Baku magazine and the tale of two Azerbaijans

Earlier editions of Baku magazine

Earlier editions of Baku magazine

The contrast is stark. On one hand, you’ve got Azadliq — Azerbaijan’s leading independent newspaper — balancing on the brink of bankruptcy. Known for its critical coverage of the country’s repressive regime, led by President Ilham Aliyev (in a role he essentially inherited from his father Heydar), the paper has been under continuous economic attacks by the government. Defamation cases and payments being held back, among others things, have left the paper in serious danger of folding.

On the other hand, there’s Baku — the art and culture magazine with an Azerbaijani twist, brainchild of Aliyev’s daughter Leyla and co-published by Conde Nast —  which recently celebrated its second birthday. A magazine so expensively produced it has its own special font probably doesn’t need to concern itself too much with sales figures and turnover.

The birthday bash was held at “vibrant Baku night spot Pacifico”, where “the champagne flowed and the band played into the night” and guests “toasted the title’s success”. I know this because I recently got my hands on issue 10 of the magazine, which hit the newsstands last week. The party was heavily featured in the society section, which also included appearances by Leyla herself, her sister Arzu and mother and First Lady Mehriban.

Somewhat ironically, I found a stack at an Index event exhibiting the work of Azerbaijani photographers capturing some of the country’s many protests.  They were probably kindly donated by the representatives from the Azerbaijani embassy, who popped along to the event.

At first glance, Baku magazine seems like your typical glossy, upmarket mag, promoting the sort of grossly decadent lifestyle most of us would never come within a gold cobbled country mile of. However, it doesn’t take many page turns to sense that something is a bit off.

One of the first things that hits you is the near-obsession between creating links between Azerbaijan and the most glamorous, posh and high-culture aspects of western countries. “Walking along the Boulevard, the wide, tree-lined esplanade that sweeps the length of Baku’s Caspian seafront, is probably quite similar to walking along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, during the cooler months,” coos Leyla Aliyeva, who also holds the role of Editor-in-Chief, in her Editor’s letter. There is also the feature on the country’s new ski resort, Shahdag. “Sure, it’s not Les Trois Vallees”, the article says. But you can still tuck into Tskian, “the Azerbaijani equivalent of a French alpine tartiflette”. While it is far from the only country to indulge in a bit of self-promotion, the idea of selling Azerbaijan as a modern, glamorous it-spot, seems to permeate the whole publication to a slightly comical extent. But considering they have in the past hired western PR companies to help polish the country’s international image, I guess this is to be expected.

It is further reflected in the editorial staff, filled with Darrens, Marias, Carolines and Simons. For a magazine about Azerbaijan, it doesn’t seem to have many actual Azerbaijanis working for it. Granted, supply might be a bit sparse, as there are a number of journalists among the country’s (at least) 142 political prisoners. Perhaps potential employees are afraid of being blackmailed, like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova? Or brutally attacked, like reporter Idrak Abbasov? Or maybe it’s because most of Azerbaijan’s media is otherwise engaged in state-controlled media?

Anyway, it is not surprising that a magazine called Baku, whose USP is Azerbaijan, focuses on all things, well, Azerbaijan. Some tenuous links are drawn, like the article suggesting that jewellery designer to the stars Loree Rodkin’s new collection will be inspired by Azerbaijan, essentially based on nice things she said at an exhibition in Baku. The interview with musical prodigy Nazrin Rashidova, who was born in the country, is only really jarring if you know that musicians, like Jamal Ali, who have dared criticise President Aliyev have allegedly been tortured by the police.

However, there are sections that seem to leave all pretence at the door, and go full on into that strange subtle-yet-obvious mode of PR-managed propaganda. The eight-page ode to Baku’s controversial beautification and modernisation project, under the guise of an interview with designer behind much of it, is issue 10’s most striking example. In fawning terms, it discusses the type of urban renewal that saw houses demolished and families evicted in the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest, hosted in the capital in 2012. We also get previews of yet-to-be unveiled treats. The Port Baku development, opening this spring, “is set to become the city’s premier luxury address” with “flagship stores from the world’s leading fashion brands” and exclusive apartments with “access to a 3000sq m leisure club and spa”. There are also plans to transform “a former power station complex into three destination restaurants and a nightclub.” And it goes on and on. A separate article announces the opening of the Fairmont hotel in one of the city’s Flame Towers. The 36-floor hotel will boast “Baku’s first French Bistro”.

It’s a dedicated effort to shift international attention away from corruption, poverty and the continuing attacks on human rights. But while this attempt to paint Azerbaijan as a harmonious and modern hot-spot might work for some, juxtaposed against the actual goings-on in the country, Baku magazine also manages to highlight the vast gulf between the life the regime and its elite circles lead, and the struggle of those fighting for democracy. In some ways, it is a very tangible symbol of the two Azerbaijans.

To buy a copy of the autumn issue of Index on Censorship, featuring work by some of Azerbaijan’s most brave photojournalists, click here

This article was published on 20 Dec, 2013 at

Bahrain activists’ trouble with trolls

On 5 May the Bahraini regime arrested prominent human rights activist and 2012 Index award winner Nabeel Rajab for inciting violence on social networking sites. This is the second time Rajab has been arrested for so-called “cyber crimes”, and last year the regime accused him of publishing false information on Twitter.

These attacks on free speech illustrate how authoritarian regimes can use social media as a convenient “evidence-gathering” tool to prosecute those who dare speak out. Indeed, Rajab’s arrest is a warning shot to others: a reminder that engaging in online activism could result in a prison sentence.

While the fear of arrest is an important concern for many activists using social media, there are other factors at work that might deter people from criticising the Bahraini regime. One of these is trolling, an aggressive form of online behaviour directed at other web-users. It usually comes from anonymous accounts, and its severity can range from death threats and threats of rape, to spiteful comments and personal abuse. It is particularly common on Twitter. Here’s a little taster of what I’ve experienced:

@marcowenjones: ‘don’t you worry, we’ll cross paths one day. You’ll see, and I’ll remind of these days while my cock is inside u’ – Anonymous Troll

Human rights activists and journalists often find themselves being targeted by Bahrain’s internet trolls. Al Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom tweeted: “Bahrain has by far the hardest-working Twitter trolls of any country I’ve reported on”. J. David Goodman of the New York Times writes about how internet trolls are attempting to ‘cajole, harass and intimidate commentators and journalists’ who are critical of the Bahrain government. Bahraini journalist Lamees Dhaif says that much of this trolling panders to Gulf Arab audiences, and that women are often accused of being promiscuous while men are accused of homosexuality.

For the thick-skinned, trolling might have no effect, but not everyone can brush it off so easily. Some users I have interviewed in the course of my PhD research have admitted that trolling has stopped them tweeting anything critical of the regime. Others have “protected” their Twitter accounts, which means that what they write can only be read by users approved by the author, thereby limiting their audiences. Trolling can therefore be seen as a type of bullying, one that uses intimidation to force people to engage in self-censorship. It is especially effective in times of political upheaval, when there is the constant threat of arbitrary detention or even torture. As Global Voices‘ MENA editor Amira Al Hussaini once said: “cyberbullying = censorship! Welcome to the new era of freedom in #Bahrain”.

Trolling in Bahrain has became so severe that a report commissioned to investigate human rights abuses in the country last year actually mentioned it. In particular, it focused on the actions of @7areghum, a Twitter account that “openly harassed, threatened and defamed certain individuals, and in some cases placed them in immediate danger”. The legal experts charged with compiling the report concluded that @7areghum broke Bahraini law and international law. Despite this, the Bahrain government do not appear to have asked the US government to subpoena Twitter to release information about the account.

Even harsh new laws designed to punish those guilty of online defamation seem little more than an attempt to intimidate those thinking of engaging in dissent. The insincerity of such laws is highlighted by the fact that the government are paying enormous amounts of money to PR companies to engage in clandestine activities to improve Bahrain’s image. Indeed, it appears that the managing director of one such company, which received 636,000 USD (approximately 385,000 GBP) to do PR work for the Bahraini government, runs a blog which routinely defames activists. The government seems happy to let this slide, further fuelling the belief that some internet trolls work for PR companies paid by the regime to spread propaganda and marginalise dissent.

Although it can be notoriously difficult to track down trolls and cyber-bullies, the government’s unwillingness to condemn the likes of @7areghum suggest tacit support of such methods. The recent announcement that the government would take action against all those who tarnish Bahrain’s image on social media also corroborates the notion that cyber laws only apply to those who oppose the regime. In the meantime, expect trolling to continue, for it is a useful form of devolved social control, one that allows the government to distance itself from accusations of censorship.

Marc Owen Jones is a blogger and PhD candidate at Durham University. He tweets at @marcowenjones

Bahrain’s PR machine threatens free speech

The Bahraini government spends thousands and thousands of dollars on PR companies every month. Their purpose of using such companies is simple: to project a positive image of Bahrain while also tempering any negative press coverage.

One such company is Qorvis, a Washington D.C. Based PR firm that receives a monthly stipend from the Bahraini government of 40,000 USD. They operate by attempting to influence journalists or opinion makers through the strategic placement of favourable reports defending the actions of the Bahrain government. Their methods range from circulating articles on outlets such as PR Newsire, to emailing journalists directly in order to defend the actions of the regime.

Some PR companies are also suspected of engaging in more clandestine activities, such as creating sock puppet accounts on Twitter to spread pro-regime propaganda. The revelation that BGR Gabara, yet another British PR firm reportedly working for Bahrain, planned to organise a Twitter campaign on behalf of Kazakh children exacerbated such concerns. Given that the US government are also involved in such sock puppetry, there is no reason the private sector won’t seek to profit from it.

Another dimension of PR work is minimising negative publicity. For example, the Guardian recently took down an article from its Comment is Free section after a British PR firm representing the Bahrain International Circuit made a complaint. The article, which Dragon Associates argued contained “considerable inaccuracies”, threatened to derail Bahrain’s plans to host the F1 Grand Prix this year. It has yet to be put back up, either in its original or altered form.

Perhaps the most worrying players in the murky world of PR are the likes of Olton, a British intelligence firm who officially have a contract with the Economic Development Board, but who also appear to work for Ministry of the Interior. As well as providing “reputation management”, their software is reported to be able to identify “ringleaders” through using social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Given that dozens of students were dismissed from university based on evidence garnered from their Facebook profiles, many are demanding to know who is doing the watching.

The threat posed by unscrupulous PR companies to freedom of speech should not be underestimated. It is bad enough that they distort the public sphere in exchange for money, yet it is the rise of companies like Olton that is the most alarming, for when does intelligence gathering become ‘evidence’ gathering? Furthermore, when does “reputation management” involve facilitating the silencing of those narratives that oppose the desired rhetoric of the paying client?

Marc Owen Jones is a blogger and PhD candidate at Durham University. He tweets at @marcowenjones