting comments that claimed the outlet was biased and publishing false information. The post, drawn by political cartoonist Gunduz Aghayev, addressed the rising cost of fuel in the country.6
In April 2021, the Guardian published a report demonstrating how Facebook allowed a troll network linked to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) to return to the platform. The network, which was initially removed in October 2020 after former Facebook researcher Sophie Zhang informed company executives about its existence in August 2019, used Facebook to target news outlets Azad Soz, Mikroskop Media, Radio Free Europe, and Abzas.net, and political opposition parties, including the APFP.7
In March 2021, another investigation revealed how Berlin-based independent news platform Meydan TV was targeted by hundreds of Facebook accounts that accused the news outlet of distributing pro-Armenian propaganda after it had posted a call for applications for a media literacy project.8 MikroskopMedia, a Latvia-based online platform, was targeted in a similar way when it posted content on Facebook that was critical of the Azerbaijan’s government.9 In each case, accounts that appeared to be Facebook profiles were actually fake pages used to dilute the content shared by these platforms and to attempt to create a perception of trust in and support for the government of Azerbaijan.
- 1“On ‘Press Freedom Day’ this is the state of Azerbaijan media” [in Azerbaijani], Azadliq Radio, May 3, 2015, http://www.azadliq.org/content/article/26991333.html.
- 2Giorgi Lomsadze, “Azerbaijanis in lockdown send love letters to their president,” Eurasianet, April 30, 2020, https://eurasianet.org/azerbaijanis-in-lockdown-send-love-letters-to-th….
- 3“Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Sheling, suffering and propaganda,” Al-Jazeera Listening Post, October 10, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/program/the-listening-post/2020/10/10/nagorno….
- 4“Azerbaijan’s troll factory revealed,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 4, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/azerbaijans-troll-factory-revealed/.
- 5Meta, "Adversarial Threat Report: Q1 2022,” April 2022, https://about.fb.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Meta-Quarterly-Adversar….
- 6“Inauthentic pages target independent news platform: will Facebook take notice, part 3,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 15, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/inauthentic-pages-target-independent-n….
- 7“Facebook isn’t interested in countries like ours’: Azerbaijan troll network returns months after ban,” The Guardian, April 13, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/apr/13/facebook-azerbaijan-….
- 8“Inauthentic pages target independent online news platform – will Facebook take notice?” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, March 16, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/inauthentic-pages-target-independent-o….
- 9“Inauthentic pages target independent online news platform – will Facebook take notice [part 2],” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, April 14, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/inauthentic-pages-target-independent-n….
|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. The 2021 IREX Vibrant Information Barometer (VIBE) found that “Advertising is politicized and fully controlled…criticism and advertising are mutually exclusive: The more criticism of the government that is published, the less advertising revenue that is received.”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. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported that they were informed “about harassment of advertisers who sponsor private media.”2
The new media law enacted in February 2022 places further requirements on outlets or individuals who wish to establish an online media outlet (see B3 and C7). Article 14 of the media law lists 14 requirements that both online and offline media must meet when the content in question is published. For instance, Article 14.1.6 authorizes the state to consider any impugned statement or general criticism as an “immoral lexical [swearing] words of expressions” without clarifying what these words are. While the law does not require individuals or outlets to obtain permission to establish an online media platform, it does require that permission be obtained seven days prior to the publication or dissemination of the relevant media content. In addition, the law stipulates that content must meet the requirements of the Law on Protection of Children and Harmful Information and the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information.
Article 62.4 of the new media law requires online media focused on religious content to receive approval from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations prior to launching. The new law also calls for a unified media registry system for all online media outlets, journalists working for online platforms, and freelance journalists (see C4). The registry is managed by the Media Development Agency. All online platforms must apply to the register within six months of starting work. To qualify as an online media platform, the platform must publish a minimum of 20 articles per day. The owner of the platform must be a citizen of Azerbaijan permanently residing in the country. If the founder is an entity, then 75 percent of the capital must belong to a citizen of Azerbaijan permanently residing in the country.3
Further restrictions in the new law include requiring individuals intending to launch an online media platform to possess a clean criminal record and no political or religious affiliations. Individual journalists who want to register must have a degree in higher education, while staff journalists must have an employment contract and freelance journalists are required to have at least one civil contract with a registered media outlet. If approved, media platforms are issued certificates and journalists are issued press cards. Online media platforms that fail to register with the state will be denied recognition as mass media, and will be unable to hire journalists. Journalists employed by unregistered online media platforms will be denied official registration and will therefore be unable to receive official press cards.
Laws regulating foreign funding for NGOs have made it easier for the government to target local civic groups and media outlets that receive grants from outside sources. In 2015, President 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 is convicted of defamation twice in one year.4 Amendments passed in 2014 to the Law on Grants complicated the process for receiving grants, preventing a number of online outlets from continuing to operate.5
- 1IREX, ”Vibrant Information Barometer 2021: Azerbaijan,” 2021, https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/vibe-azerbaijan-2021.pdf.
- 2“International Election Observation Mission: Republic of Azerbaijan-Early Parliamentary Elections, 9 February 2020: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions,” OSCE, February 9, 2020, https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/azerbaijan/445759?download=true.
- 3“New Media Law: implications for online media/journalistm in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, March 24, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/new-media-law-implications-for-online-….
- 4“Azerbaijan's Aliyev Signs Law Simplifying Media Shutdowns,” RFE/RL, February 4, 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-alieyv-law-on-mass-media/26829860.ht….
- 5“On Amendments to The Law On Non-Governmental Organisations (Public Unions And Foundations) and on Amendments To The Law On Grants of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” European Commission For Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission), CDL-REF(2014)053, Opinion No. 787/2014, 25 November, 2014, https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-….
|Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability?||2.002 4.004|
The online information landscape in Azerbaijan lacks diversity, in large part due to both the government’s practice of blocking independent news websites (see B1) and the close ties between certain outlets and government leadership (see B5). According to IREX’s 2019 Media Stability Index, “alternative, independent broadcast TV and websites cannot directly air in Azerbaijan.”1
Though social media platforms such as Facebook do provide a platform for free expression—including for some marginalized or suppressed populations, such as LGBT+ people—the ability of internet users to produce and disseminate uncensored content online is undermined by persistent government pressure. Azerbaijani internet users can and do access blocked websites through VPNs.
- 1“Azerbaijan,” Media Sustainability Index 2019, IREX, 2019, https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index….
|Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues?||4.004 6.006|
Activists have continued to use social media to disseminate information and organize advocacy campaigns and rallies. 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
During the coverage period, activists organized several protests online. In May 2022, a rally in Baku called for the end to impunity for crimes against government critics, political activists, and journalists.2 In December 2021, another protest organized by activists called for the release of Saleh Rustamli, a political prisoner jailed in 2018.3 The same month, journalists staged protests outside the parliament building in protest of the new media law.4 In August 2021, a group of women staged a silent protest outside the Ministry of the Interior to raise awareness of the increasing rate of domestic abuse reported in the country (see C7).5
Facebook and YouTube were widely used during the February 2020 snap parliamentary elections to document electoral violations. As a result, Central Election Commission (CEC) head Mazahir Panahov announced that the institution would take into account all of the evidence shared on social media platforms when evaluating the results of the voting. Results at some 100 precincts were later canceled due in part to such evidence.
- 1“Ali Ahmadov: In some cases, social networks have become a tool of moral terror and insult [in Azerbaijani],” Trend News Agency, January 26, 2019, https://az.trend.az/azerbaijan/society/3010990.html.
- 2“In Azerbaijan’s capital, calls for an end to impunity against activists,” Global Voices, May 14, 2022, https://globalvoices.org/2022/05/14/in-azerbaijans-capital-calls-for-an….
- 3“Protest in support of jailed opposition activist in Baku turns violent,” Global Voices, December 1, 2021, https://globalvoices.org/2021/12/01/protest-in-support-of-jailed-opposi….
- 4“Azerbaijan’s controversial media law has grave consequences for media freedom and independence,” Global Voices, December 30, 2021, https://globalvoices.org/2021/12/30/azerbaijans-controversial-media-law….
- 5“In Azerbaijan women’s rights activists portest outside the Ministry of the Interior,” Global Voices, August 3, 2021, https://globalvoices.org/2021/08/03/in-azerbaijan-womens-rights-activis….
|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?||1.001 6.006|
The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution,1 and Azerbaijan is a signatory to international agreements including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that protect users’ rights. However, the government frequently fails to uphold freedom of expression guarantees online.
Amendments to the Law on the Status of 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 At the outbreak of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020, President Ilham Aliyev declared martial law, increasing the government’s authority to restrict internet access and suspend mass media, including online media until the designation was lifted in December 2020 (see A3 and B3).
In practice, the rights of journalists and other users to express themselves freely online are diminishing. Recent years have seen a slew of detentions, prosecutions, and harsh prison sentences imposed on people for criticizing the security forces, president, or other leaders and exposing poor governance and corruption. The lack of an independent judiciary leaves users facing prosecution for online speech with few realistic avenues of recourse.
- 1The Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, accessed April 2022, https://static2.president.az/media/W1siZiIsIjIwMTgvMDMvMDkvNHQzMWNrcGpp….
- 2Arzu Geybullayeva, “Will we ever see the End of Information Control in Azerbaijan?” Global Voices, January 3, 2018, https://advox.globalvoices.org/2018/01/03/will-we-ever-see-the-end-of-i….
- 3Zaur Shiriyev, “Azerbaijan’s New Law on Status of Armed Forces: Changes and Implications,” Eurasia Democratic Security Network, January 23, 2018, http://edsn.css.ge/?p=276#more-276.
|Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards?||2.002 4.004|
A host of problematic laws allow users to be punished for speech and other online activities that are protected under international human rights standards. These laws are often used.
Libel charges are commonly 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 Articles 147.1 and 148 of the criminal code criminalize the deliberate dissemination of false online content that harms someone’s honor or reputation3 and “obscene”4 expressions of content humiliating to one’s dignity, respectively. Respective fines for such transgressions range from 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880) and 300 to 1,000 manat ($180 to $590), while potential punishments under both articles include 240 to 480 hours of community service, up to one year of corrective labor, or up to six months in jail. 5 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.6
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.7 Falsely accusing the president of “having committed a serious or especially serious crime” online may result in a five-year prison sentence.8 In 2017, the fines associated with these offenses were increased.9
The Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information was adopted in 1998, amended in 2017, and again in 2020. It grants broad powers to the state authorities for deciding what constitutes prohibited material. There is no unified list of what the state defines as prohibited information, though the definition was amended to include “false information” in 2020. The law forbids users from sharing such “prohibited information” on information telecommunication networks.10
Under the code of administrative offenses, individuals, officials, and legal entities can be fined for publishing “prohibited information.”11 In March 2020, the code of administrative offenses was amended such that individuals and officials can face up to one month of administrative detention for publishing “prohibited information.”12 Article 388.1 includes steep fines and up to one month of administrative detention for users and owners of websites “or information resources” who post “prohibited” information on telecommunication networks.13
Since 2013, the code of administrative offenses has allowed courts to hold individuals in administrative detention for up to 90 days.14 Administrative detention, which can be imposed for offenses such as disorderly conduct, has been used to punish activists and journalists.
- 1Kenan Aliyev, “In Azerbaijan, bank tied to EBRD breaks seal on controversial libel law,” RFE/RL, August 21, 2013, https://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-ebrd-libel-law/25082305.html.
- 2Scott Griffen, “Defamation and Insult Laws in the OSCE Region: A Comparative Study,” OSCE, March 2017, https://www.osce.org/fom/303181?download=true.
- 3“Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Azerbaijan, accessed April 2022, https://web.archive.org/web/20200525125336/http://www.e-qanun.az/code/11; Griffen, “Defamation and Insult Laws,” https://www.osce.org/fom/303181?download=true.
- 4“Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Azerbaijan, accessed April 2022, https://web.archive.org/web/20200525125336/http://www.e-qanun.az/code/11; Griffen, “Defamation and Insult Laws,” accessed April 2022, https://www.osce.org/fom/303181?download=true.
- 5“Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Azerbaijan, accessed April 2022, https://web.archive.org/web/20200525125336/http://www.e-qanun.az/code/11; Griffen, “Defamation and Insult Laws,” accessed April 2022, https://www.osce.org/fom/303181?download=true.
- 6U.S Department of State, “Azerbaijan 2016, Human Rights Report,” March 3, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170705054328/https://www.state.gov/j/drl/….
- 7“Parliament adopted introduction of criminal liability for insulting the president online” [in Azerbaijani], Minval.az, November 29, 2016, https://minval.az/news/123643192.
- 8Scott Griffen, “Defamation and Insult Laws in the OSCE Region: A Comparative Study,” OSCE, March 2017, https://www.osce.org/fom/303181?download=true.
- 9“The punishment for ‘damaging’ the President increased [in Azerbaijani],” Azadliq Radio, May 31, 2017, https://www.azadliq.org/a/28520698.html.
- 10“Journalist fined in a midnight trial,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, December 22, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/journalist-fined-in-a-midnight-trial/; “Social media users questioned over coronavirus posts,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, June 26, 2020, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/social-media-users-questioned-over-cor….
- 11“Azerbaijan: Parliament approves fines against online distribution of prohibited information,” Mapping Media Freedom, December 1, 2017, https://mappingmediafreedom.ushahidi.io/posts/21726.
- 12“Administrative or criminal liability will be imposed for violation of anti-epidemic, sanitary-hygienic and quarantine regimes,” Deloitte, March 24, 2020, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/az/Documents/legal/24%20….
- 13“Administrative or criminal liability will be imposed for violation of anti-epidemic, sanitary-hygienic and quarantine regimes,” Deloitte, March 24, 2020, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/az/Documents/legal/24%20….
- 14“Politically Motivated Administrative Detentions in Azerbaijan,” EMDS, 2019, https://humanrightshouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/EMDS-report_Pol….
|Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards?||1.001 6.006|
Users, especially activists, bloggers, journalists, and members of the political opposition, are often prosecuted on trumped-up charges for their online activities. During the coverage period, the government detained and sentenced journalists and bloggers for criticizing officials. In some cases, those who criticized officials were falsely accused of using drugs or “hooliganism” as a pretext for their arrest.
A number of reporters, bloggers, and activists remain in prison, bound by suspended sentences or subject to other legal restrictions. These include the following individuals:
In May 2022, Razi Humbatov, a member of the religious movement “Muslim Unity,” was sentenced to six years in prison.1 In July 2021, police kidnapped Humbatov and later charged him with drug possession. A Facebook post shared by the movement, “Muslim Unity” said that Humbatov was arrested because of his social media posts, in which he often criticized the authorities. Shortly before his arrest, Humbatov wrote, “Ilham Aliyev these people don’t love you.” Humbatov claimed that he was tortured during his detention (see C7).2
In May 2022, Razi Alishov, a political activist and member of the opposition APFP, was sentenced to two months in pretrial detention on drug possession charges under Article 234.2 of the Criminal Code. The APFP said Alishov’s arrest and detention were political. According to the party, Alishov often exposed fake social media accounts deployed by the state against the APFP. He faces up to 12 years in prison.3 The same month, former political prisoner and blogger Rashad Ramazanov was arrested and sentenced to four months in pretrial detention on drug charges. In 2013, he was sentenced to nine years in prison and was pardoned by President Aliyev in 2019.4
Eyvaz Yakhyaoglu, a blogger who regularly wrote about human rights violations in Shirvan, was accused of disobeying the police and sentenced to 28 days in administrative detention in May 2022.5
In March 2022, Shahin Hajiyev, a Ganja resident and chess teacher, was arrested by the police on charges of drug possession. If found guilty, he faces between 5 and 12 years of jail time.6 Hajiyev has been reprimanded for his criticism of the government over social media twice before, receiving 25 days in administrative detention in January 2021 and 30 days in March 2021. Both times, Hajiyev was sentenced on the grounds of disobeying police.7
In January 2022, blogger Jalil Zabitov, a member of the Democracy 1918 movement, was sentenced to 25 days in administrative detention on charges of disobeying police. Zabitov took to Facebook, where he often shares his opinion on issues in the Yardimli administrative district, to discuss recent protests. In July 2021, Zabitov was detained by the police over his social media posts criticizing the government. The police warned him to stop criticizing the government online.8 Zabitov was also sentenced to five months in prison in May 2020 on similar grounds, although he was officially charged with hooliganism.9
In January 2022, Namig Aliyev was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention for making a post about an article, published by news website Yeniavaz.com (see B2), that exposed the Prosecutor’s Office for failing to investigate an attack against a veteran political activist in which Prosecutor’s Office employees were implicated.10
In December 2021, four citizens were questioned by the Prosecutor’s Office for allegedly disseminating biased information on social networks. All four were released with a warning that, if these posts continued, they would face more stringent measures.11
Police kidnapped and later arrested regional blogger Sameddin Mammadov in November 2021. Mammadov was accused of “hooliganism” and inflicting intentional bodily harm on a man who alleged that Mammadov, Mammadov’s son, and his nephew had beaten him. Mammadov is known for exposing local problems on Facebook. Later that month, the regional court sentenced Mammadov to two years and eight months in prison. His son, Nahid Mammadov, and his nephew, Elsever Mammadov, were also charged, and given suspended sentences of two years in prison and one year and six months in prison, respectively.12
Also in November, a court in Baku sentenced political activist Agil Humbatov, who was accused of stabbing his neighbor, to ten years in prison on the grounds of Article 126.2.4 of the criminal code—intentionally causing harm with an intent to commit hooliganism. Humbatov, a member of opposition APFP, said the accusation was false and claimed that he was jailed for criticizing the government on Facebook. In a video posted prior to his arrest, the activist took to Facebook to share complaints about the lack of employment opportunities. Humbatov claimed that he was tortured during his detention (see C7). Humbatov was previously detained in 2019, and in 2020, when he confined to psychiatric care after criticizing the government online.13
In October 2021, journalist Anar Abdulla, was handed a 15-day administrative detention after making a Facebook post stating that administrative officials were deceiving President Aliyev and the people were paying the price. Police accused him of hooliganism and disobeying police.14
In July 2021, the police questioned Facebook user Rufat Aliyev over a comment about police collecting bribes from wedding organizers. Police demanded that Aliyev remove the post. He refused to remove the post, but was released.15
In April 2021, a resident of Nakchivan was arrested over a series of tweets posted in 2020. The tweets explicitly targeted the head of the Supreme Assembly of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, Vasif Talibov. The resident, who was only identified by his initials, K.M., was charged under Article 148 of the criminal code—slander or insult using fake accounts on internet information services. He was sentenced to ten months’ imprisonment in June 2021. In October, the local city court reviewed the charges and amended K.M.’s sentence to a fine, which was waived due to the time K.M. had spent in custody.
In April 2021, blogger Aslan Gurbanov, who regularly wrote about the ethnic minority Talysh people, was sentenced to seven years in prison16 on charges of overthrowing the government and inciting national, religious, and social hatred.17 Gurbanov was initially arrested in July 2020 and held in pretrial detention for four months.
In November 2020, Polad Aslanov, editor of the online news websites Press.az and Xeberman, was sentenced to 16 years in jail for “high treason” under article 274 of the criminal code for purportedly selling state secrets to Iran.18 Initially arrested in June 2019, he denied the treason charges, insisting that he was being persecuted for his online criticism of the government. In December 2019, the authorities filed additional charges against him, accusing him of threatening to kill one of his employees.19
- 1“Detained Azerbaijani Muslim Union Movement’s members allege torture; Interior Ministry denies,” Meydan TV, May 24, 2022, https://www.meydan.tv/en/article/detained-azerbaijani-muslim-union-move….
- 2“Religious activist facing drug charges after criticism of the government on facebook,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, July 20, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/religious-activist-facing-drug-charges….
- 3“Activist exposing fake accounts on social media arrested, facing up to 12 years behind bars,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, May 28, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/activist-exposing-fake-accounts-on-soc….
- 4“Blogger charged with drug possession sentenced to four months,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, May 23, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/blogger-charged-with-drug-possession-s….
- 5“Blogger sentenced to 28 days in administrative detention,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, May 11, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/blogger-sentenced-to-28-days-in-admini….
- 6“Member of Popular Front arrested in Ganja says the charges are bogus and that he was subject to torture during detention,” Meydan.tv, March 15, 2022, https://www.meydan.tv/az/article/gencede-hebs-olunan-axcp-uzvu-serlendi….
- 7“Member of opposition party sentenced to 30 days,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, March 21, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/member-of-opposition-party-sentenced-t….
- 8“They are saying they were called by the police over their Facebook posts,” Azadliq Radio, July 9, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/facebook-da-yazilanlara-gore-polise/31350675….
- 9“Bloggers leaves prison half way through his sentence, but must return,” Azadliq Radio, February 9, 2022, https://www.azadliq.org/a/celil-zabitov/31694624.html.
- 10“Website fined for not removing comments on social media page,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, February 4, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/website-fined-for-not-removing-comment…; “Several social media users warned, one sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, January 26, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/several-social-media-users-warned-one-….
- 11“Journalist fined over published article,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, January 17, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/journalist-fined-over-published-articl….
- 12“Blogger and his relatives get suspended sentence,” Azadliq Radio, February 11, 2022, https://www.azadliq.org/a/sameddin-memmedov/31698689.html.
- 13“Political activist sentenced to ten years in jail,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, November 21, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/political-activist-sentenced-to-ten-ye….
- 14“In Azerbaijan journalist gets 15 days in prison over a Facebook post,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, October 15, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/in-azerbaijan-journalist-gets-15-days-….
- 15“They are saying they were called by the police over their Facebook posts,” Azadliq Radio, July 9, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/facebook-da-yazilanlara-gore-polise/31350675….
- 16“Blogger handed seven year jail sentence,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, April 16, 2021. https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/blogger-handed-seven-year-jail-sentenc….
- 17“Arrested blogger transferred to a hospital,” Azadliq Radio, September 30, 2020, https://www.azadliq.org/a/30866316.html; “Does Azerbaijan have fair trial?” Tolish Media, February 23, 2021, https://tolishmedia.com/az/2021/02/26012.
- 18“Azerbaijani journalist Polad Aslanov sentenced to 16 years on treason charges”, Committee to Protect Journalists, November 16, 2020. https://cpj.org/2020/11/azerbaijani-journalist-polad-aslanov-sentenced-….
- 19“Həbsdəki jurnalistin xanımı haqqında ayrıca araşdırma gedir” [in Azerbaijani], Azadliq Radio, March 3, 2020, https://www.azadliq.org/a/h%C9%99bsd%C9%99ki-jurnalistin-xan%C4%B1m%C4%….
|Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption?||3.003 4.004|
The SIM cards, serial numbers, and phone numbers of all mobile phones in Azerbaijan must be registered. This requirement was introduced by the Cabinet of Ministers in 2011 without parliamentary approval.1 Mobile operators are required to limit service to any unregistered devices. Mobile operators have also started linking SIM cards to Asan Imza, a government-launched mobile ID service, though it is not required.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 state-sponsored hacking (see C8). While no law specifically requires users to turn over decryption keys when they are arrested or detained, in practice, authorities gain access to encrypted accounts and devices through intimidation or torture.
The new media law establishes a unified media registry system, which is managed by the Media Development Agency for online media outlets, journalists, and freelancers (see B3 and B6). Online platforms must register within six months of beginning work. The measure applies to media platforms that post a minimum of 20 articles per day.3
For several years, members of parliament have proposed introducing the compulsory use of national IDs when registering with social media platforms and posting comments, but this has yet to be approved.
- 1“Mobile Devices Registration System,” Ministry of Transport, Communication, and High Technologies, https://mincom.gov.az/en/.
- 2GSMA, “The Mobile Economy, Russia and CIS 2021”, 2021, https://www.gsma.com/mobileeconomy/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/GSMA_ME_R….
- 3“New Media Law: implications for online media/journalistm in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, March 24, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/new-media-law-implications-for-online-….
|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 Azerbaijani authorities.1
In July 2021, a sprawling investigative initiative led by Forbidden Stories, a nonprofit that aims to publish the work of journalists facing threats, concluded that the Pegasus spyware produced by the NSO Group, an Israeli cybersurveillance company, had been used against journalists and activists in countries around the world, including Azerbaijan.2 Reporters with the OCCRP, which was among the groups working on the project, found some 250 potential targets in Azerbaijan, the majority of which were “dissidents, activists, journalists, and opposition politicians.” It added that “journalists came under particular pressure, with dozens of prominent names, including the OCCRP's Khadija Ismayilova, appearing on the list.”3
In January 2021, the government lifted the system for enforcing quarantine measures that required residents to receive permission from the police via short-message service (SMS) to leave their homes, 4 which was originally introduced in April 2020. Failing to produce permission when asked by a police officer would result in a fine of 100 to 200 manat ($58 to $117) and up to one month of administrative detention.
In October 2018, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s Verint Systems had sold surveillance equipment and software to the Azerbaijani government, and local police later used it to identify the sexual orientation of Facebook users.5 The timing of the transaction overlapped with an unprecedented crackdown on LGBT+ people in Azerbaijan in September 2017 and a number of seemingly random detentions and arrests.6
An April 2018 report by Qurium revealed that the Azerbaijani government had purchased specialized security equipment from the Israeli company Allot Communications in 2015 for around $3 million.7 The government has begun using the equipment’s DPI capabilities to facilitate website blocking (see B1).
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 individuals or especially dangerous crimes against the state.8 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 communications of certain individuals, especially foreigners, prominent political activists, and business figures. During the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, the State Security Service closely monitored online discussions and called into questioning those who were critical of the war. At least five activists were questioned over antiwar statements posted online (see C3).9
- 1Valentin Weber, “The Worldwide Web of Chinese and Russian Information Controls,” University of Oxford Centre for Technology and Global Affairs, undated, September 17, 2019, https://www.opentech.fund/documents/12/English_Weber_WWW_of_Information….
- 2Dana Priest, Craig Timberg, and Souad Mekhennet, ”Private Israeli spyware used to hack cellphones of journalists, activists worldwide,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/interactive/2021/nso-spyw….
- 3“A World of Surveillance,” Azerbaijan, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, accessed July 21, 2021, https://cdn.occrp.org/projects/project-p/#/countries/AZ.
- 4“Quarantine extended until April 1,” Azadliq Radio, January 16, 2021, https://www.azadliq.org/a/31048616.html.
- 5Hagar Shezaf and Jonathan Jacobson, “Revealed: Israel's Cyber-spy Industry Helps World Dictators Hunt Dissidents and Gays,” Haaretz, October 20, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-israel-s-cyber-sp….
- 6Shaun Walker, “Outcry as Azerbaijan police launch crackdown on LGBT community,” The Guardian, September 28, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/28/azerbaijan-police-crackdo….
- 7“Corruption, Censorship And A Deep Packet Inspection Vendor,” Qurium, undated, https://www.qurium.org/alerts/azerbaijan/corruption_censorship_and_a_dp….
- 8“Prosecutor General's Office of Azerbaijan left Yunis Safarov without a lawyer,” Institute for Peace and Democracy, September 2018, http://ipdthinktank.org/Yunis_Seferov_Savci_eng.html.
- 9“Azerbaijani Security Services ‘threatened to kill’ activist and family,” OC Media, November 16, 2020, https://oc-media.org/azerbaijani-security-services-threatened-to-kill-a….
|Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy?||1.001 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’ conversations without a court order.
In April 2020, Ali Karimli, leader of the opposition APFP, began to experience a prolonged fixed and mobile internet outage, which also affected his family (see A3).2 The outage appeared to be a targeted, individualized disruption. Amid the outage, Karimli, his supporters, and journalists had difficulty getting in contact with his ISP and his mobile operator, Azercell. Karimli later sued these companies, along with several government institutions, but a court dismissed the suit. He also sent his router to be inspected by a repair service, only to never hear from the company. Meanwhile, member of parliament Zahid Oruc suggested in an interview that Karimli simply get a new SIM card.3
During this time, Karimli’s WhatsApp and Telegram accounts were also reportedly hijacked; APFP member Fuad Gahramanli accused Azercell of diverting Karimli’s two-factor authentication codes to progovernment hackers.4 Azercell denied the charge.5
In January 2019, the government shut down mobile internet and phone service during a political rally; later, 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. Under Article 39 of the Law on Communication, the service providers are obliged to provide government institutions with any requested subscriber data.6
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.7 It is not clear whether the law is enforced or respected in practice.
- 1Khadija Ismayilova, “TeliaSonera’s Behind-The-Scenes Connection to Azerbaijani President’s Daughters,” RFE/RL, July 15, 2014, https://www.rferl.org/a/teliasonera-azerbaijan-aliyev-corruption-invest….
- 2“Opposition leader’s mobile and internet cut off ahead of live interview,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, May 13, 2020, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/internet-is-reportedly-down-across-aze….
- 3“Member of the parliament: ‘Ali Karimli should buy himself a new sim card’” [in Azerbaijani], Azadliq Radio, May 15, 2020, https://www.azadliq.org/a/ali-karimli-telefonlar/30614357.html.
- 4“There is news from Ali Karimli – his accounts have been hacked [in Azerbaijani],” Osmangizi TV, April 20, 2020, https://bit.ly/2zdYWEx.
- 5“Ali Karimli: ‘The country’s leader declared us enemies’” [in Azerbaijani],” Meydan TV, April 17, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1u3VDJWuyMs.
- 6“Mobile operators responded to the allegations of the opposition [in Azerbaijani],” RFE/RL, January 30, 2019, https://www.azadliq.org/a/mitinq-bakcell-azercell-azerfon/29741836.html.
- 7“Information Technologies,” The Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies of the Republic of Azerbaijan, undated, http://www.mincom.gov.az/en/view/pages/10/.
|Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities?||2.002 5.005|
Campaigns of extralegal intimidation by authorities against perceived political opponents are common, and there are credible reports of such figures having been tortured while in state custody.
In March 2022, political activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev was physically attacked by the police, who broke his car windows and beat him while he was detained. In September 2021, Hajiyev said he was threatened by Baku Police Chief Alekper Ismayilov over a Facebook post in which Hajiyev criticized several government institutions and officials, including Interior Minister Vilayat Eyvazov, for failing to respond to his submitted complaints.1
In December 2021, police attacked Nargiz Absamalova, a journalist for Abzas.net, as they attempted to expel journalists from a protest over the new media law (see B3, B6, B8, and C4). Absamalova reported that one of her bones was broken by the attack.2 In August 2021, Absamalova and Ulviyaa Ali, an independent journalist who frequently writes for online publications, were attacked and harassed by police at a protest demanding the police be held accountable for urging femicide victim Sevinj Maharramova to return to her abusive husband, who murdered her upon her return.3
Agil Humbatov, who was sentenced to ten years in prison in November 2021 (see C3), alleged that he was beaten by police, including while he was in detention, and threatened with rape during his August 2021 arrest. Humbatov regularly criticized the government online.4
In September 2021, freelance journalist and LGBT+ activist Avaz Hafizli was beaten by local security guards while covering a story about a newly opened restaurant. Hafizli was also targeted the same month in a video by blogger Sevinj Huseynova who openly called for violence against him as well as other members of Azerbaijan’s transgender community. Hafizli was killed by his cousin in February 2022 due to his sexual orientation.5
Harassment is also prevalent in Azerbaijan’s online environment. In March 2022, two groups—one on Instagram, the other on Telegram—were reported to the respective platforms for targeting members of the LGBT+ community and spreading hate and violence.
In the past, several women activists and journalists experienced harassment or had personal photos of them leaked on the internet, including a spate of attacks around International Women’s Day.6
The government also uses travel bans to stymie prominent critics, and authorities pressure lawyers who represent defendants in freedom-of-expression cases.7
In order to suppress dissidents in exile, the government regularly intimidates dissidents’ relatives who remain in Azerbaijan. In May 2022, Tural Sadigli, an exiled blogger and the founder of online news channel Azad Soz, accused the Azerbaijani government of sending four men to kill him at his home in Germany for his work exposing corruption in President Ilham Aliyev’s administration. Previously, Sadigli had also reported that Azad Soz’s YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok accounts were subjected to targeted content removal requests.8
- 1“Bakhtiyar Hajiyev: ‘they made me kneel for hours, while humiliating me at the same’,” Meydan TV, March 9, 2022, https://www.meydan.tv/az/article/bextiyar-haciyev-polis-idaresinde-meni…; “Hacks and compromised accounts continue to target journalists and activists in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 10, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/hacks-and-compromised-accounts-continu….
- 2“The journalist beaten by the police during a protest action got a bone broken,” Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, December 28, 2021, https://www.irfs.org/news-feed/the-journalist-beaten-by-the-police-duri….
- 3“Azerbaijani women's rights activists detained, beaten up in police department,” JAMNews, August 5, 2021, https://jam-news.net/azerbaijani-womens-rights-activists-detained-beate…
- 4“FAILED TO KEEP IN A MENTAL ASYLUM, DECIDED TO PUT IN PRISON,” Institute for Peace and Democracy, April 10, 2022, https://www.ipd-az.org/not-successful-to-keep-in-a-psychic-hospital-dec…
- 5“Journalist form an online tv channel beaten,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 30, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/journalist-from-an-online-tv-channel-b….
- 6Hamida Giyasbali, “Hackers target prominent Azerbaijani feminist with pornography,” OC Media, March 11, 2021, https://oc-media.org/hackers-target-prominent-azerbaijani-feminist-with…; Ulkar Natiqqizi, “Women activists face rash of harassment in Azerbaijan,” Eurasianet, March 31, 2021, https://eurasianet.org/women-activists-face-rash-of-harassment-in-azerb…; Political activist’s partner harassed online,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, June 17, 2020, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/political-activists-partner-harassed-o….
- 7E.g. human rights lawyer Shahla Humbatova; see “Azerbaijan: 2019 a year of make-up,” Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, January 13, 2020, https://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Areas/Azerbaijan/Azerbaijan-2019-yea….
- 8“Exiled blogger says his life is in danger,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, May 31, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/exiled-blogger-says-his-life-is-in-dan….
|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 distributed denial of services (DDoS) attacks to spear-phishing attempts that are believed to be state-sponsored.
In June 2022, after the coverage period, Ali Karimli, the leader of the APFP (see A3 and C6), said the online YouTube channel where he was invited to speak was subject to cyberattacks. As a result, the channel, Toplum TV, had to stop the live broadcast halfway through.1
In April 2022, Meta reported that a network linked to the Ministry of Internal Affairs had employed compromised websites and malware in an effort to obtain personal information about a range of targets including activists, opposition figures, and journalists. The campaign operated across several platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube (see B5).2
Between February and March 2022, there was an uptick in the number of digital attacks targeting civil society activists. Beginning in February 2022, political activist Abulfaz Gurbanli lost access to his Gmail and Facebook accounts. In addition to denying Gurbanli access to his accounts, the attacker managed to delete all of the content on the multiple Facebook pages run by the activist.
Gurbanli was among scores of civil society activists whose phones were targeted by Pegasus last year. In February, Gurbanli noticed that his mobile device was remotely reset while connected to a charger, causing him to lose access to his accounts, including the Google authenticator app. Gurbanli also was subject to a phishing attack. A forensic investigation carried out by Azerbaijan Internet Watch and Qurium showed that the link in the message sent to Gurbanli via WhatsApp contained a virus—a RAR compressed file in Google Drive that deployed a malware that enabled a backdoor into the user’s device. Gurbanli was targeted shortly after a progovernment media outlet accused him of organizing color revolutions in Azerbaijan.3
Hackers also attempted to compromise the Facebook and Telegram accounts of two lawyers. According to one of the lawyers, his mobile device received numerous calls and text messages from unknown numbers during the month of February. An attempt to hack into the Facebook account of feminist activist Narmin Shahmarzade was also documented.4
In November 2021, independent online television channel Toplum TV had its Facebook page hacked. Hackers deleted video content, page likes, and changed the name of the page. The page was eventually recovered. In September 2021, Toplum TV’s Facebook page lost 16,000 followers. Attempts to get the platform to respond to the incident reportedly went unanswered.5
In September 2021, veteran political activist Tofig Yagublu’s Facebook profile was compromised. However, he quickly regained access to his account. The same month, a Facebook account belonging to Naila Balayeva, the editor of online news site Anews.az, was compromised, and the email address and phone number associated with the account were changed. Though Balayeva later regained access to the accounts, she suspects someone else is using the account in tandem, as some of the content she posts continued to be removed. Balayeva has been targeted previously, including in 2020, when several Facebook pages affiliated with Anews.az were hacked.6
Also in September 2021, Azerbaijani academic and economist Gubad Ibadoglu lost access to his Facebook profile and page simultaneously. While he regained access to both accounts, Ibadoglu received a notification informing him that the password reset for his page and profile were made using his own device, signaling the possibility that Ibadoglu’s computer was compromised.7
In August 2021, another veteran political activist, Isa Gambar, lost access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts, and was unable to regain access for six months.8
Also in August, the website of HamamTimes, an online news platform, was hacked, and all of its content was deleted. The outlet later regained access to the website and restored its content.9
In July 2021, a number of Azerbaijani civil society activists were targeted in a phishing attack via email. The sender, posing as international human rights NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), sent an email with an attachment that said, “Human Rights Invoice Form Document – 2021.docx.” Qurium Media and Azerbaijan Internet Watch investigated the forensics of the attachment, which showed that the email contained a link to malware capable of recording video through the webcam, executing Windows commands on the backend, and extracting and uploading files from the target’s device.10 A similar email purporting to be from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) encouraged civil society members to apply for a Pegasus Grant.11
- 1Ali Karimli’s Facebook post, June 3, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/karimliali/posts/563828171774077
- 2Meta, “Adversarial Threat Report: Q1 2022,” April 2022, https://about.fb.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Meta-Quarterly-Adversar….
- 3“Deliberate targeting in pro government media leads to targeted attacks online – the case of Abulfaz Gurbanli,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, February 17, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/deliberate-targeting-in-pro-government…; “Alert: an uptick in online attacks,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, March 1, 2022, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/alert-an-uptick-in-online-attacks/.
- 4Anonymous interview, 2022.
- 5“Toplum TV Facebook page hacked via sms interception,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, November 3, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/toplum-tv-facebook-page-hacked-via-sms….
- 6“Hacks and compromised accounts continue to target journalists and activists in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 10, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/hacks-and-compromised-accounts-continu….
- 7“Hacks and compromised accounts continue to target journalists and activists in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 10, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/hacks-and-compromised-accounts-continu….
- 8“Hacks and compromised accounts continue to target journalists and activists in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 10, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/hacks-and-compromised-accounts-continu….
- 9“Hacks and compromised accounts continue to target journalists and activists in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 10, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/hacks-and-compromised-accounts-continu….
- 10“Attention: phishing attack detected,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, July 16, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/attention-phishing-attack-detected/.
- 11“Hacks and compromised accounts continue to target journalists and activists in Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, September 10, 2021, https://www.az-netwatch.org/news/hacks-and-compromised-accounts-continu….
See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.See More
Global Freedom Score9 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score37 100 not free
Freedom in the World StatusNot Free