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Censorship, hacking and harassment: the Azerbaijan IGF experience

By Rebecca Vincent.

Last week (early November 2012) Azerbaijan was host to 1,600 representatives of governments, international bodies, private companies and NGOs who ventured to Baku for the 7th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Although the authorities have experience handling large international events, such as the Eurovision Song Contest which took place in Baku in May this year, many wondered how they would approach an event where topics such as freedom of expression online would be discussed, given Azerbaijan's own poor track record on the topic. The answer? With some interference and a confused political approach.

The event got off to a rocky start with logistical problems such as food shortages and widespread problems with Internet access at the IGF venue, the Baku Expo Centre. Twitter was full of complaints from the delegates who were able to get online that they were hungry and deprived of caffeine.

Things took a more sinister turn when local rights groups were ordered by the IGF Secretariat to stop distributing two reports on relevant issues in Azerbaijan, on the grounds that they were an attempt to "attack one of the stakeholder group" – the Azerbaijani government. A representative of the Secretariat suggested that the groups would be allowed to distribute the materials if they got permission from the Azerbaijani authorities. The reports examined Internet freedom and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan ahead of the IGF.

The banned reports were not the only issue faced by Azerbaijani participants. A representative of the Expression Online Initiative – the coalition behind one of the banned reports – was harassed when attempting to register, being questioned over whether he was planning a protest at the IGF. Journalists from the online television station Obyektiv TV were also given trouble in the registration process, being told that the Azerbaijani ICT Ministry did not consider Obyektiv TV to be a media outlet.

The reason for this harassment soon became clear: the registration staff were members of a pro-governmental Azerbaijani youth movement. This seemed an odd choice given that host country officials are not meant to influence who can and cannot attend the IGF.

But perhaps the lowest point of the week occurred when reports surfaced that the personal computers of two EU officials were hacked at their hotel in Baku. The officials were staff members travelling with Vice President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes, who took a tough stance on violations of freedom of expression and Internet freedom in Azerbaijan during the IGF and was prohibited by the authorities from visiting a penitentiary hospital in Baku. The officials confirmed that they were conducting a forensic analysis of the compromised computers.

On the final day of the IGF, warnings circulated that there had been reports of some laptops being infected with malware or viruses at the IGF. Then during the closing ceremony, Azerbaijani Twitter users reported that Facebook had stopped working – although it appeared to be back up several minutes later.

The Azerbaijani government's attitude towards the event was made clear when President Ilham Aliyev declined to participate in the IGF's opening ceremony, opting instead to attend the Bakutel ICT Exhibition and Conference being held in the same venue as the IGF. Azerbaijani ICT Minister Ali Abbasov delivered the President's comments at the IGF on his behalf.

The decision to hold the IGF in a country with a troubling human rights record was the source of much deliberation over whether these factors should be taken into consideration in determining the venue for such events. But seasoned participants commented that there had been more discussion on human rights than at any previous IGF.

Even the government's most ardent critics saw the positive side of holding the IGF in Baku. As formerly imprisoned blogger Emin Milli said at a workshop during the IGF, holding such an event in an authoritarian country created a unique platform to discuss issues that would otherwise not be permitted.

Rights groups fear potential retaliation for local activists and journalists who were critical of the authorities during the IGF, particularly as many were also outspoken earlier this year in the run-up to the Eurovision Song Contest, which local groups used as a platform to expose human rights problems in the country.

So far these concerns appear to be grounded. On the final day of the IGF, Senior Presidential Adviser Ali Hasanov said in an interview that some NGOs had "dedicated consistent efforts" to attempting to "diminish the value" of the IGF. The fear remains that once international attention has shifted from the country, the door will be open for the authorities to target these critical voices.

Rebecca Vincent is a freelance human rights consultant and expert on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. She worked with the Expression Online Initiative and the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety to compile the banned reports and was formerly based at Article 19 as the Coordinator of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan.