International Spotlight: Censorship in Azerbaijan

Mathew Sayer From our Perspective

Surveillance can make anything possible. It can crush dissent, win elections, sell goods and ruin families. In this new feature, we’re going to take an alphabetic journey through countries of the world. Looking at how their governments, corporations and citizens spy and pry. First up is Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan Profile

Azerbaijan is a country of 9.6 million people sitting by the Caspian Sea. Russia lies to the north and Iran to the south making the country of great geopolitical interest. The former Socialist Republic proclaimed its independence in 1991. Since then Azerbaijan’s economy has grown at eye-watering rates. 25% in 2005, these rates are not sustainable. They are dependent on a (hopefully) dying sector- oil and gas.

The Government

The Azerbaijan government has come under criticism for its authoritarian practices. Last year the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) refused to send electoral observers after Baku tried to limit the number of observers. The Azerbaijani government has brought false charges against a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated activist, Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif. The couple has reportedly been beaten in prison and refused medical treatment.

Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2015 report ranks Azerbaijan’s internet as ‘partly free’ with a score of 56/100. Given that ‘not free’ starts at 60 there is a fine line that Azerbaijan is stepping closer to. According to the report, censorship of governmental criticism is widespread and ongoing. Satire is also subject to limited or sporadic bouts of censorship. The popular strategy of pro-government commentators manipulating online discussion is found on Azerbaijani websites. Bloggers, activists, and journalists- like Leyla and Arif Yunus- have been imprisoned and detained for posting content.  Technical attacks are used against critics and human rights organizations.

The technology used to carry out these attacks likely come from the Milan-based company Hacking Team . Wikileaks has a trove of emails from Hacking Team with 2298 emails mentioning Azerbaijan. The Azeri government was interested in purchasing their Remote Control System software.

Conclusion

Azerbaijan’s government is implicated in a range of authoritarian practices. Thanks to the unscrupulous Hacking Team the Azeri government was able to purchase off-the-shelf surveillance and hacking software to silence its opposition.

Next up we’ll have a ‘B’ country; Belgium, Benin, Botswana?