Azerbaijan's government determined to kill Internet freedom

President Aliyev’s signing the draconian amendments to the Criminal Code that make defamation over the Internet a criminal offense represent a major blow to freedom of expression in the already tightly controlled environment.

On Tuesday, President Aliyev signed a bill passed by the parliament that would criminalize defamatory and offensive views expressed on the internet.  Now it is possible to launch a criminal case against online activists posting critical views on the internet referring to the Articles 147 and 148 of the Criminal Code, and jail them for up to three years.

‘These amendments represent serious steps away from international norms. They would criminalize many exercises of freedom of expression online and empower the security services to take action’, comments Emin Huseynov, the CEO and Chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.

IRFS also continues to call for an end to the campaign of harassment against critics of the government. ‘The draconian Internet defamation law, unfortunately, do not represent a step in the right direction', Huseynov noted.

IRFS emphasizes that the approval of these amendments is a disrespect not only to the government’s commitments to uphold the freedom of expression and internet, but also the president’s own order to improve the national legislation (through, inter alia, the ‘National Action Program for increasing the efficiency of the protection of human rights and freedoms in the Republic of Azerbaijan’) to an end to criminal defamation laws which encourage self-censorship thereby restricting freedom of expression.

While hosting the UN Internet Governance Forum in November of 2012, Azerbaijani authorities tried to convince the world community that Azerbaijan is country with a free internet, and the government intends to carry out more important reforms in this field. Last of such persuasions was made by President Ilham Aliyev on May 29 at Azerbaijan-US: Vision for Future Forum, where he tried to convince hundreds of US politicians attending the event that ‘Azerbaijan is an area of fully free media and internet’. However approval of these amendments by the president shows that his pledges regarding human rights and the real actions taken in this area are in contradiction to one-another.

IRFS reminds that following adoption of these amendments by the parliament on May 14, a number of local and international organizations, including OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks, sent an appeal to the president calling on him to refrain from signing the amendments and put a veto on this bill. But despite of all this, the president signed these amendments.

Apart from being in contradiction to both Azerbaijani Constitution and the country’s international obligations, the criminal prosecution of journalists and bloggers for their free opinions exert ‘chilling effect’ on the media.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the independent body of experts that provides the definitive interpretation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has said that ‘defamation laws must be crafted with care to ensure that they… do not serve, in practice, to stifle freedom of expression. … States parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty’.

Despite of being a state party to the ICCPR, Azerbaijan ignores its provisions, which shows that international legal instruments the country has ratified have little importance for her.

IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to live up to the standards and commitments reflected in the European Convention of Human Rights, the Helsinki Accords, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Toward that end, IRFS urges the government of Azerbaijan to repeal the laws that would constrict fundamental freedoms and human rights and fulfil the country’s human rights obligations undertaken before international organizations.

IRFS further calls on the international community, in particular the Council of Europe and the OSCE, to take a stronger stance and exert greater pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to fulfil their international human rights obligations.