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At the 2012 IGF in Baku, the Azeri Government's Disdain for Freedom Was on Full Display

BY Nighat Dad | Tuesday, November 20 2012

IGF session. (Credit: Internet Society/Flickr)

Earlier this month I attended the seventh annual Internet Governance Forum, sponsored by the United Nations in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. When I tell people that, the most common response is either an astonished “Where?!” or “Why would the UN hold a conference like that in a place like Baku?” Good questions. The last time Baku was in the news, it was host city for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, which is a big deal in nearly every country except the United States, where it is about as popular as cricket.

But even the most die-hard Eurovision fans would be hard pressed to deny that Azerbaijan has a justifiably terrible reputation when it comes to human rights.

In Azerbaijan, political dissent is punished with jail time and beatings. The people are kept silent by laws that restrict freedom of speech and maintain tight control over all public media — conventional and digital. Information and opinions critical of the government are usually not shared in public forums, out of fear of official retribution. When journalists and human rights campaigners turn to online media to voice their opinions, they are frequently rounded up and imprisoned.

According to a briefing by Human Rights Watch, at least eight journalists and three human rights defenders are currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan. Five political bloggers remain in detention for expressing opinions online that were critical of the government.

This year the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety published an extensive report that highlighted concerns over human rights abuses and limitations placed on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. This report may help you understand some of what happens if you speak out against the government in Azerbaijan — but you are fortunate, because you can obtain a copy online with the click of a touchpad. At the IGF conference venue, hard copies of the report had to be distributed by hand, in the corridors. If it had been distributed from a booth in the IGF Village, the local organizers would have confiscated it.

On the Monday of the conference, people manning one booth in the Village distributed postcards imprinted with the slogan “Government censorship is keeping you in the dark.” The people handing out the postcards were not from an Azerbaijani organization and the slogan was not aimed specifically at the local regime, it didn't take long for local staff to arrive and confiscate the postcards, because they “had not been approved by the conference committee.”

But the local organizers were unable to prevent the message of these materials from being disseminated. Their rather clumsy attempts to suppress the postcard distributors served merely to generate a lively conversation between the attendees (and of course on Twitter), guaranteeing that the issue was brought to the attention of a global audience.

In fact, the whole event was plagued with organizational clumsiness of one kind or another — unusual for a UN conference but very apt given the authoritarian state context. Food, water and caffeine were often unavailable; sessions were summarily moved to different time slots or rooms; network connections crashed for no apparent reason — which was ironic, as the other half of the Expo Center was hosting the BAKUTEL Trade Fair for Telcoms and ICT. Overall, the organizers seemed to be doing their best to keep the participants just slightly off balance.

They could not keep human rights or freedom of expression off the IGF agenda, of course — there were too many prominent human rights activists, NGOs, international bodies and committed individuals present. So what Baku really did was provide a very visible platform for human rights and censorship issues.

The Azerbaijani government used the opportunity of the IGF to stress its investment in “open access to the Internet,” and talked about high bandwidth networks for its citizens, but its commitment to open access goes only so far. It's no good having 'state of the art' plumbing if you forbid your citizens to drink what comes out of the tap.

So it was very strange to be sitting between all these contradictions, and that is why it is difficult to explain why the UN chose Azerbaijan for this year's IGF.

I can offer an optimistic answer and a pessimistic one. The optimistic answer is that Azerbaijan is still quite a young country. For most of the twentieth century it was a Soviet Republic, and it only became independent through revolt and bloodshed in 1991. It does not live in a peaceful neighborhood; its immediate neighbors are Russia, Georgia, Iran, and Armenia, and it includes the troubled region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the country has a lot of oil wealth, it is concentrated in the hands of half a dozen families, and they don't want to let it go. But the change from being a republic of the Soviet Union to an open democracy doesn't happen quickly, and perhaps events like the IGF (and even Eurovision) can help encourage Azerbaijan become more open and less repressive.

The pessimistic answer is that although the country has a lot of oil wealth, it is concentrated in the hands of half-a-dozen families. They understandably don't want to release their grip on the money and its attendant power, so they will exert all their considerable influence to keep it — primarily by striking basic money-for-influence deals with the repressive government.

Given these significant obstacles, what hope is there for individual activists to effect change?

While I was at the conference I interviewed Azeri dissident Emin Milli who, along with Adnan Hajizade, posted a satirical video on YouTube ridiculing the government’s import of donkeys from Germany at very high prices. For this, both bloggers served 17 months in prison on charges of hooliganism.
Emin wrote a widely publicized letter to the president during the week of the IGF, making the point that “open Internet access” is not the same as freedom for Internet users.

Azerbaijan needs urgent, real and deep reforms. We must transform our society of fear in to a society of opportunities. As someone who was jailed for using the Internet to criticize you and your policies, I have experienced an inconvenient truth — the Internet is not free in Azerbaijan and it is definitely not free from fear. Today, our fear is one of the main sources of your power. And the impact of it is pervasive. Its consequences are damaging.

All the participants at this UN -sponsored event had the opportunity to learn about the Azeri government’s priorities when President Ilham Aliyev declined to participate in the Forum’s opening ceremony, instead opting to attend the BAKUTEL trade fair that was held at same venue. More business, more publicizing of a falsely open image to the world! The message was clear: you have free Internet access, but we aren’t happy to talk to about Internet governance, human rights, online freedom of expression, surveillance, privacy and digital security issues. We'll be next door, making money.

Nighat Dad is executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan. She lives in Lahore.

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