This is the fifth of a series of reports on Internet freedom in Central Asia, a region which is generally perceived as ‘closed’ in terms of Internet freedom, as it is being closely monitored by authorities and the use of Internet and communication technologies is restricted. This blog focuses on Azerbaijan. When it comes to internet freedom, Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the world which is under threat. With several journalists in jail, president Ilham Aliyev is desperately trying to cling to power, thereby taking the 160’s place out of 180 countries in Reporters’ Without Borders Pres Freedom Index 2014.
After its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the first Internet infrastructure developments in Azerbaijan appeared in 1994, and in 1996 Internet became available for users, but only after 2000 it became widely used. At this moment, almost 60% of the population has access to Internet. Many reports agree that Azerbaijan’s authorities control the Internet, through mass surveillance, filtering and blocking the Internet, as well as large fines for online content, as well as physical intimidations and jail time.
When it comes to Internet policy, there are no clear regulations in Azerbaijan legislation, which makes it easy for authorities to intercept Internet data and execute electronic surveillance at all times, which is proven in different reports. These shown that the Ministry of National Security (MNS) of Azerbaijan received support in various time periods from intelligence services of Turkey, USA and Russia. The USA was for example interested in gaining information about contacts between Azerbaijany citizens and Iranians, whereas Russia was keen on getting control over network activity and communications of immigrants from Northern Caucasus living in the republic, inter alia representatives of Chechen diaspora.
The MNS furthermore engaged in profiling people who voted for Armenia during the music contest Eurovision organized by Azerbaijan in 2012. After the event, different people were arrested and interrogated, and learned that the interrogators had a list of those people who voted for Armenia. The list included the persons’ addresses and phone numbers, which means that mobile operators provided information to the MNS. According to a documentary broadcasted on Swedish TV, mobile operator AZERCELL allowed surveillance equipment to be installed in their network, which enabled intelligence services of Azerbaijan to gain access to all available communications, including phone calls, SMS and mobile Internet services without due process.
Anotherof the most striking examples is the case of a well-known oppositional journalist, Khadija Ismayilova. A video of her having sex was published on the Internet in 2011 after she ignored several threats to stop her journalistic activities, and wires for video and audio surveillance were installed in her apartment in July 2011 on the order of the MNS. Multiple other journalists and activists faced the same treatment, some of them even shown on local TV channels.
Control on the Internet has only been growing since these incidents, and in September 2012, president Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on measures to enhance the activities in the sphere of informational security. As of the 1st of May 2013, an IMEI database is in operation, which registers mobile phone numbers and communication, and gives authorities an additional opportunity to track communications even of those subscribers using anonymous SIM cards.
Next to surveillance is censorship widely present, including regulation of Internet channels, control of publications on the net, limited Internet usage for children, and control of social networks, especially Facebook, since protests were organised using this social network. Also a law was implemented in May 2013 making punishments on ‘crimes’ committing on the Internet as high as those in the real world. Already some victims were prosecuted under this law. Blogger Mikhail Talybov was sentenced to 1 year of correctional labour with 20% of wage withdrawal for publishing critical statements on social media.
In 2009, a group of youth activists uploaded a satirical video about president Ilham Aliyev which resulted in jail sentences of various lengths. In August 2012, journalist Faramaz Allahverdiev was sentenced to 4.5 years of imprisonment, being accused of organizing mass riots and illegal border crossing. The journalist himself considers it as a persecution for the articles he published to social networks, in which he investigated cases of corruption among the political circles.
Azerbaijan authorities deliberately aimed to suppress dissidents during the two major events conducted in Baku in 2012: Eurovision songfestival 2012 and global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in the same year. At least 9 journalists were thrown into prison on various charges. The Committee to Protect Journalists thinks that charges of drugs possession and blackmail were fabricated, in order to punish journalists for their professional activities. Video journalists Vugar Ganagov and Zaur Guliev, were jailed for over a year based on charges of organisation of activities aimed at distorting public order. In March 2013 they received 3 years suspended sentence. Apart from these arrests, several other critical journalist were arrested based on various charges.
Other types of potential attacks and threats
Online hacktivism is not a popular way to express protest against the government and the power in general. Neither is it often that hacking attacks against oppositional websites occur. Nevertheless during the last three years several oppositional organisations, e.g. Yeni Musavat and Radio Azadliq claimed that their websites were under attack.
Most frequent cyber attacks are associated with bilateral issues, in particular between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as between Azerbaijan and Iran. Depending on the on-going events, sluggish cyberwar may transform into active “combat operations”. For instance, on the 1st of September 2012 the websites of leading news agencies of Azerbaijan were attacked. Apart from the attacks on news agencies, the websites of the Ministry of Justice and the official website of president Ilham Aliyev were hacked. The attacks occurred right after president Ilham Aliyev pardoned an Azerbaijani officer, who killed an Armenian military man and was sentenced for life imprisonment in Hungary without a right for amnesty. The man was returned to Azerbaijan on the 31st of August 2012 and released the exact same day. The hacked website of president Ilham Aliyev contained a large photo of the killed Armenian military man, bearing an inscription “Always with us”. Hackers’ group “Armenian Cyber Army” took the responsibility for the attacks. As a response to these attacks the hackers’ group “Azerbaijan Defacers” conducted a DDoS attack against the official website of the President of Armenia and major national news websites.
In January 2013, the Anonymous group provided free access to over 1.7 Gb of documents, assumed to be stolen from dmx.gov.az website, which belongs to the Special State Protection Service (SSPS) of Azerbaijan. The documents contain confidential data about various major commercial companies, occupied in oil mining industry in Azerbaijan. The Imgur website, on which they posted the documents, remains ever since inaccessible.
Moreover in February 2013, the information resource www.minval.az, known to be opposition friendly, was hacked. As a result of the attack the main page of the website was replaced with pictures of oppositional leaders and unprintable writings in English. At the same time a group of Iranian hackers, called White Hat Hackers, announced that they hacked computer system of eight Azerbaijan banks and gained access to the bank accounts of 53,634 clients, who’s money was transferred to the clients of Azerbaijan Royal Bank, which was closed a year before. The reason for the closure of the bank seems to be the imputation of Iranian money laundering, bypassing the international financial sanctions.
Another event with a great response was the statement of the spokesman of European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, Ryan Heath, who claimed that there was an attempt to hack his laptop at the Internet forum in Baku in November 2012. Later on he stated that the investigation of the accident confirmed the fact of several hacking attempts and traces of possibly compromised passwords, but no information was stolen.
In October 2013 as a result of president elections in Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev was re-elected for the third term. International observers (apart from the commission from CIS) reported flaws and violations. The opposition did not accept the results of elections as valid. In the beginning of 2013 the leaders of one of the most active youth movements in Azerbaijan called NIDA were arrested based on fabricated criminal cases. The movement organised protest actions via Facebook, where they were openly discussed in a group. According to the statements from the group members, MNS agents were introduced to the group on Facebook. Moreover during interrogations and inquiry processes hardcopies of communication logs were presented to the group participants as evidence. Eight members of the group have received sentences in 2014 ranging from 6 to 8 years.
There are various opinions regarding digital security situation development in the long run. Some experts suggest the pressure on the civil society from the side of Azerbaijan authorities will weaken under the influence from European Union and due to Aliyev’s intention to close in with Europe (and his interests in oil and gas industry). Others are sure that the violence and pressure escalation against the active opposition and those who struggle for freedom and human rights will continue to rise. Corruption and arbitrariness in power is widespread. Consequently, pressure to block freedom of information and communication is growing. Censorship and control of authorities over the Internet space will be strengthened, leading to an even bigger monopoly of the Internet, owned by the authorities.
This blog is made in cooperation with security experts in the region, and is entirely based on their findings.