Rights groups are asking Azerbaijan to release jailed journalists and activists on the eve of a United Nations summit on internet governance to be held in the country's capital city of Baku.
It's hard to miss the irony of a notedly repressive government with a reputation for cracking down on free press and expression holding this kind of international conference.
The annual Internet Governance Forum, which is sponsored by the UN, will take place over the next three days, with a focus on how development can be spurred by a free internet. Human Rights Watch has asked Azerbaijan to use this opportunity to free any jailed journalists and activists currently held and "end the blanket ban on opposition rallies" in a paper released yesterday.
“The Internet Governance Forum’s theme recognizes the role Internet technologies play in enabling human development,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “However, to fully realize this potential, Azerbaijan should protect its citizens’ ability to express themselves online and off without fear of reprisal.”
The government of Azerbaijan has been increasing internet surveillance, targeting social media users, bloggers, and journalists and passing restrictive laws to punish those who are critical of the government both on and offline.
Protests in Azerbaijan can only take place in predetermined areas on the outskirts of Baku, and rallies must have a permit to be legal. There have been no legal opposition rallies in the city center since 2006.
Journalists and rights defenders remain imprisoned, and many have been blackmailed, beaten or even kidnapped by people suspected by HRW to be associated with the Azerbaijani government.
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Freedom House recently issued its concern regarding Azerbaijan's internet freedom as well, noting in this year's Freedom on the Net report that Azerbaijan was at risk for becoming a fully repressive country.
"Rather than significantly censoring online content, the government has employed tactics such as raiding cybercafes to gather information on user identities, arresting politically active netizens on trumped-up charges, and harassing activists and their family members," said the Freedom House report.
Human Rights Watch profiled some Azerbaijani journalists who had been physically assaulted, imprisoned, threatened, and in one case, killed, and noted that "most of these attacks remain unsolved" despite "a local media monitoring organization reported that more than 50 domestic and foreign journalists were harassed or attacked in 2011."
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Rafik Tagi, a reporter for Senet newspaper was stabbed and killed outside his apartment in 2011 after writing an article that compared Christianity to Islam.
Mehman Huseynov, a photographer and social media activist with the Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety (IRFS), was detained in June after photographing police violence before the Eurovision contest.
Zaur Gurbanly, one of the leaders of the Nida youth movement, was arrested in September by the Interior Ministry’s organized crime department and held for 15 days.
Human rights activist Vidadi Isganderov was sentenced to three years in prison after alleging vote rigging took place in an election for which he was a candidate, despite having video evidence.
Khadija Ismailova, an outspoken journalist and free speech advocate was blackmailed and sexually harassed by pro-government entities after her investigation into President Ilham Aliyev's business dealings. Photos and videos of a personal nature featuring Ismailova with her boyfriend surfaced online after a pro-government newspaper questioned her lifestyle choices. She has, however, not backed down, and continues to publish.
Avaz Zeynalli, the editor of Khural, an independent daily paper, was detained in October 2011 and is currently in pretrial detention on what HRW called "questionable extortion charges apparently brought in retaliation for Khural’s critical reporting."
The Committee to Protect Journalists has also called out the Azerbaijani government and asked them to reign in these repressive tactics against journalists.
"The journalists have been imprisoned on fabricated, politicized charges--ranging from hooliganism and drug possession to incitement to mass disorder--that stemmed from their work," wrote Executive Director Joel Simon. "Two of them have already been convicted and are serving prison terms, while the others are jailed pending a trial, according to CPJ sources."
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As the IGF is the second massive international event taking place in Azerbaijan this year, after Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in May, but as the subject hinges on online media use, HRW says it is imperative that the government act like the leader they claim to be and release dissident writers and activists.
“The cases against Zeynalli and Isganderov send chilling messages to journalists and human rights activists who dare to use media, including social media, to express their concerns about government actions,” said Gogia. “As a sign of commitment to the IGF’s human development focus, the government should release Zeynalli, Isganderov, and others who have been targeted for nothing else but speaking their minds.”
This is part of a series by the RIGHTS blog on press freedom around the world.