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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is there freedom of the net in Azerbaijan?

Internet cafe in Baku (Photo: i-m-s.dk)
It’s a tricky question. On one hand, I’m free to write and post this piece without circumventing any blocking on blogs or social media. On the other hand, I want to argue that there isn't freedom on the net In Azerbaijan.

However, the question remains vital – it’s the first that members of the world’s Internet crowd or international human rights officials and advocates pose to us – the Internet related people in Baku. And it’s usually after they pose the same question to government people or pro-government folks.

The response that government and its allies give is actually true – that the Internet is free in Azerbaijan, there is no filtering or blocking. But it is true in technical sense of the word. Yes, the Internet is free if you consider that almost no websites are being blocked and you can access even porn sites freely. But it is only one side of the medal, unfortunately.

Because freedom is more a social phenomenon rather than a technical phenomenon, thus the Internet is being technically free doesn't mean that the Internet is totally free in Azerbaijan.

I've devised a formula as an answer to this hard question – Yes, the Internet is technically free, there is no blocking, etc, but in reality there are many political and social obstacles that prevent that freedom from fulfillment. And besides, “the Internet is free” mantra hides more sinister reality – that TVs and print media and after all, political sphere and elections are not free.

One contemporary Azerbaijani philosopher, Niyazi Mehdi once said that the freedom in Azerbaijan was a privilege of the brave. It is also true about the Internet freedom.

What we have in our country is the situation when you exercise your freedom of speech on the net with your own risk. It’s as if you have some invisible terms of service you sign before opening the browser: “what you do in the Internet can land you in jail.” But it is not about disseminating child pornography or inciting racial and ethnic hatred – that can land you in jail in many countries of democratic world. Well, maybe US can protect your hate speech, but that’s a good exception.

What happens in Azerbaijan is that you can land in jail for criticism of the government you post on your Facebook page effectively behind a protective wall. If you are an activist, go and do whatever you want on Facebook. But beware that there might be harsh and inadequate consequences. Thus, you are allowed to exercise your freedom of speech on the net, but then you may be a victim of a selective harsh response from the government trying to control the Internet and cracking down on dissent.

The government has effectively put under strict control all avenues from media to universities. There’s no public space left, except for the Internet. Now, ahead of vital presidential elections this autumn, they try to bring under control the remaining one. But there are only two effective ways of controlling the Internet – either you go North Korea and pull off the plug or you should be as big as Iran or China to create your own isolated Internet segment. Azerbaijan is neither big nor wants to be North Korea. And thus, all efforts of the government are doomed to be futile. This is not my prediction; this is what the logic of modern communications says.

However, crackdown on dissent online still continues in full swing – there are still people in jail for their online activism. There are new amendments to criminal code that makes defamation online a criminal offence punishable with up to a three-year prison sentence. There was a critical blogger who committed suicide after the state, the society, the university and the family united to silence her.

So that innocent question that I posed in the beginning seems to be not so innocent at all. It’s a question that demands both yes and no simultaneously. It’s a complex question that I tried to answer. I hope I could.

For reference, look at this comprehensive report about the Internet in Azerbaijan – from legal aspects to technical issues. I contributed one chapter and a half.

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