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Further expanding scope of provisions on defamation in the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan is a serious setback for press freedom in a country that severely curtails free expression already, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said today. IRFS reminds the Azerbaijani authorities that criminal penalties for defamation are regressive and out of step with international human rights law and calls on Milli Majlis (Azerbaijani Parliament) to reject the amendments submitted by the Prosecutor General to impose hefty fines and prison sentences for anyone convicted of online slander or insults.
Notably, the legislative proposals came shortly after members of Azerbaijani parliament, Milli Meclis, lashed at popular blog Sancaq Production and Meydan TV, for their criticism of the head of state, and called for the closure of those media.
‘While authorities effectively silenced all forms of tradional media, critical voices survived on the internet, the last relatively free space for dissent.’, said IRFS Director Emin Huseynov. “The threat of criminal sanction to restrict freedom of expression online strikes at the very core of Azerbaijan’s vibrant community of bloggers and online activists”, he said.
Prosecutor General of Azerbaijan Zakir Garalov submitted a draft proposal to Milli Majlis on amending Article 323.1 (smearing or humiliating the honour and dignity of the head of the Azerbaijani state – the President of the Azerbaijan Republic – in public statement, publicly shown content or mass media) of the Criminal Code by extending the applicability of the article to online content. IRFS reminds that Article 323.1 itself is incompatible with Azerbaijan’s human rights obligations, especially the need to protect freedom of expression. Under international human rights law, the threshold for criticism of a public official is greater than for a private individual, and this provision restricts legitimate criticism of public officials to an extent not permitted under international standards.
The Prosecutor General has also submitted another proposal to Milli Majlis on criminalisation of libellous and insulting online content posted by using fake user names or accounts by inserting an Article 148-1 to the Criminal Code. According to the proposed legislation, content constituting libel or insult produced from fake profiles or accounts is punishable by a fine of 1000 to 1500 AZN, community service for 360 to 480 hours, corrective labour for up to two years, or imprisonment for up to one year.
“The government of Azerbaijan pledged to decriminalise defamation in National Program for Action to Raise Effectiveness of the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms in the Republic of Azerbaijan adopted in 2012. Notwithstanding, failure to take any steps to introduce new legislation on defamation decidedly points to the fact that the government has no interest to uphold its commitments” noted IRFS Director Emin Huseynov.
IRFS underlines that defamation should only entail civil liability as a mere fact that criminal liability for defamation exist has a detrimental effect on freedom of expression.
Retention of defamation provisions stands in a stark contrast to Azerbaijan’s obligations as a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). International organisations have raised concerns about unsuitability of criminal penalties in defamation cases. The UN Human Rights Committee has declared that imprisonment is not an appropriate punishment for defamation while the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Resolution No. 1577(2007), has called on member states to immediately abolish criminal sanction for defamation.
IRFS urges Milli Majlis to reject the proposed amendments, and calls on the President of Azerbaijan, who according to the country’s Constitution is the guarantor of the rights of the citizens, to protect freedom of expression by expunging provisions on defamation from the Criminal Code.
IRFS also urges the Azerbaijani government to acknowledge that criminal law is an inappropriate and disproportionate response to the problem of reputational harm and commit to the repeal of all criminal defamation provisions in Azerbaijani law.
IRFS further calls on the international organisations, particularly the United Nations, OSCE and the Council of Europe to strongly urge Azerbaijan to decriminalise defamation.