Independent media wage losing battle against censorship in Azerbaijan

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

March 12 marks the World Day Against Cyber Censorship, a day to champion the free and open internet, as designated by Reporters Without Borders in 2008. The day draws attention to the digital repression across the globe, especially in countries where governments silence and censor freedom of expression online.

Often, in such environments, the repression does not just end with online censorship but is combined with offline persecution. Azerbaijan is one of many countries where these measures are prevalent. Since November, the state has targeted several online media platforms, arresting reporters, hacking their social media accounts, removing their online content, and denying the country silences freedom expression, even as the country ranks 151st out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.

How the silencing works

The most recent targeting of an online media outlet took place on March 6. Toplum TV, an online news channel, had its office stormed by the police, staff detained, equipment confiscated, and the building sealed shut. The same day, Toplum TV's YouTube and Instagram accounts were hacked. The perpetrators removed years worth of content. At the time of writing this story, neither their YouTube nor Instagram accounts had been recovered and none of the content was accessible.

In 2021, Toplum TV's Facebook page was hacked via SMS interception. The latter is a common measure often used to target social media accounts of political activists, journalists, rights defenders, and independent media platforms. It also indicates the involvement of mobile operators taking part in state surveillance and censorship. Two months prior to the hacking, in September 2021, Toplum TV reported it lost 16,000 followers on its Facebook page. The platform never accounted for the incident.

Since the raid, one Tolplum TV journalist, Mushvig Jabbarov, has been sentenced to four months in pretrial custody on bogus smuggling charges. The platform's co-founder, media law expert Alasgar Mammadli, has also been sentenced to four months facing the same charges. Two other Toplum TV journalists — Farid Ismayilov and Elmir Abbasov — were arrested and then released under house arrest, facing similar smuggling charges.

The charges leveled against Toplum TV and at least five other political activists arrested since March 6 follow a pattern of media censorship that has picked up in speed since November 2023.

That month Abzas Media, an independent online news platform, had its office searched, and much of the team arrested on the same smuggling charges. At the time of writing this story, six Abzas Media journalists remain in pretrial custody.

Since 2016, Abzas media has been targeted with numerous denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), a cyberattack where a site is blocked for public access. In 2017, the website was blocked domestically, forcing the website managers to switch the website’s extension. In April 2020, the website was hacked and, as a result, lost a month’s worth of published articles, and some of the articles’ headlines were tampered with. The platform was targeted again in February 2021.

In November 2023, the founder and director of the YouTube news channel Kanal13, Aziz Orujov, was sent into pretrial custody. Orujov was first charged with illegal construction, but shortly after his detention, he too was pressed with smuggling charges. At least two other journalists affiliated with Kanal13 faced legal measures: Shamo Eminov, who was sentenced to three months in pretrial custody on smuggling charges, and Rufat Muradli, the channel's host, who received 30 days of administrative detention on hooliganism charges.

The Ministry of the Interior also requested the blocking of Kanal13 from the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport on the grounds the channel violated media law (namely for failing to register with the State Media Registry) as well as the dissemination of discrediting information. The Ministry took the request to court. According to reporting by Meydan TV, “the trial proceeded without the presence or representation of Orujov or any member of the media organization. The court upheld the claim, resulting in the blocking of the outlet.” The website of Kanal13 was blocked in 2017 during a wave of blocking that targeted several independent and opposition media outlets’ websites.

The blocking of online content is not a new measure. Since 2017, independent and opposition online news outlets have faced censorship via blocking on spurious grounds, ranging from publishing or alluding to calls for forcible change of the constitutional order, organization of mass riots, and other illegal activities. No evidence was ever produced to back the claims.

A number of other editors and journalists of online news platforms were detained in December, facing extortion charges and placed in pretrial custody.

In January 2024, similar measures have been taken against bloggers too.

In February, the editor of the online news website Khural, Avaz Zeynalli, was sentenced to nine years on bogus extortion charges. He has been in pretrial custody since September 2022. Together with Zeynalli, another journalist and director of the YouTube channel Seda TV, Elnur Shukurov, was sentenced to four years on the same extortion charges.

A crackdown on civil society

Azerbaijani authorities also often target civic activists for expressing critical views on social media platforms. This has been the case for Afiaddin Mammadov, who has been in pretrial detention since September 2023. In January 2024, Ruslan Vahabov was sentenced to four years on drug possession charges.

Last year, authorities also targeted prominent opposition politicians. In July 2023, Azerbaijan arrested high-profile political economist and civil activist Gubad Ibadoghlu, who remains in pretrial detention, facing spurious charges of acquisition or sale of counterfeit money by an organized group. In December 2023, Tofig Yagublu was sent into pre-trial detention on bogus forgery and fraud charges.

An online and offline witch hunt

Prior to the raid on Toplum TV, the outlet was targeted by a pro-government online news site. The site claimed that Toplum TV, Abzas, and others were financed by Western governments, specifically the United States, to spread an anti-Azerbaijan narrative. The same outlet claimed in a separate story that independent regional news outlets were engaged in spreading “evil” and “slander” against Azerbaijan. Last year, other pro-government media accused the United States of quietly building a network of spies. This year, Azerbaijani authorities claimed they uncovered another foreign spy network in the country, this time operated by the French intelligence agencies. None of these claims have been backed by evidence.

This narrative is also pervasive in statements by members of the parliament. On March 11, 2024, Azar Badamov, member of the parliament said Western foundations “finance press agencies, NGOs and carry out their orders with the funds allocated in secret ways. Those who fail to prevent these dirty plans of the West succeed in organizing colorful revolutions in the countries by raising the people against the state. Then they bring their own people to power and turn the lives of prosperous people into hell.

Another MP, Javid Osmanov, said Toplum TV and AbzasMedia that these and other civic platforms funded through USAID, Open Society Institute (Soros), and other Western stakeholders have no other purpose but to “turn the people against the state.”

Despite these statements and the police investigations, the government has yet to find evidence supporting the alleged crimes. These allegations and anti-Western sentiments are not new. And neither are the government's attempts to silence its critics.

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