Government Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Indicates Lack of Preconditions for Free and Fair Elections

10 April 2018
The severe restrictions on freedom of expression existing in Azerbaijan do not enable holding a free and fair snap presidential election in Azerbaijan on April 11, 2018, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety said today.
Compared to the presidential elections of 2003, 2008 and 2013, where the situation with freedom of expression similarly fell short of the requirements for holding free and fair elections, the current pre-election situation, which paves the way for Ilham Aliyev for a fourth presidential term, surpasses all three previous presidential races combined in terms of the totality of violations of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association.

The absence of necessary fundamental freedoms and the unexpected and unjustified call of the presidential election six months ahead of its scheduled date forced the opposition to boycott the election in view of the lack of minimum time necessary for preparation. IRFS’ monitoring of state and public television revealed a complete lack of pluralism of opinions, a pattern which was also observed in all nationwide private television and radio broadcasters. The limited free-of- charge televised campaign aired on the public television showed itself to be essentially nothing more than a pathetic imitation of a debate between presidential candidates. As in previous elections, Ilham Aliyev neglected public opinion and considered it unnecessary to take part in the televised pre-election debates even with the opponents under his control whom the ruling regime appointed to the role of “opposition” presidential candidates. The pre-election campaign on TV was marked by heinous attacks on the democratic opposition who decided to boycott the elections, independent online media and popular bloggers living in exile. Almost all nationwide television and radio channels, which still have a serious influence on shaping public opinion, acted as a propaganda mouthpiece for the ruling regime and its candidate Ilham Aliyev.
After no independent or oppositional printed newspaper was left in the country, Internet has been the only relatively free platform for dissent in recent years. However, with an abrupt increase in control over freedom of expression in the online environment over the past twelve months, the once partially-free Azerbaijani Internet has become partially non-free. Today, virtually all popular independent and oppositional online media are being blocked in Azerbaijan, leading online critics are thrown into jail, and the authorities have launched an unprecedented campaign of psychological terror against popular exiled bloggers by arresting and torturing their relatives who live in Azerbaijan, without even refraining from vandalism against the graves of deceased parents of dissidents.

The only relatively free segment of the Azerbaijani Internet is the popular networks such as Youtube, Facebook and Instagram. However, the authorities have seriously strengthened their undercover control even in these networks, too. Throughout almost the entire country, police officers monitor users’ comments on social networks 24/7, often subjecting the authors of the most critical posts or comments to administrative arrests on fabricated charges. Alongside with law enforcement officers, monitoring of online posts and comments is also carried out by a large army of “public volunteers” helping the police, as well as an army of thousands of government trolls who, in addition to misleading and misinforming Internet users, tip off law enforcement agencies about which of the most active users inside the country should be intimidated. Monitoring of the online environment gives reason to believe that the level of hate speech promoted by the authorities against dissidents is at a critical level. Such that, in addition to insulting critics, representatives of the government and pro-government camp call for physical violence against online dissidents in exile or for their arrest and forced transfer to Azerbaijan. “On the eve of the elections, the situation with the safety and freedom of journalists in Azerbaijan remains depressingly bad,” IRFS CEO Emin Huseynov said. “Despite of journalist Aziz Orujov’s release by the Supreme Court last week, it is obvious that the authorities deliberately create a positive smokescreen on the eve of the voting day in the eyes of foreign and European observers, by imitating the existence of an independent judicial system and a political will to ease pressure on journalists. But, it is naive to believe that the Azerbaijani authorities are becoming more tolerant to criticism when there are more than a dozen journalists and bloggers behind bars in the country, some of whom die in torture chambers as was the case with blogger Mehman Galandarov last April, and when the authorities intentionally refuse to effectively investigate the murders of journalists. In general, in terms of non-conformity to the standards of free and fair elections, this election is not only the most shameful one for Azerbaijan but also a disgrace for the entire Council of Europe, whose ideals are so blatantly flouted by the ruling regime for whom the leading values are kleptocracy, corruption and nepotism,” Huseynov concluded.
IRFS regrets that the Azerbaijani civil society, being under severe pressure from the authorities, is unable carry out its mandated functions both because of unfair severe legislative restrictions and due to the lack of proper support from traditional Western donors. In a situation where the civil society is deprived of the chances to observe the elections, a greater duty for impartial observation of the election lies with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, whose preliminary and interim reports failed to reflect the full extent of the dramatic pre-election atmosphere.

IRFS calls on the democratic countries of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the European Union to give the harshest and most adequate assessment of the violation by the Azerbaijani authorities of their international obligations in the field of democracy and human rights and to start applying strict sanctions against representatives of the ruling elite.
Given the notorious experience with bribing foreign observers in previous elections, IRFS calls on international observers to not succumb to corrupt temptations of the Azerbaijani authorities and to not bargain with their conscience.
IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release journalists Afgan Mukhtarli, Mehman Huseynov, Seymur Hazi, Nijat Aliyev, Araz Guliyev, Javid Shiraliyev, Fikrat Ibishbayli, Ziya Asadli and Arshad Ibrahimov, poet Tofig Hasanov, writer Saday Shakarli, bloggers Ilkin Rustemzade and Rashad Ramazanov, and graffiti activists Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov from jail, and stop hypocritically using people’s fate to bargain international legitimacy for themselves against the background of a complete absence of fundamental human rights in the country.

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