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Baku Moving to Restrict Online Free Speech?

Officials in Azerbaijan want to make the act of spreading “misinformation” a “cyber-crime.” Some Azerbaijani civil rights activists worry that the initiative is driven by a desire to restrict Azerbaijani web users’ access to online information.

The government, which already has tagged Skype and Wikipedia as potential threats to national security, maintains that the proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s Criminal Code are meant only to reinforce the country’s electronic security. Under amendments proposed by the Ministry of National Security, attacks on computer networks and websites, online copyright violations, virus attacks, online money-laundering, theft of funds from e-payment systems, and the dissemination of “misinformation” and false terrorist threats would be considered criminal offenses.

Parliament is expected to discuss the amendments in the fall. The draft legislation defines “misinformation” as the “distribution of disinformation with the aim of spreading panic among the population, false information about terror.” While shying away from providing concrete examples of online “misinformation,” one senior national security ministry official cited the user-edited reference site Wikipedia as an example of the alleged dangers of incorrect online information.

At a May 4 conference in Baku on “Cyber and National Security,” one Ministry of National Security department chief, Kerim Kerimov, charged that Wikipedia disseminates “false and biased information which discredits Azerbaijan.” Noting that removing such information is “difficult” under Wikipedia’s user-based editing system, he urged the international community to pay greater attention to the site.

But Wikipedia is not the only target of official jabs. On May 3, Communications and Information Technology Minister Ali Abbasov named Skype as another threat to Azerbaijani security. Abbasov did not elaborate, and, on May 4, backtracked, telling journalists that he did not mean for the government “to close down or restrict users’ access to any website or computer system.”

The technical director of one local IT company, who did not want to be named, wondered if Abbasov’s comments were somehow connected to a decrease in revenues for Aztelecom, the state-run telephone company. The company’s revenues have dipped as Azerbaijanis increasingly turn to Skype for cheaper phone calls.

Other local observers scoff at the government’s expressed concerns about Wikipedia and Skype. But a prominent media lawyer cautioned that the government’s effort to address “misinformation” could be used to restrict online freedom of speech.

“We know that authorities are concerned with youth activity on social networks. So far, such activists [who used Facebook to spread information about anti-government rallies] have been detained or pressured, using other charges like drug possession,” said Alasgar Mammadli, a board member of the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, a non-governmental Internet-regulation watchdog. “But, in the future, new charges of ‘disinformation’ could potentially be used to intimidate bloggers, online journalists and social network users.”

Adnan Hajizade, one of the two video bloggers imprisoned in Azerbaijan in 2009 and released late in 2010 following an international outcry over his case, agreed that the misinformation amendment could potentially be used to restrict online freedom of speech. He does not believe, however, that the government would actually use it in that fashion, when there are other tools available. “It would be a flagrant violation of freedom of speech, cause loud international protests, and would lead to [complainants] winning a case at the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg,” Hajizade said.

“It is easier to arrest and intimidate bloggers the authorities do not like based on other articles of the Criminal Code — hooliganism, drug possession, evasion of military service — like they’ve done so far,” he added.

Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, expressed concern that the proposed amendments could encourage “censorship and self-censorship” He cited the 2007 arrest of newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev as a precedent: one of the charges against Fatullayev was the “dissemination of panic.”

Huseynov worried that the government would use the broadest possible interpretation of what constitutes “misinformation.”

“For example, the government could consider calls to have a rally or an anti-government protest on Facebook as sparking panic,” he contended.

Pro-government parliamentarian Zahid Oruj, a member of the parliamentary Committee for Security and Defense, denied that the amendments would be used to crackdown on free speech. “It is not true. The amendments are to fight cyber-crimes and to meet the respective international conventions Azerbaijan has ratified,” Oruj asserted.

Some journalists such as Elnur Baimov, editor-in-chief of the News.az and Gun.az news portals, defend the government’s initiative. “This issue is poorly regulated in Azerbaijan still and we have a legal vacuum here,” Baimov said. “My web portals were attacked by both local and foreign hackers several times and there weren’t any legal tools for their protection.”

Discouraging such attacks may be a legitimate policy goal, but it should not serve as cover for government interference in routine Internet use, argued Azerbaijan Internet Forum’s Mammadli. “Currently, the Internet is not regulated by the government in Azerbaijan, and it should be kept this way,” he said.

Originally published by EurasiaNet.org.