STATEMENT: Internet censorship in Azerbaijan ready to go live

February 27th, 2013

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The Expression Online Coalition (EOC) is seriously concerned over government’s plans to introduce new bill that would grant the government broad new powers to restrict online content, ostensibly to protect children from pornography and other harmful material. 

As such, last week, Chairman of the Parliament’s Social Policy Committee Hadi Rajabli told the press that a draft bill is underway to protect children from viewing harmful material online. Rajabli said that similar restrictions are applied in Russia and some other countries, and it is not prohibition, but introduction of restrictions by age groups.

The Expression Online coalition, comprised of the Azerbaijani freedom of expression NGOs and experts and led by the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), is dismayed that Azerbaijani government has intensified its battle over regulation and censorship of the Internet.

According to IRFS Director Emin Huseynov, in authoritarian regimes introduction of such restrictive laws is followed by technical censorship of the internet. Often government organizations prepare blacklists of prohibited sites; as a result of it citizens’ access to these sites is blocked. For example, Single Register of domain names of Роскомнадзор (Russian Federal Service for Supervision of CommunicationsInformation Technology and Mass Media), which was established last November, deprived Russian internet users of access to YouTube and BlogSpot services of Google for several times, including them in blacklist.  Although, at first, the Russian government explained this blocking by its intention to protect children from harmful contents such as child pornography, narcotics and conspiracy, later it stated that it resulted from technical mistake and restored access to these services. Azerbaijani government apparently wants to follow the example of Russia” said Huseynov.

EOC believes that there already exist a number of legal instruments to prosecute those who disseminate child pornography, and there is no need for adopting new laws to tighten the regulation of the web content. According to Global Network Initiative, in which IRFS is a member, protection of children from exploitation and exposure to inappropriate material online is a legitimate public policy goal, which many countries around the world pursue. This goal can be achieved in ways consistent with international norms protecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. For example, public education regarding the availability of a wide variety of user-controlled filtering tools that allow parents and guardians to manage unwanted content in a way that is most appropriate for children under their care.

EOC considers that the establishment of a Commission on online media under the state-controlled Press Council, suggestions by the committee chairman Elnur Baimov to impose greater responsibility on online media under legislation, and opinions ofNational Television and Radio Council chairman Nushiravan Maharramov on importance of licensing internet televisions suggest that both legal and technical mechanisms of control shall be forthcoming.

With television— and most newspapers and other media outlets — under tight government control, the Internet has emerged as the primary medium for political discourse ahead of October’s presidential elections. Dissemination of videos exposing corruption, abuse of power by state officials and other illegalities on the YouTube provoked mass protests in Baku and regions of Azerbaijan, and made the government worry and think of possible ways to regulate the internet.

EOC regrets that the government began to carry out these regressive plans after the Internet Governance Forum was held in the country. Azerbaijani government, which hosted the IGF to create a positive image of the country as a global partner supporting development of the internet, is now demonstrating unwillingness to keep its promises to uphold internet freedom.

The coalition calls on the government to reinforce country’s international obligations by aligning its Internet policy with the requirements of international law and principles, ensuring that the Internet remains an open and public forum for freedom of expression.

EOI also calls upon the OSCE and Council of Europe to scrutinize the Azerbaijani authorities’ prospects of grabbing control over online expression and to provide recommendations to the authorities for steps needed to improve Internet freedom in Azerbaijan

 Note for editors:

The Expression Online coalition, a consortium of Azerbaijani freedom of expression organizations including the Azerbaijan Human Rights Club, the Azerbaijan Media Center and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS). The Expression Online coalition seeks to develop best practices and promote an informed public dialogue to advance Internet access and freedom in Azerbaijan.

The recent publication of Expression Online is Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan report,  AVAILABLE  HERE