"Human Rights and the Internet governance have to go hand in hand," was the theme of the IGF pre-event held in Baku on November 5, on the eve of the Global Internet Governance Forum (IGF).
The pre-event was organized by the Expression Online Initiative which is a consortium of local freedom of expression organizations: the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), the Human Rights Club and the Media Center. The pre-event was attended by the representatives of the Azerbaijani government, civil society and media, international organizations and experts.
In her welcome speech to participants IMS program manager Gulnara Akhundova noted that the purpose of the pre-event is to draw the attention of the IGF community to the internet related issues in Azerbaijan. “Internet freedom is rather a global than a local issue” said Akhundova.
"The Internet has become an integral part of our lives," said the OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic. According to her, the July 6 2012 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet is an important step in the international effort to protect the freedom of the Internet.
Mijatovic said that some countries are filtering and blocking contents on the pretext of protecting the public interest, national security, the fight against terrorism, extremism and hate speech. Too often, however, these measures are used to silence critical voices.
Concerning the situation of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, Mijatovic appreciated the government's "open doors" policy. She pointed out that many of those, whose arrest was a concern, have now been released: Eynulla Fatullayev, Emin Milli, Adnan Hajizadeh, Jabbar Savalan, Zaur Gurbanli, and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. However, there still are other journalists and bloggers in custody. Mijatovic strongly believes that persecution and harassment of journalists as well as other kinds of pressure against them is unacceptable.
IRFS Director Emin Huseynov presented two reports that analyze the state of internet freedom and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan in the run-up to IGF 2012. According to Huseynov, the Azerbaijani government states that the internet is completely free, denying existing problems. Civil society activists believe that the Internet in Azerbaijan is partly free and there are cyber-dissidents in the country. Journalists, human rights activists, bloggers have been arrested for their on-line expression.
Another problem is the poor quality of the Internet. Azerbaijan has 3.5 million users, but most of them use outdated dial-up connection and there is a lack of high-speed Internet. The 3G technology and mobile internet service is nominal, since the Internet speed is too low. These problems have not been solved due to the lack of political will by the government, said Huseynov.
Courtney Radsch of Freedom House touched the practice of restricting the Internet in the countries with authoritarian regimes. According to her, the experience of countries in the Middle East and North Africa has shown that filtering does not guarantee the prevention of popular protests, turning to the "Arab spring”. Referring to the situation in Azerbaijan, Radsch drew attention to the poor technical development and low speed of the Internet. Therefore, in the regions of Azerbaijan people cannot watch YouTube videos. She believes that this is done to prevent the spread of alternative information.
International expert John Kampfner said that the Internet is directly related to human freedom. The fight against terrorism, extremism and child pornography should not turn into a human rights violation.
The President of Azerbaijan Internet Forum Osman Gunduz said that over the past 5 years, the Internet in Azerbaijan has undergone serious development. "Internet is open and public. There is no political or ideological censorship," he said.
However Radio Liberty correspondent Khadija Ismayilova disagreed with him. "There is censorship in Azerbaijan. That censorship is fear. People are afraid, as they do not want to be interrogated in the Ministry of National Security," said Ismayilova stating that citizens are persecuted for speaking out on social networks.
The Chairman of the Trade Union of Journalists and a member of the Press Council Mushfig Alasgarli disagreed with the comparison between Azerbaijan and Arab countries. Persistent reminders that Arab Spring may happen in Azerbaijan are wrong, said Alasgarli.