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Spotlight Article

BAKU HOSTS INTERNET GOVERNANCE FORUM

Nina Muradova
December 12, 2012

Officials, businesses, human rights activists, bloggers and journalists gathered on November 6-9 to discuss internet freedom at the 7th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Baku. The main purpose of the forum was to bring together various stakeholders to discuss public policy issues related to the Internet. Google Vice President Vert Serf said that Azerbaijan was selected as a host because it pays special attention to the development of information and communications technologies and the internet.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, President Ilham Aliyev said that about 65 percent of the country’s population had internet access, and that the country had already started to use the latest 4G technology. Aliyev stated that there is internet freedom in Azerbaijan: “online radio and online TV, electronic newspapers and magazines, and foreign and domestic social networking websites are widespread in Azerbaijan. Thousands of bloggers act freely on the internet in Azerbaijan.”

However, human rights activists and some international experts throw doubt upon the president’s words. After attending the event, the Executive Director of the think tank Digital Rights Foundation, Nighat Dad, wrote on his blog that “... the most striking feature of this event was the host country’s severe hostility to freedom of expression on the internet. Azerbaijan is a signatory to many international human rights treaties, but instead of respecting and protecting those rights, the government uses the laws to silence and repress dissent.”

Dad is not alone in questioning why this international event was held in a country where, according to the Expression Online Initiative, five persons are imprisoned for exercising their right to free speech online.

According to Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of the NGO Article 19, “Freedom of expression is already violated in Azerbaijan through the repression of traditional independent media. People who are using the internet to express legitimate political views and voice criticism are threatened, harassed and imprisoned by the authorities ... It is vital that the internet is able to provide a space for diverse views which challenge dominant and repressive ideologies.”

According to Amnesty International, the irony in holding the Internet Governance Forum in Azerbaijan becomes clear when considering “the country’s existing and proposed legislation for regulating internet use.” The watchdog NGO expressed concerns in a media briefing that “the authorities are now looking to expand their broadcast licensing powers to require the licensing of audiovisual web content ... Given that the authorities only grant licenses to pro-government or non-critical broadcasters, this would have a chilling effect on any online portals deemed ‘internet TV or radio’. Such outlets would be at risk of sanctions or shut down for operating without a license, or suspension of their license should they criticize the authorities.”

Emin Milli, a prominent Azerbaijani blogger and youth activist, highlighted the problems facing Internet users and political activists in his country in an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev stressing the fact that an Internet access does not mean a freedom for Internet users. “Azerbaijan needs urgent, real and deep reforms. We must transform our society of fear into a society of opportunities. 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. Today, our fear is one of the main sources of your power.”

In an interview to Turan news agency, Katy Pearce, representing the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, drew attention to another issue of Internet freedom, which she thinks is quite common in Azerbaijan: self-censorship. The perception that they are being monitored and risk repercussions induce some Azerbaijanis to be careful about what they say and do online. “The interesting effect of this is that encouraging self-censorship is a more efficient means of reducing freedom of expression. It is more cost-effective than what China does, certainly. And it creates cognitive patterns that are hard for people to break. It becomes second nature for people to self-censor,” Pearce said.

Following to her visit to Baku, the Vice President of the European Commission and the EU’s digital affairs commissioner, Neelie Kroes, wrote in her blog that although “the country has a government with a very troubling attitude to freedom and democracy ... in fact many of the dozens of journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders I met here thought it was helpful.” On the other hand, she was denied access to political prisoners. “Activists were harassed at the Internet conference. My advisers had their computers hacked. So much for openness,” the EU Commissioner stated.

Kroes characterizes the reality in Azerbaijan as “harsh... Here in Azerbaijan the Internet is a double-edged sword. Unlike neighboring Turkey and Iran, everyone in Azerbaijan has access – but on the other hand, they face the consequences if they use the Internet in a way the government doesn’t like.”

Addressing a session on the safety of online media workers, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovi? emphasized the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution on human rights on the Internet as a landmark document which stipulates that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.” 

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