Online censorship rounds off Aliyev’s control of Azerbaijani media

Reporters Without Borders condemns the blocking of five leading independent news websites for the past five weeks in Azerbaijan, which the government is now asking a court in the Baku district of Sabail to endorse.

Displaying a nice sense of irony, the authorities have scheduled the next hearing for today, World Press Freedom Day. The five websites – those of the newspaper Azadlig, Meydan TV and Turan TV, the programme Azerbaycan Saati and Radio Azadlig – have been blocked since 27 March.

Recent legislative amendments gave the government the power to block any website “posing a danger to the state or society.” Ordered by the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technology, this “preventive” blocking requires subsequent approval by a court – a formality in a country where the justice system acts as the executive’s armed wing.

The Sabail district court has already held two hearings on this blocking – on 27 April and 1 May. At no point has the ministry said explained how the five websites have broken the law. Pressed by the defence, a ministry official cited several articles without specifying which sections of the articles had been contravened and how.

“By blocking five leading news websites, President Ilham Aliyev’s government is demolishing all the remaining vestiges of media freedom in Azerbaijan,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“The persecution of the government’s critics continues to intensify online, offline and even among exiles. The international community must finally end the government’s impunity and hold it to account for its systematic violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The Internet was the newspaper Azadlig’s sole remaining way of reaching its readers since it was forced to stop producing a print edition under pressure from the authorities in September 2016. The newspaper’s financial director, Faiq Amirov, has for the past eight months been in prison, where he is in very poor health.

Several members of Azadlig’s staff, including interim editor Rahim Hajiyev, have been forced to flee the country in recent months to escape a similar fate. Meydan TV chief Emin Milli, who lives in exile in Berlin, reported in February that he had received new death threats. Aziz Orujov, the head of the Kanal 13 Web TV, was given a 30-day jail sentence yesterday for “refusing to comply with police instructions.”

Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index and Aliyev, whose powers were reinforced by a referendum last September, is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators. His wife was appointed first vice-president in February, thereby becoming the country’s second highest official.