The imprisonment of two online activists shows the battle for democracy is increasingly fought online, says Vugar Gojayev
The imprisonment of two bloggers in Azerbaijan following politically motivated charges and a legal process completely lacking in transparency has again brought international attention to the deteriorating media freedom in this post-Soviet country.
Emin Milli, 30, who ran a video blog known as ANTV, received a two-and-a-half- year jail sentence, while Adnan Hajizada, 26, a video blogger associated with Azerbaijani youth movement Ol!, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on 11 November.
The two prominent youth activists were arrested on 8 July on spurious charges of “hooliganism” and “inflicting minor bodily harm” shortly after a brawl in a restaurant in downtown Baku. Hajizada and Milli were discussing politics in the restaurant when two sportsmen, most certainly government orchestrated provocateurs, attacked them. Police let the assailants go, but arrested Hajizada and Milli in a manner that left little doubt they were being punished for criticising the government.
Both bloggers had been using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blogs to mobilise Azerbaijani youth in their non-violent struggle against the authoritarian regime in an environment where freedom of expression has increasingly come under threat. As active bloggers, both were believed to reach around 10,000 internet users in Azerbaijan, addressing issues such as education, abuse of power, corruption and mismanagement of oil revenues.
Weeks prior to their arrest, the two had posted a video craftily satirising the ruling regime, which had spent a large amount of state money importing two donkeys from Germany. According to many government critics, the video, which was posted online, was a great source of anger for officials and was thought to be the major cause of their incarceration.
Unfair trial and verdict
The international criticism to the arrest has been almost unprecedented. Many western governments and international non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations have severely condemned the case against Milli and Hajizade.
A statement by the US State Department lambasted the prosecution and unfair trial. The statement criticised “the non-transparent investigation, closed court hearings [and] disproportionate legal charges”, and raised concerns about the “independence of the police and the judiciary as well as about restrictions on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan”.
Criticising the corrupt court proceedings, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) said the trial of bloggers has been a “sham from beginning to end”, resulting in an “outrageous and unjust sentence”. It believed the trial was “orchestrated solely to censor and punish two politically committed bloggers who dared to criticise the authorities”.
Defence lawyers for the bloggers are planning to appeal the verdict and also take the case to the European Court in Human Rights in Strasbourg. Lawyer Isakhan Ashurov argued that both of the bloggers were innocent on all charges, but the “country’s justice system is totally corrupted and politicised”. Another lawyer, Elton Guliyev, said there were obvious contradictions in the testimonies given by defendants, witnesses and supposed victims. A witness in the court admitted that he wrote “what the police had instructed him to write” in his criminal complaint.
Both of the bloggers have been kept in custody since their initial detention on 8 July. Their requests for conditional release have been turned down.
The Presidency of the European Union expressed its concern with respect to the verdict, stating that the “trial proceedings did not reflect due process” and the court decision “may further undermine freedom of expression in Azerbaijan”.
According to Giorgi Gogia of Human Rights Watch, the verdict will “send chilling messages to those who are critical of the government”. Local activists are concerned that the imprisonment of bloggers may intimidate other bloggers, leading to self-censorship.
Internet usage has risen considerably in recent years, particularly among young people. Simultaneously, press freedom has deteriorated and opposition voices have been almost totally silenced in the country’s public life. The total state control of broadcast media led many among youth activists to believe that the only channel of appeal open to them is to use social networking techniques. Those tools are emerging as an alternative source of information in Azerbaijan, where youth activists use them extensively to disseminate and discuss politically sensitive issues, which would almost never be covered in local media because of political censorship.
Almost a year ahead of the country’s next parliamentary elections, opposition politicians argue that the ruling regime wants to prevent the internet from becoming an opposition tool. Taliyat Aliyev, senior politician of the opposition Democrat Party notes that the authorities seem very concerned over the growing use of social media. “The government understands the power of the online media and its growing use by critics. So, the incumbent tries to control it by every means before the crucial elections. As it was in the case of Hajizada and Milli, the authorities will continue to employ a wide range of tactics to hamper the mobilisation of outspoken young activists against the repressive political regime,” Aliyev has said.
Ongoing media crackdown
Freedom of expression continues to be the single most pressing concern in Azerbaijan, with ongoing suppression of those who speak out, a sharp rise in violent attacks against journalists, the banning of radio stations and intimidation of the opposition and independent voices — in some cases, such as that of Elmar Huseynov, resulting in death.
In early 2009, authorities banned the Azerbaijani service of Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the BBC’s transmission in local frequencies. Dissenting voices and alternative information were only available in Azerbaijan via those outlets.
The incumbent regime effectively use defamation provisions to obstruct investigative journalism, prevent public debate and stifle open criticism of the government, public officials and other powerful oligarchs. There are currently three journalists in jail under charges relating to their journalistic activity.
In 2009, RSF’s press freedom index ranked Azerbaijan 146th out of 175 countries. International rights groups have repeatedly raised their concerns about the government’s absolute grip on the media and the deteriorating climate of impunity against independent journalists.
Vugar Gojayev is a freelance journalist writing on developments in the South Caucasus.