While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. Human rights defenders considered at least 10 journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. During the year authorities continued to pressure media, journalists in the country and in exile, and their relatives.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. In a September joint report, three NGOs stated, “Azerbaijan continues to use its legal and criminal justice system to keep tight control over public space and silent critical voices.” The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity,” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”
In addition to the case of Mehman Huseynov (see section 1.c.), incarcerations included Afgan Mukhtarli, a freelance journalist and activist living in exile in Georgia, who was reportedly abducted from Georgia May 29, forcibly rendered to Azerbaijan (see section 5), and immediately arrested. Authorities charged Mukhtarli with illegally crossing the border, smuggling, and resistance to law enforcement activities (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).
Immediately following Mukhtarli’s arrest in Azerbaijan, the heads of Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s security services claimed Mukhtarli had voluntarily crossed the border into Azerbaijan. Mukhtarli, his wife, and other Azerbaijani activists and journalists disputed this claim. His lawyers stated he was physically abused while in detention (see section 1.c.).
A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to freedom of expression. For example, on June 16, the court convicted Popular Front Party activist Fuad Ahmadli of allegedly illegally disclosing private client information of a mobile operator. On July 24, Faig Amirli, the financial director of opposition newspaper Azadliq, who was also the assistant to Popular Front Party chair Ali Kerimli, was sentenced to three years and three months and fined 39,000 manat ($22,800) for alleged tax evasion. While upholding Amirli’s conviction, the court ordered his conditional release from confinement at his September 15 appeal hearing. In 2016 Ahmadli and Amirli, despite their secular orientation, were arrested for alleged ties with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accused of organizing the failed coup attempt in that country.
In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures. For example, in early October authorities reportedly granted N!DA activist Ulvi Hasanli a medical exemption from mandatory military service until 2019, but later that month they removed the exemption and forcibly conscripted him. In an example of other methods of intimidation, following a public discussion on October 15, activists reported approximately 40 uniformed and plainclothes police prevented a press conference to discuss political prisoners in the country.
Press and Media Freedom: A number of opposition and independent print and online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities penalized them in various ways for doing so.
Human rights defenders considered at least 10 journalists and bloggers and two writers or poets to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations.
Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.
Following the 2016 halt of the newspaper Azadliq’s print edition after the arrest of its financial director, no significant opposition publications remained in the country.
On May 12, in response to a suit brought by the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies, the Sabayil District Court blocked access to the Azerbaijani-language versions of RFE/RL and other independent media outlets, including the websites of Azadliq, Azerbaycan Saati, Meydan TV, and Turan.
During the year authorities continued pressure on independent media outlets outside the country and those individuals associated with them in the country. In high-profile examples, authorities continued the criminal case against Meydan TV initiated in 2015. Prosecutors combined the criminal cases against Afgan Mukhtarli and Meydan TV.
Violence and Harassment: Local observers reported journalists from independent media outlets were subject to physical and cyberattacks during the year. The attacks mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.
Activists said impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem and that the majority of physical attacks on journalists were not effectively investigated and went unsolved. There were no indications authorities held police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists in prior years.
Journalists and media rights leaders continued to call for full accountability for the 2015 beating and death of journalist and IRFS chairman Rasim Aliyev, who reported receiving threatening messages three weeks earlier; the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa; and the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.
Lawsuits suspected of being politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. In one example, the Ministry of Taxation opened a criminal case against the Turan Information Agency in August. On August 24, authorities detained the director of the agency, Mehman Aliyev, conditionally releasing him on September 11. On November 2, the charges against Turan apparently were dropped.
The majority of independent and opposition media outlets remained in a precarious financial situation and experienced problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines. Most relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing.
The government continued to prohibit some state libraries from subscribing to opposition and independent newspapers, prevented state businesses from buying advertising in opposition newspapers, and put pressure on private businesses not to advertise in them. As a result, paid advertising was largely absent in opposition and independent media. Political commentators noted these practices reduced the wages that opposition and independent outlets could pay to their journalists, which allowed progovernment outlets to hire away quality staff. In addition, international media-monitoring reports indicated that intimidation by Ministry of Taxation authorities further limited the independence of the media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council required that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.
During the year authorities did not return work confiscated in June 2016 from the Ganun Publishing House in Baku. At the time, civil society activists reported authorities raided the publishing house after it printed posters advocating the release of imprisoned head of the REAL democratic movement, Ilgar Mammadov. The director of the publishing house, Shahbaz Khuduoghlu, reported police took some published materials and printing molds from the office.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. On May 31, the law was amended increasing the fine for libel from 100 to 1,000 manat ($58 to $580) to 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($580 to $875). The fine for slander was increased from 300 to 1,000 manat ($175 to $580) to 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($580 to $1,170). The law was also amended so that insulting the president could no longer be punished by fines, leaving only punishment of up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.
Libel laws were employed against journalists. For example, on March 3, a Baku city court sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years’ imprisonment for libel after publicly stating he was tortured by police.
The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV were blocked at the beginning of the year, reportedly on the orders of government authorities. On May 12, at the request of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies, the Sabayil District Court blocked access to the Azerbaijani-language version of RFE/RL and other independent media outlets, including the websites of Azadliq, Azerbaycan Saati, Meydan TV, and Turan.
On May 2, Aziz Orucov, director of the internet television station Kanal 13, was arrested and sentenced to administrative detention. The General Prosecutor’s Office subsequently opened a criminal case against Orucov for alleged tax evasion and abuse of office. On December 15, a court convicted Orucov of these charges and sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment
The government also required internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transportation, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.
There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of democracy activists. For example, members of the Popular Front Party reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year youth activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government corruption and commenting on human rights abuses online.
The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report, covering the period from June 2016 through May 2017, stated, “Internet freedom declined in Azerbaijan in the past year” and that “the space for free expression online continued to shrink.” The report also noted that, while in previous years the government refrained from extensive blocking, the past year saw more website restrictions.
According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 78 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2016.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party members reported difficulty finding teaching jobs at schools and universities.