While all eyes were on the presidential election in the United States, a major international conference started on Tuesday in Baku, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. The 7th United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) claims to bring “all stakeholders” as equal partners to discuss major issues relating not only to the future of the Internet but also to matters of policing, management, and of course, freedom of expression online.
The choice of Baku to host the event has been controversial all along. Azerbaijan is hardly known for its respect of human rights.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are currently at least eight journalists and three human rights defenders behind bars in Azerbaijan. Authorities have banned all unsanctioned peaceful public assemblies in central Baku or anywhere else in the country.
Emin Milli, a prominent Azerbaijani blogger and youth activist, highlighted the problems facing Internet users and political activists in his country when he published an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev on Tuesday, November 6, challenging the authorities’ claims that the Internet was free. He writes:
As someone who was jailed for using the internet to criticize you and your policies, I have experienced an inconvenient truth – the internet is not free in Azerbaijan and it is definitely not free from fear.
On Tuesday, a consortium of Azerbaijani human rights organizations, the Expression Online Initiative, published an open letter voicing concerns over “violations of UN main principles” that the group says are taking place during the UN-sponsored gathering. The group claims that the IGF Secretariat, a body responsible for organizing the event and accrediting participants, refused its requests to have a booth at the IGF village. According to the letter, the restrictions went even further:
[T]he Secretariat tried to prevent distribution of the Expression Online Initiative’s reports Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan and The Right to Remain Silent: Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan ahead of the 7th Internet Governance Forum. The IGF coordinator told our representatives “You are not allowed to distribute these reports within IGF premises.” Our attempt to distribute these reports, which examine issues in Azerbaijan which are directly relevant to the IGF, were perceived by the Secretariat as an attempt to “attack one of the stakeholder group,” i.e. the Azerbaijani government.
Expression Online Initiative also says that the registration desk repeatedly asked one of their representatives whether he was planning to stage a protest at the event and eventually handed over his ID card to local authorities.
To draw attention to the problems faced by Internet users in Azerbaijan, Amnesty International, is publishing a brief which documents several key cases where people have been persecuted for their online activities. “There is a deep irony to holding an international forum on internet governance in Azerbaijan,” the organisation’s Azerbaijan campaigner is quoted saying. He adds, “This is a country where the government intercepts individuals’ correspondence at a whim, imprisons bloggers, and portrays social-networkers as mentally ill.”
On Tuesday, prior to the official opening of the conference, IGF Watch reported that Indonesian civil society organisation ICT Watch was prevented from distributing postcards that read “Government Censorship: Protecting You From Reality.”
A UN official removed the postcards, according to IGF Watch, on the basis that they might upset certain governments. The website reports that the IGF Secretariat later retracted the statement, claiming that the removal of the postcards were merely due to advertising and accreditation issues.
A number of civil society organisations present in Baku are putting together a statement asking the IGF secretariat for clarifications on the incident, which they describe as “highly objectionable” and “completely unacceptable.”
This is not the first time that the host country of an IGF conference has raised controversy. It was the case when the IGF’s mandate was first established in Ben Ali’s Tunisia in 2005. It was also the case in Mubarak's Egypt in 2006. Both leaders thought they could harness the emancipating power of the Internet while painting an image of openness to the outside world. They both failed. Should President Aliyev be worried? Only time can tell.
When I attended IGF2010 in Vilnius, I’d already felt that undercurrent of frustration among human rights activists over the IGF’s failure to protect online freedom of expression (much less uphold it). Then again, I also felt that the IGF, as a body or a movement, wasn’t really afforded any power at all to do so. And now if these objectionable acts by the IGF’s Secretariat were indeed true, then the Forum is nothing more than an expensive social gathering with no solid purpose except perhaps to whitewash the questionable Internet policies of big business and host governments.