While the law provides for freedom of speech and press and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government often did not respect these rights. The government continued to limit freedom of speech and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and were beaten and imprisoned. NGOs considered at least 12 journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees. In a joint press release issued October 8, 22 domestic and international NGOs described the environment for the media and those who expressed political opposition as “increasingly restrictive.”
Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for freedom of speech, but government restrictions of this right increased regarding subjects it considered politically sensitive. Citing in part an increased number of arrests of government critics on what it termed “bogus charges,” HRW reported on September 2 that the government had intensified its efforts to crack down on peaceful dissent since mid-2012. During the year authorities prevented youth and opposition activists from holding peaceful demonstrations in Baku and detained those they suspected of participating in such activities. The incarceration of persons who attempted to exercise freedom of speech raised concerns about authorities’ use of the judicial system to punish dissent. Authorities also attempted to impede discussion in April by closing the facility of the Free Thought University, a nonpartisan forum established by young activists to facilitate the development of analytical skills and independent thinking. Additionally, the government attempted to impede criticism by monitoring political and civil society meetings.
Press Freedoms: A number of opposition and independent print and online media outlets operated during the year, expressing a wide variety of views on government policies. Newspaper circulation rates remained low, not surpassing 5,000 in most cases. Credible reports indicated that opposition newspapers were available outside of Baku only in limited numbers due to the refusal of a number of distributors to carry them. On October 17, the Baku metro banned the sale of three opposition newspapers: Azadlig, Yeni Musavat, and Gundem Kheber. On November 15, authorities amended the order to include sales of all printed materials in metro stations. Azadliq – long under pressure – ceased publication briefly in November but restarted after receiving public financial support. Authorities froze Azadliq’s bank accounts in November due to the newspaper’s failure to pay large defamation fines imposed by courts in response to lawsuits filed by government allies. In late December the newspaper reported it could again access its accounts.
The broadcast media adhered to a progovernment line in their news coverage prior to the October 9 presidential election. According to the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), President Aliyev, the incumbent, received 92 percent of presidential candidate coverage on six television stations that its experts monitored in the pre-election period.
Foreign broadcasters, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies.
A local NGO monitoring media freedom stated that 12 journalists and bloggers were in prison or facing criminal charges at year’s end. For example, on September 17, authorities detained journalist and activist Parviz Hashimli and subsequently sentenced him to two months’ pretrial detention on charges of smuggling large arms and ammunition from Iran to Azerbaijan. Authorities reportedly denied him access to a lawyer for several days. Human rights and media freedom NGOs considered him a political detainee. On November 25, Hashimli initiated a hunger strike to protest substandard detention conditions and authorities’ refusal to let him see his family. In mid-December Hashimli stated that authorities had tortured him, and his attorney and family stated that authorities frequently subjected him to psychological pressure and physical mistreatment. The court dismissed Hashimli’s claims of torture, calling them “unsubstantiated.”
On March 12, the Court of Grave Crimes sentenced Khural editor Avaz Zeynalli, whose reporting exposed corruption within the government, to nine years’ imprisonment on bribery-related charges. Human rights and media freedom NGOs considered him a political prisoner.
On November 13, a district court sentenced Nota Bene editor Sardar Alibeyli to four years in prison for hooliganism. Civil society activists believed police arrested Alibeyli for his criticism of the government. AI considered Aliybeyli a prisoner of conscience.
Violence and Harassment: A media-monitoring NGO reported 61 incidents involving verbal or physical assaults on journalists during the year, compared with 71 such incidents in 2012. On February 15, for example, the editor in chief of Unikal newspaper, Asef Rzayev, reported intimidation from a hotel owner after the newspaper published articles critical of his establishment in Absheron District. Some journalists also reported receiving death threats. For example, Radio Liberty journalist Yafez Hasanov reported receiving death threats throughout the year. Despite his complaints authorities took no practical steps to stop the perpetrators.
The government used the media to harass and discredit those with dissenting views. In one prominent example, a progovernment website in April posted a sexually explicit video of a woman it claimed was investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova. Ismailova asserted that the video was fabricated and part of a smear campaign begun against her by state-controlled or progovernment press outlets in 2012. On July 26, a second website posted intimate videos of Ismailova, apparently covertly filmed in her apartment. Throughout the year newspapers officially affiliated with the ruling party appeared to conduct an orchestrated smear campaign against her, publishing links to websites posting the videos and articles attacking her and her family. Ismailova’s work linked the president’s family to corruption. The case provoked strong international and local condemnation, with many observers citing it as a continuing attempt to intimidate a journalist.
There were reports that police harassed, and in some cases physically harmed, journalists trying to cover numerous protests during the year. There were no indications that authorities held any police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists in recent years.
Journalists and media rights leaders continued to call for an investigation into the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom an Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, had issued a fatwa, and the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.
Lawsuits suspected of being politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. The majority of independent and opposition newspapers remained in a precarious financial situation and continued to have problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines. Most relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing.
The government prohibited some state libraries from subscribing to opposition newspapers, prohibited state businesses from buying advertising in opposition newspapers, and pressured private businesses not to advertise in them. As a result paid advertising was largely absent in opposition media. Political commentators noted that these practices reduced the wages that opposition and independent outlets could pay to their journalists, allowing progovernment outlets to hire away quality staff. Additionally, international media monitoring reports indicated intimidation by officials of the Ministry of Taxes that further limited the independence of the media.
Local observers reported the demolition of newspaper kiosks by local authorities resulted in a large decrease in the distribution of opposition newspapers. Observers reported that the kiosks built to replace them distributed a small number of progovernment newspapers and served more as convenience stores than newsstands.
Censorship or Content Restriction: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive.
Beginning in April RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani-language satellite programming was subjected to targeted signal interference, which it concluded was deliberate. Two opposition-oriented satellite broadcasts from other providers also encountered difficulties transmitting into the country. On July 9, American-British human rights activist Rebecca Vincent reported that all three broadcasters appeared to have been targeted for transmitting alternative news coverage into the country.
The National Television and Radio Council requires that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast entire news programs of foreign origin.
Libel Laws/National Security: Libel remains a criminal offense. The law allows for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel. Defamation is also prohibited and is punishable by fines ranging from 100 to 1,000 manat ($125 to $1,250) and imprisonment for six months to three years. According to a local media rights organization, claims totaling approximately 4.7 million manat ($5.9 million) were brought against newspapers or their owners, with judgments totaling 145,000 manat ($181,000) awarded during the year.
The government generally did not restrict access to the internet, but it required internet service providers to be licensed and have formal agreements with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies. According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 70 percent of the country’s population used the internet during the year.
On June 5, President Aliyev signed into law several amendments to the criminal code extending criminal penalties for libel and insult to the internet. The OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, and the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, had called on the president not to sign these amendments. On July 30, the Astara District Court issued the first verdict implementing the June 5 amendments, sentencing Mikayil Talibov to one year of corrective (public) labor and payment of 20 percent of his income; the court also ordered him to post a Facebook statement recanting his online criticism of Access Bank. On November 25, however, an appeals court overturned Talibov’s conviction and ordered the Astara District Court to reconsider the case.
There were strong indications that the government monitored internet communications of democracy activists. For example, at least 11 youth democracy activists detained or briefly jailed during the year frequently posted criticism of alleged government corruption and human rights abuses online. On November 13, the Court of Grave Crimes sentenced blogger Rashad Ramazanov to nine years in prison for drug possession. Civil society activists believed Ramazanov’s criticism of the president and other authorities on Facebook prompted his arrest. AI considered Ramazanov a prisoner of conscience. In an October 8 joint press release signed by 22 human rights and press freedom NGOs, Maria Dahle of the Human Rights House Foundation stated, “Azerbaijani authorities target and punish individuals for the information they put on social media… and use the courts politically to sentence people to long-term imprisonment.” In its annual report, Freedom on the Net, Freedom House acknowledged the country’s vibrant and rapidly growing online community, while “those who speak out on the internet are more likely to face intimidation, threats, arrests, and fines from the state.”
There were occasional reports of denial of service attacks on opposition and some independent advocacy NGO websites. For example, the websites of the opposition newspaper Azadliq, news portal site Contact.az, and RFE/RL suffered denial of service attacks, as did that of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety. In the exclave of Nakhchivan, website blockages were reportedly more common.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom.
Some domestic observers continued to raise concerns that the government’s selection of participants for state-sponsored study abroad programs was biased and took political affiliation into account. The government denied the allegation and claimed its selection process was transparent.
Baku State University reportedly coerced history professor Altay Goyushov to resign in November due to Facebook posts critical of the government. Nevertheless, Goyushov returned to work after students protested against his resignation. Opposition party members continued to report difficulties in finding jobs teaching at schools and universities. In December Baku State University effectively deprived unified opposition presidential candidate Jamil Hasanli of his teaching position by refusing to assign classes to him. Additionally, Gafgaz University professor and former MP Gultakin Hajibayli reported pressure against her and her family members after she joined the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF). Hajibayli ultimately resigned. Authorities fired most known opposition party members teaching in state educational institutions in previous years.
NGOs reported that local executive authorities occasionally prevented the expression of minority cultures, for example, by prohibiting cultural events.