Aping the government’s tactics makes us our own worst enemies.

“A friend reported you.” It’s a phrase I find utterly disconcerting and one which unfailingly appears on my phone’s screen each time I hear the familiar chime of a new Facebook message. Given that my inbox is now flooded with this ominous warning, I’ve had a lot of time and reason lately to ponder its meaning. I find those words not just disconcerting but Orwellian, conjuring up images of smiling blonde children cheering for a Dear Leader. Maybe that’s just the way my mind works; maybe it’s my fault that I have these unhealthy associations. To my mind, a friend does not falsely report a friend to any authority, be it the government, or a digital authority. Things shouldn’t work that way, at least not in the universe I want to live in.

But then again, I’m a journalist from Azerbaijan. The universe I want to live in feels a long way off.

Here I should stress that I am writing not as a journalist, but as a private citizen who has had—and continues to have—profoundly eye-opening and terrifying experiences. I write as somebody who is not used to climbing the pedestal of victimhood. I write as an openly gay man and an overt secularist whose worldview is deeply informed by political openness and faith in democratic participation. Those values set the tone for my day, wherever I happen to be. Thus I am not at all surprised to be on the receiving end of a barrage of insults and disgusting comments from trolls. I just did not expect these trolls to come from the opposition

And to cover all of that, I have to depart from the comfortable style and principles of objective, strictly fact-based journalism and enter the intimidating world of opinion. 

I realise that my task is daunting, especially as an immigrant who has lived across the ocean from his homeland for half of his life, for whom a mixture of romanticism, longing, and detachment comes into play. Recently I half-jokingly wrote on my Facebook page (which is temporarily shut down and unavailable to me at the time of writing) that “being from Azerbaijan is a terminal diagnosis incompatible with happiness.”

In my native Azerbaijan, any journalist striving to preserve a shred of their impartiality has to navigate many landmines and risk confrontation with powerful forces. Our government is not too keen on criticism, to put it mildly. Those who do criticise it are often fined, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. In a society where rulers impose such savage rules of the game, others have to adjust their actions and strategies to survive. 

My thesis is, if the government employs trolls, those opposing it are forced to do so too. If the government uses harsh rhetoric, some in the opposition are forced to respond in kind. That is the corrosive effect of a despotic government: it imposes its own rules on everybody, stifling democratic inclinations others may have by invalidating them a priori. It lowers the level and quality of political discourse and legitimate political struggle.

My own contribution to raising that bar plays an important role in this story. Last winter, I launched a very small YouTube channel whose name translates from Azerbaijani as “straight talk” (the English pun does not quite translate into Azerbaijani, where “straight” does not have sexual connotations). After more than two decades of lurking on the margins of the Azerbaijani public consciousness, I kicked aside my self-doubt and briefly stepped into the limelight to comment on the outrageous situation in my home country. After that, running back into the shadows didn’t prove as easy as I had hoped.

On 12 November 2018, the BBC’s Azerbaijani service interviewed me as an Azerbaijani emigre now living in the United States. In retrospect, I am astonished by my lack of self-awareness. My interview was a long and angry tirade, but a cathartic one.

I laid into the regime. It felt as though I had finally exhaled for the first time in two decades.

I talked about violence against women and a culture which facilitates it. I talked about the utter crisis of education and healthcare. I talked about the lack of tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community and railed against the widespread ignorant conviction that sexual orientation has something to do with personal choice and willpower. It was ugly, I was a mess. I woke up early for the interview, and bellowed so much so I awoke my husband in the wee hours.

The interview had all the elements of a modern day made-for-Instagram drama. It made waves on social media, but the only thing people seemed to pay attention to was my sexuality. It wasn’t a public coming out; that took place decades earlier when I was pushed out of the closet with a bang during a live radio broadcast. Nothing else mattered: not education, not corruption, and not violence against women.

In a subsequent interview with another Washington-based colleague, I criticised a certain Azerbaijan-based journalist, a former colleague at a now-shuttered independent TV and radio company. I drew attention to his reemergence as a government lapdog. I called him by name, reminding him how he used to be: fearless, fair, outspoken, and captivating. He responded with an insulting tirade containing nothing but allusions to my sexuality (fair game), and with an intentional slip of the tongue called my late father (certainly not fair game) a homosexual. I filmed an indignant, yet measured and polite video response on the spot. It was picked up by an opposition newspaper and aired on their website, gaining more than 400,000 views. (It is still the most-viewed video on my little channel.)

So I stayed in the limelight, and while there I started to interview politicians and newsmakers in Azerbaijan. I grew accustomed to the trickle of trolling comments and insults. As my channel grew in popularity, so did the troll attacks. Many of them weren’t aimed at me, but at guest of mine, the chairman of an opposition movement who had criticised another opposition leader.

I was caught in the crossfire. I spent two full days deleting insulting comments from my channel’s comments section. Over time, the attacks were made not only against my channel; trolls launched a concerted effort to report my Facebook account, claiming that I was impersonating somebody else. An absurdity that could have been resolved by a reasonable human being comparing my pictures with my live videos was dealt with by Facebook bots as yet untrained in the intricacies of human interaction. I woke up to see the “A friend has reported you” message from Facebook. My page was gone.

I had to go through the indignity of sending a picture of my photo ID. Hours later, I was asked to send in a picture of myself holding my photo ID. At the time of the writing in mid-June, my Facebook page has been deactivated eight times in the span of six days in response to complaints by trolls. There is no way of knowing how many more times it might disappear.

For objectivity’s sake I must add that I have no direct evidence of the source of these attacks; such is the nature of the faceless mass of internet trolls. But my suspicions are painful to comprehend: I believe that I was attacked not by pro-government trolls, but trolls working for those I had considered my friends and allies. I was not the only one to be attacked by these trolls; the list of their previous victims is quite long. Given the identity of other targets, I am confident enough to believe a certain party was responsible.

Once my Facebook account was restored, I made a rather emotional video appeal to the leadership of the party I had suspected all along, asking them to rein in the trolls they control. It was not my proudest moment. I felt that I lost my balance due to anger, outrage, disgust, and shock. I demanded that they either deny that these trolls worked for the party, or join with me in condemning their role in distorting public discourse in Azerbaijan. But their response was a blanket denial from mid-level party officials, as well as their numerous supporters. Although I called him out, saying that I no longer believed he was a friend to free media, the party’s leader did not acknowledge my appeal.

Sadly, this episode made clear to me that when a despotic regime attacks freedom of speech, it has a domino effect. Those in opposition feel the need to respond in kind. They do so either to protect themselves from the government, its henchmen and trolls, or out of a mistaken desire to level the playing field a little in their own favour. Whatever the thinking behind it, free and independent media suffers, as does its ability to inform the public and guarantee a free flow of impartial information.

I could go on, but I won’t. I must interview a grieving father of a 14 year-old girl who died at the hands of our incompetent and corrupt education and medical systems—a father who has just discovered that his child’s grave was desecrated. The least I can do for him is not make him wait. The story of my own victimisation will have to wait till later. Much later.

Source: globalvoices.org

After the total capture of the media environment inside the country, the government of Ilham Aliyev has turned its attention to silencing critics in exile.


The morning of 9 April did not promise to be out of the ordinary for Sevinc Osmanqizi, an Azerbaijani journalist based in the suburbs of Washington DC. She started her morning routine by making a fresh pot of coffee and readying her two sons for school. Prior to starting the daily broadcasts of her YouTube-based OsmanqiziTV channel, she checked her messages, which included links sent by friends to a broadcast that had aired a few days earlier on the recently-launched Real TV in Azerbaijan.

The host of the broadcast was all too familiar to Osmanqizi. It was her former colleague Mirshahin Aghayev, known to the TV-viewing public by only his first name. She saw her picture on the studio background monitors, and then heard her own voice. “It was a complete shock,” she said, describing her emotions. “This [was broadcast on] national TV, so why is my voice there, why am I hearing my personal conversation?”

The 9 April 2019 broadcast replayed a series of private voice messages Osmanqizi had exchanged with a media colleague who is in exile in Germany. “My first question was ‘how did they get ahold of it?’ The conversation took place more than a month prior. I was trying to remember the details. I couldn’t remember what platform I had used [to communicate]. This was one of many conversations that I’d had, it was personal,” she said. Some time later, she still seems disturbed by the incident. “I was asking myself, ‘if they have this conversation, what else do they have?’”

As Osmanqizi watched the rest of the broadcast, she grew more anxious. “It contained direct hints that they had more. They ran ads saying so.” In the next two weeks, the situation worsened, she said.

The channel that Aghayev operates, where he hosts his TV show, began airing information she said she had never shared on social media, including photos. Aghayev ominously promised his audience that they would see “much more.” In subsequent broadcasts, Aghayev revealed a series of intimate emails between Osmanqizi and a US-based man who Aghayev claimed was working for US intelligence services. He also insinuated that Osmanqizi herself was on the payroll of US special services, and threatened to air intimate photos and videos of her.

“I began to understand this is not a one-man operation, there is definitely official involvement,” Osmanquizi said, implying the involvement of the government of Azerbaijan.

“I immediately got very worried about her, and about another person she had a conversation with, after the broadcasts,” said Gulnoza Said, a senior researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media freedom watchdog. “I was outraged because any conversation that two people have should remain private, and should never be used as state propaganda or to harass a journalist. And that’s exactly what we dealt with in Sevinc Osmanqizi’s case,” she said.

Been there, seen that

Said and others’ concerns were not unfounded. Although Aghayev and his TV channel have scaled back their threats to air intimate photos, videos, and her remaining correspondence, these were not empty threats. Sonia Zilberman, South Caspian Energy and Environment Program Director at Crude Accountability, an environmental and human rights organisation in Washington DC, said that alarming parallels came to mind when she heard about the threats against Osmanqizi.

“This isn’t the first time. The case with Khadija Ismayilova was even more excruciating,” she said, referencing the 2012 case in which the Azerbaijani government had been widely criticised for airing intimate footage that had been obtained through illegal surveillance of another Azerbaijani female journalist. Ismayilova’s reporting on government corruption involving the country’s “first family” became sufficiently problematic that the authorities resorted to blackmail. Ismayilova was filmed at a private residence with a male companion, and was blackmailed with stills of video footage from a camera installed in a ceiling light. She was warned to stop her journalist investigations, and when she refused and disclosed the attempted blackmail, the video footage was leaked online.

“Talking at a human level, the amount of pressure that the Azerbaijani journalists face is enormous. Not only inside the country, but as we are seeing right now, outside the country as well,” Zilberman said. “Their personal lives are being infiltrated, they are constantly under pressure.” At the same time, she added, the pressure shows how far the Azerbaijani government is willing to go, and how dirty it is prepared to play.

Said agreed. “Khadija Ismayilova’s case was the first thing that came to my mind when I spoke to Sevinc. Also, I recall many other cases when women were harassed or extorted, or attempted to be extorted, by similar means.”

Whereas Khadija Ismayilova was illegally surveilled and recorded inside Azerbaijan, Osmanqizi’s data was collected while she resided in the United States. This is a cause for some additional concern, according to Said. “We have known for some time, and have heard allegations that the Azerbaijani authorities practice surveillance of journalists and opposition members in the country,” she said. “The case with Osmanqizi [showed] that they may go as far as to target Azerbaijanis with critical views living outside the country. This is very concerning.”

The similarity between Ismayilova’s case and the threats against Osmanqizi were not lost on other journalists. A number of media and journalism organisations issued statements condemning the actions of the Azerbaijani authorities. Both Said’s and Zilberman’s organisations have issued statements in support of Osmanqizi, and Deutsche Welle and others tweeted their support. One Free Press Coalition included her name in the 10 “Most Urgent” Threats to Press Freedom Around the World.

“We are everything they are not”

The Azerbaijani authorities have been pouring millions, if not billions, of US dollars into “reputation laundering” to improve its standing in the west. Said noted that Azerbaijani authorities employed different tools, such as hiring respectable PR firms in Washington and some European capitals, and allegedly bribing some parliament members in Europe. “People like Sevinc Osmanqizi, or other journalists who live abroad and try to show to the world the real face of the Azerbaijani authorities, defeats the whole [set of] policies of the Azerbaijani authorities in creating their positive image,” she said, adding that the government perceives critical voices living outside the country as enemies they want to silence.

Osmanqizi’s YouTube channel airs daily broadcasts and call-in shows in Azerbaijani, and offers biting criticism of the government of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, who is often chastised by international governments and organisations for his anti-democratic policies and imprisonment of journalists. She offers opinions not available on the government-controlled Azerbaijani media. She provides airtime to opposition figures and dissidents to whom other Azerbaijani television has been hostile for many years.

Osmanqizi is not alone.

Hebib Muntezir was nominated for a 2016 Freedom of Expression Award for his work at Meydan TV.

“Since there are no normal conditions for free and independent media to function inside the country, and the local media are under control of the government and oligarchs, no one can directly criticise the authorities. So, in the last few years, many journalists and bloggers have left the country because of the persecution and pressure against them and their families. They started to create new media abroad, so they could continue their professional work. That is why these types of exiled Azerbaijani media have been mushrooming,” said Habib Muntezir, member of the board of the Berlin-based MeydanTV YouTube channel.

Osmanqizi said she “simply cannot” broadcast from within Azerbaijan. “I would be arrested the next day. That’s a clear cut case.”

What unites nearly all YouTube-based channels broadcasting from abroad is their stance in opposition to the current Aliyev government. “You can only show one side of the story. You cannot be impartial. In order to be impartial, you would have to cover all sides of the story. But if [the officials] refuse to talk to you, your platform becomes partial and lopsided. They label you ‘opposition,’ ‘activist’ media. But, as a journalist, you might be forced into this category against your wish,” he explains, saying that even independent experts on non-political matters are afraid to speak to independent exiled media sources for fear of persecution.

These channels form a diverse tapestry of voices, and vary in audience size, length of establishment, frequency of broadcasts, and most importantly, level of professionalism. Some are headed by professional journalists like Osmanqizi, a veteran alumna of the first independent TV channel ANS, where she had for years worked side by side with Aghayev, the host of broadcasts attempting to intimidate her. After leaving ANS, she worked for the BBC in London. Her channel has around 120,000 subscribers, impressive for a country the size of Azerbaijan.

Other channels, launched by people who lack journalistic experience or education, are often merely outlets for their operators to voice criticism of the government in the form of crude and insulting insinuations and rants. Some of these have impressive audiences, as well, as people look to them as the outlet for voicing their own pent up anger and frustration.

“Nowadays in the Azerbaijani media, there are very few professional journalists. Many were originally activists, people with courage, and they gain experience on the job. Lack of formal training leads to mistakes that violate media ethics, and some unprofessional action. Pressure and fear of persecution by the government are lowering the quality of the Azerbaijani media,” Muntezir said, noting the impact of an unfree society on both sides of the camera or microphone.

“If the environment were free, if people didn’t freeze with fear whenever they saw a microphone, if citizens were not afraid to speak to media, if the government, president, and ministers talked to the free media, we would not live in a blockade state,” Muntezir said.

According to Osmanqizi, when it comes to attacks on exiled media, “the government is losing the competition” for the hearts and minds of the public. “We are everything they are not,” she said. “What they are lacking is the truth, the reality. People see themselves in our programs, they recognise their problems, which is not the case with government-sponsored TV programs. That is why they tune into our channel.”

In her view, the choice between traditional and online media is really a choice between information and disinformation, and the latter is very easy to identify, she said. “You cannot fool anyone and make them believe that Real TV or [state broadcaster] AzTV is real news. People only watch them when they lose their remote control,” Osmanqizi adds, laughing.

The new internet-based TV channels offer the chance for the people to express their own opinions, and to hear the voices of average citizens they identify with. “They participate,” she explains. “Unfortunately, this is not something that can be done from inside Azerbaijan.”

Viewers are calling from inside the country for better journalism, and sometimes their support for the hosts of foreign-based channels speaking truth to power may cost them their freedom. Osmanqizi said this fate befell her viewer, Elzamin Salayev, after he recorded a video appeal condemning Aghayev’s campaign against her. According to Osmanqizi, he was given a fifteen day prison sentence for condemning Aghayev and questioning his morals for threatening to broadcast her intimate footage.

Camera… Lights… Attack!

There is very little doubt in the mind of Osmanqizi and others interviewed for this article as to where the orders for the attacks on journalists originate. “I have absolutely no doubt that they’re coming from the highest political leadership of Azerbaijan,” Osmanqizi said.

It is common knowledge in Azerbaijan as to who stands behind attacks appearing in the Azerbaijani media. Both Osmanqizi and Muntezir point to Ali Hasanov, an aide to the president on political and social affairs, as the architect of the attacks. “The order to attack is coming from Ali Hasanov and his group. I call the people who plan these attacks the presidential apparatus trolls,” Muntezir said, referencing Hasanov’s office as part of the president’s executive office. “The [TV] channels are being directly ordered what to broadcast. XazarTV is owned by Hasanov’s son, Shamkhal Hasanov. SpaceTV is owned by Sevil Aliyeva, the sister of the president.” The channels, he argued, are completely subservient to the authorities.

Osmanqizi agrees. “Hasanov has been the president’s media adviser for 23 years. He was Heydar Aliyev’s advisor, and now he is Ilham Aliyev’s advisor.” Heydar Aliyev, the nation’s former president, passed the helm to his son Ilham.

Earlier this year, Mirshahin Aghayev, the journalist from Real TV who threatened Osmanqizi, received a medal from the state security ministry (MTN) commemorating the 100th anniversary of “State Security and Foreign Intelligence Services.” The medal was awarded by Ilham Aliyev’s presidential decree and presented to Aghayev by MTN’s head of public affairs, Arif Babayev, during a ceremony at the TV station. In footage of the event broadcast on Real TV, Babayev calls Aghayev “someone we love very much.” Osmanqizi was dismayed that a journalist would be awarded such a medal by the intelligence service, and more so, that the ceremony would be proudly broadcast. She also wondered about Aghayev’s accomplishments that merited such an unusual recognition. “What has he done for them?” she asks. “Have you heard of any such thing in another country?”

Aghayev has been a prominent journalist in Azerbaijan since the early 1990s. He began his career at ANS TV, the first independent media source in the country after the fall of the Soviet Union. He gained popularity with daring broadcasts that blurred the line between news reporting and opinion. In a country where there was no alternative to rigid state-controlled TV news, his reporting was a breath of fresh air, revitalising the media environment.

A degree of criticism was tolerated by the senior Aliyev’s regime, and ANS was allowed certain journalistic liberties. The government invariably pointed to ANS when defending itself against domestic and foreign critics who accused it of persecuting journalists. However, the Azerbaijani government’s toleration of ANS ended on 29 July 2016 when the station’s licence was revoked after ANS broadcast an interview with Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Turkish cleric based in the United States who Turkey was attempting to extradite.

“ANS was shut down because it broadcasted reports that were not in line with presidential apparatus policy,” said Muntezir. “The condition to return ANS’s licence was that it would begin working under the direct supervision of Hasanov, and not broadcast a single sentence without the presidential apparatus’s approval nor stray from its dictates,” he said.

Prior to and during the controversy around ANS, Aghayev benefited from his stardom by teaching journalism. He was regarded as an institution.

He re-emerged from relative obscurity in March 2018, when the government granted a licence to a new broadcaster, Real TV. Aghayev took the helm at Real TV, and since then has been attacking and using insults and his signature word play and intentional slips of the tongue to smear anyone who dares to disagree with or criticise the authorities. Both Osmanqizi and Muntezir say that the motivation for allowing Aghayev back on the air and installing him at the helm of a new TV channel was the government’s need to counteract exiled media and critics of the regime who were outside its legal reach.

“[Before being allowed back on TV] Mirsahin [Aghayev] was made to promise that he would go on air every week and attack not only the opposition, but also those who think differently from the government. Otherwise, he could not return to TV. And he does so, every week,” said Muntezir. He added that Aghayev’s recently-launched Real TV was issued a new broadcast licence.

On 7 April, Aghayev made one of the most notorious appeals in the history of his editorial broadcasting. Using word play and double negatives, he called for treating opposition members “as if they did not have the Azerbaijani identity card,” meaning non-citizens with no rights. “If we did not live in a democratic country, I would call on emergency medical personnel not to treat them, bus drivers not to allow them to board buses, bread sellers not to sell them bread. But we live in a democratic society,” he said on the air. Media experts and lawyers in Azerbaijan have debated whether these words rise to the level of hate speech, and quite a few of them agreed, in interviews, that it did. So do many members of the opposition.

On April 21, Aghayev issued an ultimatum to Osmanqizi on his TV broadcast demanding that she stop her critical YouTube broadcasts, “or else.” When she refused, she said, “on 28 April my intimate materials were aired.”

In addition to airing private conversations and email correspondence pertaining to Osmanqizi, Aghayev also said that Osmanqizi had asked him to assign her to conduct interviews with local businesses. Imitating her manner of speech and voice inflection, he accused her of seeking to benefit financially from puff pieces that she would air. Aghayev and Osmanqizi had worked together at ANS between 2008 and 2013. He had been her supervisor.

Finally, on 16 July, Aghayev doubled down against the chorus of condemnation, and admitted in a television interview that he is no longer unbiased, something his critics accused him of for quite some time. “Now we have a position. It is impossible to have a position and remain unbiased. Now, we take a side,” he is quoted as saying in an article, promising to be “even more harsh, and give everyone what is due to them.” The irony that was not lost on anyone in the country, judging by numerous public comments on social media, that it was ANS TV that had made him iconic and brought him his following. For years, ANS had started and ended its broadcasts with the slogan, “Reliable, Conscientious, Unbiased.”

Trollin’ trollin’ trollin’/Don’t try to understand them/ Just rope and throw and brand ’em

The government of Azerbaijan not only uses terrestrial broadcasters, such as Aghayev’s Real TV and other television channels that it controls, but also utilises armies of fake accounts to discredit dissident journalists, known as troll factories.

The comments sections of YouTube videos posted to OsmanqiziTV, MeydanTV, and other critical channels are full of comments from people with fake names and accounts. These comments often contain threats, insults, inane arguments or praise for the ruling regime.

But the measures taken by the Azerbaijani government to sideline, marginalise and silence critical voices in exiled media, although impressive, do not appear to be working, according to both Osmanqizi and Muntezir.

“People don’t believe them, definitely,” Muntezir said of the trolls. “It is wrong to say that the people don’t know the truth, and cannot separate fact from fiction. They know the truth very well, and are aware of what is going on in the country. They are aware of the trolls and their work. They know the Azerbaijani government supports them, they know they spread lies.”

According to Muntezir, this troll network is neither professional nor effective. “They open a new profile with no picture, a clean slate. They repeatedly copy and paste the same text, often from presidential speeches. They paste the text under content that is not even political,” he explained, saying that even news stories about football have comments citing Ilham Aliyev’s speeches and heaping praise on the government.

Muntezir said he has a good guess as to the identity of the people behind the troll profiles. “I know it for a fact that they compile reports about their work. It might be a student, or a teacher, or a government employee. Once a week, it is their turn, and they are sat down and made to copy and paste comments. They have to report how many comments they make, and support the data with screenshots. They have dedicated Whatsapp groups,” he said, referencing the smartphone app through which the trolls purportedly communicate and receive their marching orders. “People have repeatedly sent me screenshots of those conversations. They have lists of media sources they are expected to attack. But they burn themselves too fast, they operate unprofessionally,” Muntezir said.

According to Osmanqizi, the effect is exactly the opposite of the goal. She calls it the “boomerang effect.” “We are more popular, and have wider reach. On the other hand, they are not serving their target. They have not proven effective because nowadays, people can differentiate the truth from the lies. People have grown accustomed to the constant attacks accusing us of things we have not done,” she said. “They know it is propaganda. It is a lie machine.”

She said these efforts “only prove that what we are doing is important. The government of Azerbaijan is wasting its resources and money to combat its rivals and critics [because it cannot tolerate criticism].” She calls the attacks on her “the government’s defence mechanism,” because the government does not like being held accountable. “The people understand it’s a matter of accountability,” she said. “[Holding the government accountable] is something media in Azerbaijan should have been doing, but since the free media has been marginalised and destroyed [in the country, the people] appreciate our work.”

Muntezir believes that idea behind troll factories originated in Russia. “Putin started doing this with a higher degree of professionalism. Our [officials] talk about the integration with the west, while copy-pasting all of the disgusting things from Russia at the same time.” He describes the quality of the Azerbaijani trolls as akin to “Chinese-made counterfeits of the original.”

Osmanqizi, no stranger to mass troll attacks on the comments section under her videos, said that the attacks prove the effectiveness of exiled media. “If it was not the case [that exiled media was effective], we would not be targeted… They woke up one day and realised they can no longer influence public opinion. It is being formed beyond their reach and authority. Now they are playing catch-up, and they have not been very creative. They cannot prevent people from watching us. All they can do is smear and harass,” she said.

Crude Accountability’s Zilberman agrees with the ineffectiveness of the government’s tactics. “I think the government is shooting itself in the foot by dishonouring the Azerbaijani women who provide access to information inside their country. In any country, dishonouring somebody personally is really shameful, because the attack is personal, and not professional.”

Journalist Ismail Djalilov recalls his recent experience with trolls

As a former friend and colleague of Mirshahin Aghayev, this was a difficult article for me to write. It took a long time, because in the middle of writing about trolls, I myself have become the target of a wall of faceless, nameless hordes and a mass concerted effort against my online presence. I needed to distance myself from the attacks, and regain my composure, to ensure I could resume working on this article as impartially and honestly as I could.

To make matters worse, much worse, I suspect that I have become the target of attacks not by pro-government trolls, but trolls working for one of the largest opposition parties in Azerbaijan, which declares its adherence to principles of democratic development and freedom.

Following my broadcast of an interview with an opposition group member in which he criticised the leader of a much larger opposition party, I was singled out and barraged by insults, insinuations, and homophobic comments (I am openly gay in a country considered the most homophobic in wider Europe). This was a shocking experience for me, as I myself did not utter a word during the part of the interview about the opposition leader, and considered the comments by my guest to be measured and within ethical norms that did not merit my interruption.

What was shocking and bewildering to me is that these attacks came from the opposition party for which I admitted voting when I lived in Azerbaijan decades ago. I felt betrayed by the very people whose ideals I believed in and whose rights I had been trying to defend, and whose plight I had been trying to publicise in my work.

I understand that in a country with a ruthless regime playing dirty with anyone who dares to dissent, opposition parties must employ some of the government’s tactics in order to protect themselves and survive. If the government employs throngs of trolls to smear the opposition, the opposition must do something similar in order to protect itself. It is understandable that some of the proponents of opposition leaders have taken it upon themselves to engage in smear campaigns and vicious personal attacks against me. They saw me, as the owner of the channel, as ultimately responsible for whatever criticism that was voiced against their beloved leader.

I had time for little other than deleting insults from the comments sections of my videos for two days straight. My Facebook page was shut down numerous times (I lost count after eight suspensions in the span of four days). There were mass complaints against my account for “impersonating someone else.” First, I had to send a picture of my ID showing my personal data. I would regain access. Then, Facebook demanded a picture of me holding the ID. Rinse, repeat.

Once my account was unblocked, I made a passionate, and somewhat angry, appeal to the leader of the party in question. Not mincing words, I told him I had no longer considered him a friend of free press, since he had remained silent in the face of attacks by his party members against a journalist doing his best to do honest work. I called on him to deny that his party employed trolls, like many of his supporters had claimed on my Facebook page and in public comments. I called on his party to reject troll tactics, condemn them, and unequivocally state that trolls are detrimental to civilised public discourse in our country which is under ruthless dictatorial rule.

None of that happened. During an appearance on a YouTube broadcast, his supporters proceeded to call me “an American pig” (I am a United States citizen), and said that “they had lists of those they would hang when they come to power. I was on them.” Strangely, these comments were not blocked or deleted during or in the hours after the broadcast.

Due to the bizarre logic of “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” I found myself defended by pro-government newspapers, Facebook pages and journalists. The very same ones that had, a year earlier, run shaming headlines leaking pictures of my wedding (to another man) and calling me an abomination or far worse. The shame of being defended by regime apologists is the worst thing with which I must now come to terms.

At the time, the party denied any involvement. Officials and supporters alike demanded that I produce screenshots of the comments. Though I had deleted most of them out of sheer embarrassment, I was able to send them the ones I and my friends had saved. There were denials that these commenters had been affiliated with the party in question, but my friends pointed to their profiles, which showed that they were. Then the response was that these accounts had been hijacked by government trolls to attack me. At that point, I stopped following the zigzags of disingenuous denials. However, I have heard privately from friends that a few of the party’s members “have been chided,” and were told not to use slurs regarding sexual orientation. I will take that.

The very nature of trolling means people do not use their real names or pictures most of the time. They do not pose for avatar pictures holding their party IDs in their hands. I cannot name names, but I did what I could. In addition, I know for a fact that I was not the first, nor will I be the last person to be attacked by the trolls affiliated with this particular political party. There have been numerous cases before me, and I believe the public was on my side. I feel I was vindicated. I learned a valuable lesson in the process: speaking truth to power does not entail just the regime; at times, it means even the pro-democracy opposition. This was a shocking and unpleasant discovery that informs the direction of my future work.

The author of this piece, Ismail Djalilov, previously worked with Mirshahin Aghayev at ANS. Djalilov and Sevinc Osmanqizi did not coincide with each other at ANS. He is also host of duzdanisaq (Straight Talk), a YouTube channel broadcasting into Azerbaijan.

Source: www.indexoncensorship.org

I spoke to Azerbaijani women’s rights experts to find out the real scale of the problem.

The issue of women’s rights in Azerbaijani society is often discussed in superlatives, whether by the government or the local media almost uniformly under their control. Pro-government women’s rights organisations often pat themselves and the national leadership on the back for the enormous strides women have purportedly made in the 28 years of independence.

Almost all groups in society have adopted the national narrative, claiming that women in Azerbaijan have achieved the highest level of recognition and equality. This message is targeted at both domestic and international audiences. For instance, no government official, nor GONGO worker, would overlook the opportunity to mention to a western visitor the short-lived Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, which granted women political rights in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.

This narrative is often supplanted with outward-facing visuals, such as the fact that Mehriban Aliyeva, President Ilham Aliyev’s wife, was recently appointed vice president, the second highest position in the country’s leadership. This appointment was spun not as a consolidation of power in the hands of Azerbaijan’s ruling family, but as some sort of achievement for women — a sign that gender equality was being implemented.

But from time to time, Azerbaijani society is jolted back to reality by press reports about troubling cases of sexual assault against young women. Unlike the West, gender-relations issues are often discouraged and shunned in public discussions in Azerbaijan.

No allies after the “kidnapping”

The very fact that cases of sexual assault do find their way to the public conscience shows that this problem is much more severe than we can imagine, says Shahla Ismayil, attorney and Chairwoman of the Women’s Association for Rational Development (WARD). A shocking case in point comes from November last year, when an Azeri middle-school studenttried to take her own life live on Instagram after being sexually assaulted.

When these discussions become inevitable, people often come up with various euphemisms for sexual situations (from the benign to the more grave, such as rape or sexual assault). The issue of rape or sexual assault against women when they are kidnapped, as the definition implies, against their will and then may or may not be sexually assaulted, is often described as something more benign: the “kidnapping” of a young woman by a man.

This term implies in some, but not all cases, complicity on behalf of the woman, who is suspected of voluntarily taking part in the process. It always presupposes that a sexual act took place, and the woman’s reputation was irreparably damaged.

The lack of free and independent professional media in Azerbaijan does not provide a conducive environment for a well-rounded, balanced coverage of “kidnappings” of young women, as well as sexual assault and rape that takes place, and their true scale. Instead, “kidnapping” is thrust to the top of the public agenda when rare and horrific cases seep into the media. Even then, media coverage sensationalises the incidents with scant regard for the women who suffered, in a format that contributes little to nothing to informed and sustained public discourse.

“Of course, there are exceptions, but as a rule, the families’ reaction is try to cover it up,” says Shahla Ismayil , commenting on what happens after these incidents. “Very rarely do the families allow the information to become public. It may happen by accident, for instance, if there is a leaked video or photo.”

In the aftermath of sexual assault, the woman ends up being married off to the perpetrator — in almost all cases, against her will

Ismayil adds that families usually do their best to hide and destroy sources of information, denying that anything happened.

In the aftermath of sexual assault, the woman ends up being married off to the perpetrator — in almost all cases, against her will. These occurrences force public discussion, however indirect, in a society that puts a premium on understatement in all issues related to sex and sexual acts.

Unfortunately, these topics are closed not only to public discussion, but are also discouraged within families.

Culture of silence and “blame the victim” mentality

“There is this idiotic notion of ‘preserving the curtain’ that is in line with the majority of the Azerbaijani families’ perception of morality and traditions,” says Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a women’s and LGBT rights activist.

By the “curtain”, Mehdiyeva refers to yet another euphemism used to describe family relationships when certain things are not discussed, or swept under the rug, especially between parents and their children. In her view, this approach is far from innocuous: “This leads to situations when a girl is embarrassed to tell her parents about incidents of verbal or physical harassment, the ones that didn’t rise to the level of rape. They don’t feel comfortable sharing these kinds of things with their parents.”

As a result, Mehdiyeva says, children and youth do their best to conceal incidents from their parents for as long as possible. “Parents find out only when it is already too late, for instance, when a girl is pregnant, and it becomes impossible to hide the signs of pregnancy, or when there are physical injuries that cannot be concealed.” So, she says, parents only find out when the situation is already critical, when it is too late for them to help, or it is already impossible. In addition, parental reactions can be quite different — from total support for their daughters to blaming them for the incidents. “Blaming the victim is quite a popular occurrence in Azerbaijan,” Mehdiyeva adds.

Mehdiyeva describes a recent incident in the region of Beylaqan that provoked a widespread public discussion after the video of the incident found its way to social media:

“A school student, a 10th-grader was kidnapped by a father of two, an adult man. Her father went to the police, but since the police chief is related to the alleged kidnapper, the police didn’t pay attention. Also, the teachers from the school [the young woman attended] went to complain, and the school principal pressured them into silence.”

The reaction of the school administration in Beylaqan is not at all atypical, says Kamala Agazade, director of the Azerbaijani Children Union’s Children’s Shelter and Reintegration Center. “Education facilities do not try to help children. They do their best to make sure that the name of the school is not mentioned anywhere.”

Agazade also says that education facilities often adopt “blame the victim” approach when it comes to sexual assault. In her words: “Their usual reaction is: a good girl would not allow such things to happen.”

She also laments the fact that no one takes into account the fact that “girls are defenseless or weak in these situations.”

Of the case in Beylaqan, she says: “The school principal shamelessly denied that the video in question [of a girl being raped] was filmed inside the school. Indeed, it was filmed there. The girl became the center of attention, everyone shamed her, she became the object of round condemnation. Only her mother stood by her. I spoke to her father, and he said to me: ‘A girl like that better die. What do I need her for? I am dishonored, because her videos are online.’”

Agazade finds the fact that the father did not demand justice for his daughter, and did not call for perpetrators to be punished, bewildering. “This is the attitude,” she says with the notes of bitterness in her voice.

Forgotten by law

If there is a role for Azerbaijani law enforcement to play in these situations, those interviewed for this article inside the country uniformly note that the police prefer to leave these issues to families.

“Law enforcement has people who think the same way,” Kamala Agazade says, “that the girl’s reputation is soiled. They say, let’s reach an agreement, let’s come to some terms.” Here, Agazade makes a hand gesture that indicates money, implying bribes and payments. “This kind of an agreement,” she adds, saying there are some cases when perpetrators are punished.

Azerbaijan does not have “marry your rapist laws” like some of its neighbours in the region and beyond that indemnify the man who “kidnaps,” rapes, or sexually assaults a woman from criminal prosecution if he eventually marries her. But women are often coerced by their own families to marry the men in order to avoid public stigma and shame on the family, as evidenced by sporadic media reports and activists on the ground.

“Often what will happen in these kinds of cases is that the victim’s family will either agree to have her marry him, or maybe even want to have her marry him because of this issue of honour. This traditionally has been very common in the Middle East, although, several countries have recently repealed these laws,” says Hillary Margolis, a researcher at the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Kamala Agazade estimates that in 80 percent of cases of sexual assault in Azerbaijan, young women are married off to the men who raped them

The lack of statistics exacerbates the problem. “Understanding the scope of the problem of violence against women in Azerbaijan is rather difficult. We do not have a database [on violence], despite the fact this was one of the CEDAW recommendations for the country,” says Ismayil, referring to the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Azerbaijan ratified the convention in 1995.

Kamala Agazade estimates that in 80 percent of cases of sexual assault in Azerbaijan, young women are married off to the men who raped them. A veteran employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Agazade says she is well-positioned to piece together and estimate these figures based on experience, partial statistics she had seen, and anecdotal evidence she had come across in her 10-year experience with the police ministry.

Shahla Ismayil also laments the lack of reliable statistical data available to the public: “It is quite possible that the fact that women are married off to those who perpetrated sexual violence against them is a very widespread practice, but we have absolutely no instrument in our possession to measure its scope.”

She blames all parties involved. “There are definite attempts to cover up this information by all parties – the family, the local executive authorities, police,” says Ismayil. “We find out only if cases reach the courts, which they do in the rarest of instances. In general, cases are usually covered up.”

The fact that Azerbaijan is a country where both women and men are pressured into marrying at a young age by their families only exacerbates the issue: a large number of these “kidnapped” women are underage. Full data on the age of Azerbaijani citizens when they get married is unavailable, or has to be gleaned from a cross-section of other information (data on child births by mothers who have not reached legal age, for instance).

According to statistics supplied by Agazade (which are based on official information), in 2017, in Baku and other large cities, a total of 8,167 children were born to underage mothers. In rural areas, their number was 14,629. Among the mothers aged 15 to 17 who gave birth, 840 of them lived in the capital Baku, or other large cities. Of these women, 671 had their first child, 65 had their second, three had their third, and one had her fourth child.

“I would say that [violations of women’s rights] really is at odds with any government claims that it is pro-women’s rights, that it supports equality and non-discrimination”

According to Azerbaijani law, in some exceptional cases, official recognition of marriage may be granted to persons one year below the age of 18. But data shows that, in 2017, 240 children were born to mothers aged 15-17 in officially recognised marriages.

“Most likely, in these cases we are talking about girls ages 16-17,” explains Agazade. “There are some cases where families have a parent that is gravely ill, and it is their wish to marry off their daughter before they die. These are exceptional cases.”

Hillary Margolis has no doubt that coercing a young woman into marrying a man who had sexually assaulted her is a violation of her human rights: “This is absolutely a violation, there is no question. There are several different aspects of this that are clear rights violations that are, according to international treaties, including the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, very clearly stated to be violations.”

What can be done?

In a country whose culture deeply discourages discourse on sensitive issues such as relations between sexes, anything related to sex itself, or even early marriage, what can be done to address a stigmatised problem such as “bride kidnappings” and bring about change?

Agazade sees the answer in enforcing the already-existing laws: “Our legislation [protecting the rights of women] is perfect on paper, but the [enforcement] mechanisms are very weak. The men who perpetrate these crimes try to cite so-called traditions, saying, my grandmother was married off at a young age too.”

When it comes to the parallel universe of enthusiastic pronouncements by the Azerbaijani government, glamourous lifestyle magazines and smiling faces of the women in the country’s First Family, dressed in haute couture and posing for pictures with celebrities, there is a clear contradiction with the everyday life of an average Azerbaijani woman. “I would say that [violations of women’s rights] really is at odds with any government claims that it is pro-women’s rights, that it supports equality and non-discrimination.” says Margolis.

An important aspect of beginning to address the problem, according to Margolis, is making support services available and creating shelters for women.

Kamala Agazade happens to be running one such shelter in the capital, Baku. Behind the statistics, she sees faces of girls and boys who have come through her shelter in the five years of its existence.

“A few years ago, we had a girl placed here from one of the regions. She was the victim of sexual assault by several men. We worked with her for two years. Afterwards, she continued her education, and three months ago she sent me pictures of a wonderful family that she has now. She promised to come visit us next week together with her husband,” Agazade adds, smiling for the first time in the interview.

Source: www.opendemocracy.net

Photo: Domestic violence protest, Baku, 8 March 2019 | (c) Aziz Karimov/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire. All rights reserved

Illiberal democracies: Awash in media without plurality

Visitors to Eurasian countries — Turkey, Russia, Ukraine or, to a lesser extent, Azerbaijan — might be impressed by the sheer number of domestic television channels that offer news programming.

The average TV viewer in Turkey flipping through the local channels is treated to an alphabet soup — atv, Kanal D, NTV, STV, interspersed with FOX TV, CNN Türk, public broadcaster TRT and countless others — all employing a vast number of journalists and purporting to keep the viewers abreast of events shaping the domestic and global agenda. The broadcasts are slick: filled with chyrons, attention-grabbing graphics, remote reports, breaking news, heated exchanges between talking heads and all the other trappings of the modern-day 24-hour news cycle.

Watching the lively debates hosted by TV personalities, who exude an air of professionalism and discernment, with or without live audiences nodding in acquiescence or registering disapproval, viewers may be given the impression that they are being exposed to a wide range of opinions in a vibrant, competitive media market.

But does this wealth of channels translate into pluralism of points of view?

“Certainly not,” says Esra Arsan, journalism scholar and former columnist for Turkey’s Evrensel, one of the remaining newspapers supplying alternative news and commentary left in the country. “In Turkey, there’s no pluralistic media environment. The Turkish media have never been pluralistic in the true sense of the word, but at least there were once mechanisms that allowed for the voices of the right, left, mainstream and fringe wings to be heard, especially, on small media groups occupying the niche space,” she says, citing the formerly independent Turkish-language media, their Kurdish-language counterparts and those of other minority groups.

Arsan described the massive media reorganisation that took place in parallel with the rise of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party since 2007. “It was characterised by replacing the old media owners with the new ones with close ties to the government, and exercising total control over them, especially, in big media,” she adds.

During the Erdogan-inspired restructuring of the media, professional journalists and newsroom managers were forced out or jailed, Arsan says. The replacement managers left a lot to be desired. “Many of these people are uneducated, have no idea of journalistic ethics or professionalism, they’ve become the mouthpieces for the government”. She points out that more than 3,000 professional journalists who were working prior to 2007 are now jobless.

“Nowadays, no matter how many television broadcasters there are in Turkey, we can say the government exercises control over 90 percent of them,” says Ceren Sözeri, a communications faculty member at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University, citing a recent study conducted by Reporters Without Borders.

“Among the channels not under government control were stations belonging to Doğan Group, such as Kanal D and CNN Türk. Very recently, it was sold to Demirören Group, a conglomerate with close ties to the government,” Sözeri says.

Among the TV channels that are still able to provide diversity in the face of the pro-government news she tentatively cites FOX TV, Tele1 and HalkTV, the latter being associated with the CHP, the main opposition party. “With these exceptions, almost all other remaining channels work in conformity with the government, we can say we have an environment completely devoid of diversity,” Sözeri says.

Driven by Erdogan’s efforts to build a single-party regime, this media reorganisation pursued the goal of controlling information disseminated in the country. Buffered by the concurrent changes to the constitution and legal reforms, the jailing of journalists started to rise as well.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it should: “What [Russian president] Putin did since he came to power, was establish control over influential media outlets that had the capacity to form public opinion, firstly, TV,” notes Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“All federal channels are very tightly controlled by the state now, with the instructions sent to the heads of TV companies on how to report on certain situations. It’s very clear that anybody who appears on your screen on a federal channel in Russia knows how they can and cannot speak about important and critical issues like Ukraine and Syria,” she says noting the two hot-button issues around Russia’s ongoing military involvement abroad.

According to the latest numbers released by the Media and Law Studies Association, a Turkish non-profit that offers legal protection to the rising number of journalists who find themselves in the crosshairs of the government, with 173 journalists in jail, Turkey currently holds the dubious title of the regional leader.

With 10 journalists currently in jail, according to a CPJ report, Azerbaijan is a distant second in the region, and number one among the former Soviet nations. Russia has five, according to the same report.

In addition to the state-owned AzTV and Ictimai (Public) TV that was created in 2005 as part of the country’s commitments before the Council of Europe, there are four nationwide broadcasters in Azerbaijan: Atv, Xazar, Space and Lider.

Azerbaijani media rights lawyer Alasgar Mammadli says that all these channels fail to inject diversity into the discourse in his country because no outlet presents a balanced viewpoint.

“The media only cover the government’s point of view. Considering the realities of Azerbaijan where the majority of information is obtained through TV and radio, we not only don’t have access to objective information, there’s no room for pluralistic news, we only have one expression, one colour.” He calls it “propaganda coming from the government that is disseminated to a large swath of the public,” noting that the internet is the only place offering some semblance of pluralism.

“In the entire region, I’d probably not name a single country where we’ve seen a positive trend, with the slight exception of, surprisingly, Uzbekistan,” says CPJ’s Said, noting that with the new administration of president Shavkat Mirziyoyev there has been a process of liberalisation, and for the first time in more than two decades, there are no journalists in jail.

Said notes that another negative trend is very visible in Ukraine since Russia annexed its region of Crimea in 2014. “At the time, after the Euromaidan [the wave of civil unrest that resulted in the government change], the Ukrainian media space had been relatively free for some time, but right now what we see is that the authorities are trying to control the flow of information, and the attempts are very visible and quite strong.”

Said explains that Ukrainian journalists are facing obstacles practically every day, stressing that she is not talking about Russian journalists trying cover the news from Ukraine. “The [Ukrainian] Ministry of Defense is making it extremely difficult for local journalists to get the so-called ‘military accreditation’ that would allow them to go to the eastern part of the country and cover combat operations,” says Said, adding that one of the newly imposed requirements is that the journalists applying for accreditation must provide previously written stories about the conflict.

“I would say it is censorship, because the government is trying to control the way the journalists cover the conflict,” she points out.

Galina Petrenko, director of Detector Media, a Ukrainian media watchdog organisation, disagrees: “There is pluralism [in Ukraine]. The economic interests doubtless manipulate the discourse, as the largest media belong not to the government, but to oligarchs, formidable businessmen conjoined with the power. That’s why business interests of each of these owners are reflected in the content of the media they own.”

Ukraine’s TV and radio council puts the number of the national TV broadcasters at 30, in addition to 72 regional channels. The country counts 120 satellite TV channels.

Maria Tomak of the Kyiv-based Media Initiative for Human Rights in Kyiv says that oligarchic ownership of the media has implications for pluralism. “We do have the freedom of speech, in comparison with Russia and other nations, but we do have limitations that are sometimes very tricky and are related to the economic factors, since we don’t have all that many independent media.”

She says that there is more than one “clan” or “group of influence” engaged in a struggle for power and influence. This conflict more or less preserves a tenuous pluralism. “When they start ‘oligarchic wars’, TVs show documentary footage or run news stories that clearly indicate who calls the shots at a particular channel. They mudsling or broadcast expose-style programmes, but it’s hard to call them objective, and it is hard to call it pluralism in its ideal sense.”

Bad examples are contagious

“The countries of the region quite often and quite speedily learn from each other’s negative experience,” says Mammadli. “For instance, Azerbaijan started officially blocking sites in February of 2017 through amendments to legislation. Before that, it was prevalent in Turkey and Russia.” He adds that the majority of the blocked sites are related to the alternative news sources. Mammadli puts the number of the internet sites and resources blocked in Russia at more than 136,000.

“We live in a region neighbouring Russia and Turkey and share ties with them, which speeds up the migration of these experiences into our country. Thus, the negative changes or attitudes towards human rights or the tendencies to limit freedom and rule of law in these countries can come to our country very fast,” he says. “It turns into a competition with the following logic, ‘the neighbor did it and got away with it, so let me try and see what happens’.’’

CPJ’s Said notes that these traditionally autocratic regimes keep one eye on the USA, which has been regarded as the flagman of press freedom and liberal democracy for decades. “Everybody used to look up at the USA, but since Trump was elected president, you know his routine, he wakes up in the middle of the night and starts tweeting, attacking journalists and critical media, calling everything they produce ‘fake news’.”

In her view, this definitely affects global press freedom, as dictators and elected officials with autocratic tendencies step up their pressure on critical media outlets in their own countries.

Arsan says of the effects of this phenomenon in Turkey: “If the dictator says the news is wrong or fake, even if you bring the most truthful news to them, be it on the issue of the human rights, war, the economy, the people will tend to disbelieve you. This makes the job of a journalist that much harder, because we chase the truth, and we see the tendency to disbelieve or outright denial on behalf of the audience.”

“Vulnerable stability” as the dangerous consequence

The shrinking plurality in the media throughout the entire region leads to a somewhat distorted processes of decision making during elections, says Said.

“The lack of plurality, which is a lack of democratic process or access to such, does, in general, make any society more vulnerable. If we look at the situation inside any country, also, when you look at dictators like Putin, you may get an impression that their power is very stable and strong. But that’s a very vulnerable stability,” she adds, explaining it with the fact that it is, ultimately, one person making decisions for the entire country of millions of people.

“If you look at what Erdogan has been doing for the last 10 years or so, he has been pursuing the policy of turning Turkey into a regional leader and suppressing any alternative voice. Same with Putin and his foreign policy in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea, or Syria. In a way, it is back to the USSR, where people could discuss things only among their family or close friends in their kitchens.”

In the opinion of Arsan, as media plurality shrinks, societies become increasingly unaware of  crises, which might set them on a path to disintegration. “This is the process of criminalising political discussion,” she said. “This is common in many Eurasian countries, as well as in the Middle East. These are the dictatorships without an end. People don’t want to go to the ballot boxes anymore because they don’t think they can effect change.”

For Mammadli, the people’s inability to access true information and analyse it means that they are contending with mass propaganda. From this point of view, the societies where people don’t know the truth will base their reactions on a lie, he says.

Original article: www.indexoncensorship.org

A strong and independent legal community is the most significant obstacle to the arbitrariness of authoritarian rule.

On the evening of 29 May, Samad Rahimli, an Azerbaijani lawyer and human rights defender, was sat at a desk in the middle of a large auditorium. Facing him were seven members of the Azerbaijani Collegium of Lawyers’ admission committee, who were waiting to interview him and decide whether or not he would be admitted. Although Rahimli had been warned privately that he would not be accepted, he was calm and ready for the interview.

“The oral interview was supposed to last up to 30 minutes, and I was held there for 35,” he says. “The rest (of the candidates) were quizzed for 10-15 minutes.” Rahimli knew this because he’d been waiting for his interview since morning. His turn came at around 6 pm.

Rahimli knew full well that the second, oral part of the interview is broad by design, and that the seven committee members sitting opposite him at a U-shaped table, were not going to go easy on him. “I was interrupted, I was told my responses were wrong, I was told to cite the article by heart, not to be argumentative,” he says, adding that he refused to answer some questions or quote obscure articles and rules because he didn’t consider himself under any obligation to do so per rules of the examination.

In the end, just as the private warnings had prophesied, and despite years of experience working on cases and bringing dozens of them to the European Court of Human Rights, Rahimli was informed that he had not passed. He and others say that he was not admitted precisely because of this experience.

The systematic elimination of free thinkers

That Azerbaijan is no heaven for fundamental freedoms is common knowledge. The harassment of lawyers by law enforcement and judiciary has been occurring for a long time, and is well documented. But 2017 was the year when the Azerbaijani authorities began systematically eliminating the independent legal profession as an institution.

At the risk of dismantling the country’s already tenuous rule of law system, the Azerbaijani government has been arresting, harassing and disbarring lawyers. It has also influenced the Collegium of Lawyers to discriminate during bar entrance exams against any lawyer deemed unreliable or disloyal or who dares to provide legal representation to the authorities’ opponents. While introducing cosmetic reforms, the regime is rolling out new restrictive laws on lawyering, eliminating all the critical members of the Collegium and replacing them with subservient loyalists and government advocates.

“The crackdown on the lawyers is part of a long process of eliminating the government’s opponents,” says Yalchin Imanov, a lawyer who was disbarred in 2017 for his human rights work. “First, the government went after political parties, then, in 2014, they went after civil society and the media. From then on, the only institution that had independent free-thinkers was the Collegium of Lawyers… These attacks on them had been occurring in the past, as well, but not in such a systematic way like now.”

When the notorious crackdown of 2014 on the Azerbaijani civil society started, it was the human rights lawyers who drew attention to these attacks, says Intigam Aliyev, a prominent lawyer in Azerbaijan who was disbarred and spent 2014-2016 in prisonfor his human rights work. Aliyev adds that the state “always viewed the legal profession through a prism of political interests and as of strategic importance.”

Maran Turner, executive director at Freedom Now, a Washington-based NGO that works on the rights of lawyers in Azerbaijan among others, notes that despite all the pressure on the independent legal profession “the lawyers that are the most active, they are continuing to do this work, even though most of them have been disbarred.”

The collegium of yes-men

On paper, the Collegium of Lawyers is an independent non-governmental organisation that operates based on Azerbaijan’s Law on Lawyers and Legal Activities. It was created in 2004 as a requirement set forth by the international organisations that the country became a member of, such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A self-regulating organisation, the Collegium is supposed to defend the rights and freedoms under the law, provide citizens with professional legal representation and enhance the prestige of the legal profession, as stated on its website.

“The legal profession that is considered one of most effective mechanisms for the defense of human rights in the world, in Azerbaijan is simply a decoration,” Intigam Aliyev remarks. “In the best case scenario, our Collegium operates like a department of the Justice Ministry or the Presidential Apparatus.”

The organisation’s complete dependence on the government’s good graces is not news. A 2014 OSCE report outlines in detail many ways in which the organisation is not only dependent on the Azerbaijani state – but is also being used to suppress lawyers who are willing to represent and speak up on behalf of victims of grave human rights violations.

When the Collegium of Lawyers elected a new chairman in December 2017, some had hopes that he would improve Azerbaijan’s legal profession on the whole and the organisation itself.

For years, the Collegium had been led by Azer Tagiyev, and Anar Bagirov, the young lawyer who replaced him, initially impressed observers in the legal community, media and civil society at large, giving frequent interviews in which he stressed the importance of improving the legal profession. Bagirov also acknowledged that Azerbaijan has one of the lowest ratios of lawyers per capita in the world (one lawyer per more than 10,000 citizens), and called for immediate reforms.

However, not everyone was impressed. “We stressed that the problem with Anar Bagirov is that he is a business partner of the Azerbaijani Justice Minister’s son, who also owns a law firm,” says Samad Rahimli. “We said that he (Bagirov) has a business relationship and (is in a dependent position on the latter) which would raise questions about his objectivity and further complicate an already complex situation.”

In fact, many lawyers mention that although Azer Taghiyev wasn’t a reformist by any stretch of imagination, he was more protective of Collegium members – and willing to negotiate with the government.

When Bagirov took over chairmanship of the Collegium, he vowed to raise its membership numbers. Azerbaijan, with its population of 10 million, has slightly more than 1,000 collegium members, whereas neighbouring Georgia and Armenia – which have populations of roughly four and three million each – have more than 4,000 and 1,500 collegium members respectively, according to data released by the Kazakhstan collegium.

After Bagirov took over chairmanship, the number of bar members did increase by over a hundred people, but none of them were human rights lawyers. Just as Bagirov took over the organisation, a wave of disbarments started to hit Azerbaijan’s human rights lawyers. Yalchin Imanov was disbarred in December 2017, and then two other lawyers, Asabali Mustafayev and Nemat Karimli, had their licenses temporarily suspended in April 2018. Irada Javadova, another professional who had vocally opposed violations, was disbarred in June 2018. At the same time, in October 2017, new amendments to the Law on Representation were introduced by the government, prohibiting lawyers who aren’t Collegium members from practicing even procedural and civil law.

“Anar Bagirov managed to do in six months what Azer Tagiyev couldn’t do [in years]. This is an indicator of his success in fulfilling all of his obligations before the government,” Rahimli comments facetiously, lamenting that Bagirov’s short tenure has seen a sharp decline in lawyers’ activity in general.

Murphy’s law

Prior to November 2017, if a lawyer was disbarred in Azerbaijan, they could still legally represent clients in court with the exception of criminal cases. But new amendments to Azerbaijan’s Law on Representation changed the consequences of disbarment for lawyers, reserving the right to represent clients in any court proceedings only for Collegium members.

Commenting on these changes, Yalchin Imanov says that some lawyers resisted them at the time, calling them a move against lawyers as an institution. For him, the goal was to deprive independent lawyers of an opportunity to work once and for all. “The disbarment would serve as a cautionary tale, it would keep the rest in check, sending a signal that if they follow in the footsteps of so-and-so, the same fate would await them too.”

Once these amendments were introduced, Bagirov rushed to ensure the public that the law was part of the reforms he’d promised, and that the Collegium would soon welcome new members as the result of the bar examination.

“Anar Bagirov managed to do in six months what Azer Tagiyev couldn’t do (in years). This is an indicator of his success in fulfilling all of his obligations before the government”

Yet according to critics, the oral examination – previously a part of the Collegium’s entrance exam – has become a tool for undermining the candidacies of lawyers the government deems undesirable or disloyal. Most of the lawyers who fail the new examination have failed it exactly at the final stage, the oral examination.

Rahimli bemoans the lack of objective methodology for the exam, mentioning that the issue is considered so serious that it has been raised with the Council of Europe – whereas Imanov is critical of the vagueness of the rules and laws defining the oral examination process itself. “There are no articles enumerating the exact fashion in which this procedure is conducted in the law, rules or the by-laws of the Collegium of Lawyers. However, by common logic, the final step ought to examine the general worldview of the candidates who had already passed the first step and whose knowledge of the applicable law had been tested.”

“It clearly signals that the Collegium will not admit independent or opposition-minded members, as well as those working on human rights cases,” Imanov adds. “I don’t think it is plausible that lawyers who have participated in numerous civil cases, represented clients in court, successfully forwarded cases to the European Court of Human Rights, possess inferior knowledge of the law to the extent that they cannot pass the oral examination. This is the undeniable proof of bias against them and the intent to keep them out.”

It’s pure math, according to Aliyev: “The heavy workload of numerous administrative, civil and criminal cases in the campaign of repressions against civil society was shouldered by 10-15 lawyers. They turned into a major headache for the government. Now, imagine that the Collegium of Lawyers was an independent and democratic organisation, and it numbered not 10-15, but 1,000-1,500 independent and principled lawyers. The authoritarian government understands this danger very well,” he says, adding that in a country with 150 political prisoners, there are now only six lawyers working on political cases.

In terms of the future that awaits lawyers who fail the oral examination, Intigam Aliyev says that “for some of them, the doors close for good. These are the politically active lawyers who criticise the government in the press and on social media.” A second group, Aliyev says, are the ones who still have a chance to get back in the good graces of the government if they “behave”.


With less than a dozen independent members left in the Collegium, Azerbaijan is on the path of further dismantling the rule of law and the ability of the judiciary system to do its work. However, some international organisations are satisfied with what they see so far. “Unfortunately, a few international organisations have presented the cosmetic changes at the Collegium of Lawyers as a reform. How can you explain to them that a new building or even admission of new members to the Collegium does not constitute a reform?” Aliyev asks. “It is impossible to reform an organisation that is under total government control, is managed by the feudal era rules, that prohibits lawyers from speaking out, and where fawning and flattery are a norm.”

Speaking of the ethics code adopted by the Collegium’s new management, Rahimli is critical of some of its stipulations. “There are some difficult new obligations that the lawyers are supposed to abide by. It says a lawyer must be objective and neutral, which goes against the very nature of lawyers’ obligations to their clients. Lawyers are not objective, they take a side. Lawyers are also not supposed to engage in politics, a point reiterated by Anar Bagirov himself. Some of the lawyers were warned not to politicise the organisation, and warned that they will not be admitted because they were suspected of wanting to do just that.”

“Some of the lawyers were warned not to politicise the organisation, and warned that they will not be admitted because they were suspected of wanting to do just that”

But, as Maran Turner says, no matter how much the government has pressured independent lawyers, they are still highly regarded in Azerbaijani society and even by the government, who can’t easily dismiss them as a “fifth column”. In order to break the vicious circle of pressure on them, Turner suggests working with international financial institutions that provide the financial aid highly craved by Azerbaijani authorities.

“(International financial institutions) should be telling the government that respect for the lawyers is about respect for the international law, for the rule of law and independent judiciary. This is about having a healthy institution. If you don’t have independent lawyers, if you have very few lawyers, then you completely compromise your judiciary,” Turner adds.


On the evening of 5 June, almost a week after the examination, Samad Rahimli searched for his name on the site of those admitted to the Collegium. “I was not surprised,” he says dispassionately. “It meant I wasn’t admitted. Azerbaijan is a small country. I was warned my chances were pretty slim.”

Source: www.opendemocracy.net

Illustration: Iryna Stasiuk.

Eurasian governments’ use of journalism for crisis agenda management erodes trust in media.

When the Winter Cherry shopping mall in Kemerovo, Russia caught on fire on 25 March 2018, Russia’s citizens found themselves glued to televisions anxious for updates.

With 60 dead, among them 41 children, the fire was classified as the second largest in Russia in recent years. However, what the Russian public saw on TV wasn’t so much news updates about the conditions of the victims or condolences from president Vladimir Putin, or news of a thorough investigation into what caused the tragedy. Instead, anchormen and women, their suits pressed, their most serious masks on and hair conservatively styled, dove into demagogic tirades, highlighting the importance of national unity at a time of crisis in the face of an ephemeral enemy. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be an external enemy,” says Russian journalist Alexandrina Elagina, speaking in the aftermath of the tragedy in Kemerovo. “These could be terrorists, or ‘western partners’, or enemies of the people and the fifth column. This is where the shenanigans begin,” she adds, speaking of the punishment of the low-level officials that usually comes next, while top-tier management is left untouched.

But Russia’s state and pro-government media, the principle news sources available to Russian citizens across the entire country, continued their deceitful harangue on why this fire was an attack on president Putin and why the people should unite with the government against western threats, instead of questioning the authorities and expressing discontent over the handling of this crisis.

That the media take cues from state authorities in the immediate aftermath of a serious event or a disaster is nothing new. As Maria Tomak of the Media Initiative for Human Rights in Kyiv recalls, one of the oldest examples, as well as the most tragic, is the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in the waning days of the Soviet Union in 1986. For days the Soviet media refused to report on the incident until after the international broadcasters broke the story.

Disasters, be it natural or man-made that result in loss of human life on a mass scale can cause spontaneous mass outrage and, eventually, unrest. As such, Maria Tomak says, the Chernobyl catastrophe, according to some, was one of the reasons behind the collapse of the USSR. Aware of such contingencies and seeing them as a threat to their authority, governments in Eurasia seek to prevent escalation and do so by attempting to manage media coverage in the crisis situations.  The authorities divert public attention and anger from the real events to manufactured ones, as well as using media to divide the agenda and minimise the scale of the event. If that fails, the next step seems to be to blame the event on an artificially created enemy – be it internal (terrorism, civil war) or external (an unfriendly neighbour or the west.)

The winds of negligence

Media practitioners across Eurasia interviewed for this article agree that the underlying problem is often government negligence. When it results in mass catastrophes, authoritarian governments do their best to shift the blame and make sure they are in control of public reactions. In doing so, they attempt to distract the public and divert its attention from its own complicity in the unfolding events.

Alasgar Mammadli, a media rights lawyer from Azerbaijan, cites a few examples of clear mismanagement in this South Caucasus state, such as the deaths of more than 30 oil rig workers due to high winds in the Caspian sea, and a fire in a high rise in Baku because of fake decorative panels that turned out to be highly flammable in 2015, the burning down of an in-patient drug treatment facility that resulted in three dozen deaths, as well as the deaths in the April 2016 flare up of the ongoing conflict with Armenia. In all of these cases the Azerbaijani authorities first attempted to minimise the tragedy and then divert the focus to other news, which seems to be the usual modus operandi.

Lobar Islamova, editor of Anhor.uz news site in Uzbekistan, says autocratic governments seek to portray themselves as faultless, whereas they are quite often the ones at fault. Citing the Andijon tragedy, when Uzbek security forces fatally fired on protesters in 2005, Islamova says there’s a litany of serious and uncomfortable questions regarding the government’s failure to prevent a peaceful resolution of this conflict, and in order to conceal information, autocratic governments are forced to initiate mass repressions, as it happened after the Andijon events.

In the immediate aftermath, the Uzbek authorities limited media access to the city, and let only those local and international (mostly, Russian pro-government) media that would support their narrative: that the crackdown was an anti-terrorism operation. To ensure the victims of the Andijon crackdown didn’t talk to independent media and reveal the truth, the authorities arrested them, and also threatened their families. “People were thrown in jail on hastily put together charges with little regard for the authenticity of the evidence… while their relatives were threatened not to disclose the arbitrary jailings to the public to avoid bringing more harm upon their arrested family members,” Islamova adds.

What often follows after tragedies like Andijon is an attempt to downplay the tragedy through mass media. “We see it in a systemic fashion, as the media are directly controlled by the government or the people connected to it, so the first effort is to minimise the scale of the event, to move it to the backburner to the extent possible, and switch the agenda,” says Alasgar Mammadli.

Mammadli notes that these attempts usually unfold on TV because these channels are precisely the ones under control. “They bring completely (irrelevant) people into the agenda,” he says, describing a notorious case when a TV host on Azerbaijan’s ATV channel, Matanat Aliverdiyeva, seemed to call people not to blow the 2015 Baku apartment block fire – which resulted multiple deaths, including children – out of proportion. “This was just like the wind that’d blown over us, as if we’d watched a horror movie,” Aliverdiyeva said on her live show, pointing to the fact that the tragedy was done and over with, seemingly urging people to move on. These comments enraged a huge chunk of the Azerbaijani public, many of whom called for her dismissal.

Mammadli says in these situations the goal is to prevent the unifying of mass protest and directing it towards a singular target, and, instead, to create a number of smaller alternative targets and direct the attention there. He calls it a purposefully done, controlled process. “It’s not just a statement by someone who misspoke or said something ignorant. This is something that was planned consciously because everybody knows that at the end of the day, be it a social issue or a natural disaster, behind all of them there is either an element of corruption, or bad governance, if you look deep enough. And the protests, as the result, will be directed at the government,” he adds.

In cases when minimising the problem doesn’t work, there’s always an internal or external enemy that could come handy. Zebo Tajibayeva, editor of the Asia Plus news agency in Dushanbe, says in Tajikistan there’s a popular pro-government narrative that states that anything is better than the 1992-1997 civil war. At different times, the Tajik state, and media close to it, create false narratives of neighbouring Uzbekistan as an exterior enemy, as well as painting the Islamic Renaissance Party and the former United Tajik Opposition members-turned-militants as internal enemies.

Maria Tomak echoes this sentiment, saying that this kind of “enemy manufacturing” narrative is well-known even in seemingly pluralistic countries like Ukraine. She cites an example of a series of explosions at military ammunition warehouses in central Ukraine last year which were blamed on the Russian Federal Security Service without hesitation, while it might have been a simple result of negligence on the Ukrainian side.

The false estate

But when the media as a source of news and facts is reduced to nothing more than a trumpeter of government propaganda in former Soviet republics, their citizens no longer view these outlets and journalism as the fourth estate – one that would inform them of the true dealings of the government.

Zebo Tajibayeva says that in rural areas in Tajikistan, where state media are often the only sources of news, there is still some trust towards them. However, she adds, in areas where populations have access to more media and alternative sources of information and fact-checking, propaganda media outlets – and the media in general – often lose their credibility.

Lobar Islamova says even in Uzbekistan, where access to information has for years been severely restricted, government media are treated with a grain of salt. “For years people have been calling the Akhrobot, (state TV news) program ‘News from Heaven’. But nobody believed or paid attention to them. All these state newspapers and media were able to sustain themselves till now only due to government subsidies,” she adds.

Tomak says that a similar trend can be observed even in a country like Ukraine, where the media scene is rather vibrant, and freedom of expression does exist. “The largest channels in terms of ratings and audience in Ukraine belong to oligarchs and industrial groups, and, therefore, we can’t talk of healthy pluralism. And while, on one hand, the media is often seen as an instrument of upholding the law, there is also apprehension that they are lying,” she says.

Mammadli says that in a society like his native Azerbaijan, the people “normally don’t trust the media. They know that the media do not cover its problems or realities, and instead are engaged in propaganda. In this regard, we shouldn’t lose sight of one aspect: in the modern times, social media are more effective.”

Stop being the megaphone

The growing appeal of social media – which are key channels in a crisis – as an alternative source of information in countries where the traditional media are regarded with mistrust or ridicule often means that the former play the role of not only preserving the “real” agenda, but also pushing it on the government-controlled media, says Mammadli. “The agenda in Azerbaijan is being set by social media, its agenda seeps into the official media one way or the other, even in counter-effective ways. For instance, in the case of a big event and its discussion in the social media, it becomes necessary (for the state) to use the traditional media in order to either to deny, condemn or ridicule it.”

Islamova comments that the secret of gaining back the public trust is pretty simple: “The authorities must make their work transparent, verifiable and open. The media must report the facts without the fear of persecution and being judged with extreme bias. An important factor is the money, as businesses are afraid to (advertise) in the brave media who criticize officials and the authorities.”

“First of all, they have to stop acting like a megaphone for the authorities,” is Tajibayeva’s solution. “The media have to learn how to make money, and their financial independence will afford them independence in other aspects, as well.”

Source: www.opendemocracy.net

Photo: Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Turkish artists continue their work in the face of repression

The last time Onur Erem and his girlfriend Zehra Doğan, a Turkish artist and journalist, met face-to-face, she was chirpy and seemed happy, he recalls. They sat at a picnic table and talked about her art being concurrently exhibited in various places around the world, from New York to Europe. They were surrounded by other families, busily conversing amongst each other at the picnic tables to their left and right.

But this was no picnic. Two prison guards walking up and down the aisle in between two rows of tables screwed to the concrete floor, eyeing the prisoners and their families with forced indifference masking wariness, made sure no one lost sight of the fact.

“She was in good spirits,” Erem says, attributing it to her continuing to create art while in prison, just like she did on the outside, before her sudden arrest as she was awaiting the outcome of the court case against her on charges of spreading propaganda in favour of a terrorist organisation.

“She writes down the stories of the people she met there. Since there’s not much in terms of the supplies on the inside, she uses the dyes that she makes from food. They don’t give her canvass, so she draws either on clothing or envelopes from the letters she receives. She collects the bird feathers that fall in the prison yard and makes improvised brushes out of them,” he explains.

The reason for Doğan’s incarceration was the drawing she made while covering the Turkish military operation in the town of Nusaybin on the border with Syria, populated mainly by Kurds. The drawing was made based on the photograph that had previously been circulated widely by the Turkish military on social media, according to press reports and Erem. The point of contention is whether the original photograph did or did not include the flags of the Turkish Republic hanging from buildings half-destroyed during the operation.

“She drew a military vehicle in the form of a scorpion. I’d say, this was her only addition to the photograph itself,” he says explaining that the military vehicle his girlfriend depicted in such a manner is referred to as “Akrep”, the Turkish word for a scorpion. “However the judge, in spite of all the evidence presented, sided with the opinion that the photo was taken by Zehra herself, that the original photo didn’t contain the Turkish flags hanging from the destroyed buildings and that [she] added them on for propaganda purposes, and thus, by way of this picture she was engaged in a propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organisation.”

Boxing the art    

The widely-shared narrative is that Erdogan lashed out against artists after the July 2016 coup attempt. However, his government had gone after scores of artists and their freedom of artistic expression much earlier, of which Doğan is but one example. Two years after the coup, the crackdown doesn’t seem to dissipate, and the arrest of Turkish rapper Ezhel on inciting drug use in his songs on 24 May 2018 being the latest occurrence.

Attacks on artists across Turkey range from firing of one of the country’s most prominent orchestra conductors İbrahim Yazıcı for his criticism of the Erdogan government, to decapitating Ankara University’s theater department by dismissing Tülin Sağlam, its head and five other senior professors critical of the authoritarianism; from arrests of popular cartoonists, such as Cumhuriyet newspaper’s Musa Kart, to handing down a 10-months sentence against Zuhal Olcay, one of the country’s most popular singers and actresses.

The limitation of artistic freedoms is clearly a trend in Turkey, says Julie Trebault, Director of Artists at Risk Connection, an artistic freedom non-profit based in New York, adding that while in the past two years the attacks have escalated, they’d started before the coup attempt.

Years in the making

“We have several cases, for example, the case of the two filmmakers who have released their film, Bakur in 2015. Bakur was screened at many festivals in Europe for a couple of months without being censored or attacked. And then, in 2015, at the 34th Istanbul film festival, just hours before the premiere, the film got censored,” she recalls, explaining that the film was a documentary about the PKK, a Kurdistan Workers’ Party that is considered a terrorist organisation by the government of Turkey.

As to the persecution of artists even before the coup, Trebault adds “When Erdogan became president, things went down and down and down in Turkey. It took years to arrive where we are in Turkey [now]”.

Turkish filmmaker Elif Refiğ sees the roots and the reasons for the persecution of artists in the Gezi Park protests of 2013. “There had been a very serious oppositional sentiment that had collected in the society until then, that failed to organise until that moment. A very important feature, it included artistic institutions, and its nature was very creative to the extent that it changed the very definition of ‘disobedience’,” she says. According to her, it was a completely peaceful campaign spearheaded by arts institutions that didn’t tolerate violence, and it spread all over the country.

Refiğ points out that in addition to arrests, torture and jailings as ways for the state to punish the disobedient artists that often meet the eye, there are other ways of applying pressure: “The economic obstacles make the lives of the artists miserable. Blacklisting. It makes it difficult for the people to find work, impedes their freedom of movement.” As the case in point, she cites Füsun Demirel, popular television and cinema actress who has been struggling to find work for the past three years because “she is a Kurd, and because she openly voiced her opinions.”

As harmful as it is for the arts in Turkey, the crackdown on the freedom of artistic expression has also affected the general public, Trebault says.

“There’s definitely more self-censorship. People tend to get less out about those issues. People tend to be extremely careful on what they are saying,” she adds.

Responding to a question about the public’s reaction, Refiğ says that, although, the general public is critical, “Where would the criticism from the society be coming from? At this point, all television channels, all newspapers have been silenced by the forces in power.” She explains that multiple ongoing court cases against the media outlets are having a chilling effect on the public.

While the Turkish society is succumbing to self-censorship and its artists are fighting to get out their artistic word amid incarceration and repressions, the international community is struggling with possible solutions.

International support coming too late

“In my personal opinion, the international support is coming to Turkey too late,” says Refiğ. She explains that some international institutions like Pen America or Amnesty International are doing their best to call the international attention to the ongoing crisis with the freedom of expression in Turkey, while others, “institutionalised international organisations,” as she terms them, such as the E.U. and the Council of Europe, for instance, have their own pressing concerns-not letting the mass influx of refugees from the conflicts in the MENA region to cross into their borders, and, therefore, desperately needing the co-operation of the Turkish government.

“At very critical points, when they shouldn’t have restrained their words, they stood by our government, as they were afraid of the opening of the borders [by Turkey] and a free movement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees to Europe” she says of the international institutions. “Hypocrisy is the word that even might come to one’s mind.  Words-wise, there’s a lip service to improving the human rights situation in Turkey, but action-wise, there’s very little acting upon it, unfortunately.”

Trebault, on the other hand, says Turkey, as a member of various international bodies is a signatory to important international human rights treaties, and Western governments should call on its government to abide by them.

Grim prospects, great expectations

Looking into the future, Trebault says she doubts things will get better in the next few years in Turkey.

“In 2017 the referendum gave even more power to the president,” she says of the plebiscite that effectively abolished the parliamentary system existing at the time and replaced it with the presidential system with a much stronger executive. “So, to be honest with you, I don’t think there will be changes for the better with this government,” she says.

Back in Diyarbakır’s E-type maximum security prison, while counting days until her release, Doğan is also pondering her future.

Making plans for after her release upon completing her two-and-a-half-year sentence next February, Erem says Doğan plans to continue working on her art, as well as her work as a journalist. “Currently, there’s an exhibit of her artwork In France that includes paintings and drawings smuggled out of the prison, as well as her previous work. This draws the attention of the artistic community, as well as the society at large, that’s why she wants to continue.”

He says that his girlfriend is also taking notes while in prison that she’s planning to use for writing a book when she is out.

“Of course, the solidarity that she sees on the outside also helps a lot. [It] helps her and her jailed friends to keep their spirits high, as they see that their voices are heard on the outside and there are quite a few people who don’t want to leave their side.”

Source: www.indexoncensorship.org

Photo: Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan

Turkey’s academia witch hunt hits Kurdish studies

When in 2014 sociologist Azat Gündoğan and his wife – both Western-educated professors of Kurdish origin from Turkey – made the decision to move home, they felt excited. The couple had accepted teaching jobs at Mardin Artuklu University – a university created in Turkey’s south-east region, in the city of Mardin, as part of the  so-called Kurdish Opening in 2007 – and were looking forward to reuniting with their families, friends and their people.

“When we decided to go back, we knew that we would find great colleagues there. We were so excited to do our research there, bring our experience of alternative world to generally first generation Kurdish students. It was a good thing to do, plus as a family, we would be together,” he recalls.

Little did they know that their euphoria would be short lived, and that it would take something as benevolent  as a 2016 peace petition to crush the foundations of Kurdish academia in Turkey.

A small window for Kurdish Academia

For decades, the Turkish state dismissed its 12 million-strong Kurdish minority and their right to education in their native language, let alone Kurdish studies. After being prohibited during the 1990s because the Turkish state saw it as an element of separatism, the Kurdish language resurfaced in public life as Turkey attempted to enter the European Union in the 2000s. The government initiated the Kurdish Opening, a multi-tiered policy approach intended to resolve tensions with the Kurdish minority.

“Unfortunately, in Turkey, like with any other minority, when it comes to Kurdish professors, associate professors, or researchers, it was not an environment where people could openly declare their [ethnic] identity, in academia they would try to cover it to the possible extent, wouldn’t ever try to come forward with their Kurdish identity prior to the Kurdish Opening,” says Ali Akel, freelance journalist and former Washington correspondent for Yeni Şafak newspaper, adding that not a single university taught Kurdish studies prior to the Kurdish Opening, and when there were attempts to do so, the Turkish government shut them down for various technical excuses.

However, during the Kurdish Opening, “Kurdish academics did demonstrate courage to make their positions known,” he says.

Gündoğan recalls that in 2007 the AKP opened a number of universities across the country. One of them, the Mardin Artuklu University, became the cradle of Kurdology. In 2009, Turkey’s Board of Higher Education allowed this university to set up a Department of Living Languages, including Kurdish. The university invited Kurdish scholars from abroad to help. The department was not only to research Kurdish language, history and culture, but also train professors and scholars to teach future generations. In 2009 the head of the board, Yusuf Ziya Özcan said, “This is the model we will use if other universities want to serve citizens who speak different languages,” and then president Abdullah Gül spoke on TV about the importance for the Kurdish minority to use its own language.

Yet many of the efforts were just on paper, Akel says, reminding of an example from 2015, when the Turkish Ministry of Education published the names of the teachers certified for various disciplines.

“How many people do you think there were for the Kurdish language? Just one,” he stressed. “This shows the attitude.”

The Gündoğans, encouraged  by the Kurdish Opening, returned home and started teaching at Mardin Artuklu University. But, he says, they felt that things were quickly deteriorating.

“There were local changes: the Kurdish peace process was halted, plus the refugee crisis, and the electoral victory of the HDP [a pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party]. And we witnessed the local reflections of these developments. While for the Turkish academia, in general, the turning point was the peace petition, by then in the Kurdish academia we had already started to experience oppression, and the changing attitudes at the university,” Gündoğan says.

In 2015, the liberal rector of the university was replaced by an Erdoğan-backer, and once appointed the new rector terminated contracts with 13 foreign professors. Other professors protested and started organizing to create a collective titled “Independent University Platform” on campus as an alternative academic community, he recalls.

But while Kurdish scholars were fighting to preserve what little was created during the Kurdish Opening window, Turkey was hit by a larger academia crisis.

When calling for peace is a threat to the state

The fledgling process came to the complete halt in February 2016 when numerous members of the Turkish academic circles started circulating a document that became known as a “peace petition.” The document meant as a benevolent appeal to the conscience of the Turkish state and citizenry and calling for the immediate end to hostilities against the civilians in the majority-Kurdish regions of south-eastern Turkey was initially signed by 1,128 academics, reversed the tentative progress of the Kurdish Opening and erased all of its humble gains.

However, Gündoğan considers himself and his wife “the lucky ones” in this entire ordeal: “Our colleagues, their careers are finished. One of them, in Ankara, committed suicide. Others lost jobs. Some are jailed.”

He calls this “the very turning point for the Turkish academia” as it relates to the state’s reaction: “They react only whenever they [the state] feel that there is a point of articulation between the Kurds and the Turks, and alliance that would create a danger, a risk, that would offset the official discourse.”

In his opinion, this was the exact such moment, “Because that initiative didn’t come from the Kurds per se. If it did, as was the case a ton of times in the past, the state could contain it easily, by violence, by marginalisation, by stigmatisation, by oppression.” However, this time, the movement  came from academics at the most established and prestigious universities, and they started demanding peace, and the peaceful nature of these demands coming from the most established segments of the society, the academia, was exactly what scared and angered the state, Gündoğan concludes.

Akel agrees, considering the leading role played by the Turkish, rather than Kurdish academia in circulating the peace petition.

Among those who signed the petition, be it from abroad, or from Turkish universities such as Boğaziçi, Galatasaray, Gazi or ODTÜ (Middle East Technical University) “there were Kurds, of course, academics of Kurdish origin,” and in large numbers, according to Akel, which led the government to label the entire initiative as the pro-PKK propaganda and sue many of the signatories, even before the orchestrated crackdown began.

Akel, speaking of the government reaction, says, “I believe, the number of the removed [from university jobs] was 5,200 and growing. It was no longer about those who merely opposed the government, but not actively being on the side of the government was enough.”

Rosa Burç, an ethnically Kurdish academic from Turkey, a political scientist at the University of Bonn, speaking of the scope of the government retaliation and university expulsions in the aftermath of the peace petition, calls it a “witch hunt”: “According to the Turkish state, the [petition] didn’t condemn the terrorists’ actions. So, thus, a whole witch hunt against all kinds of thinkers- academics, writers, journalists, and not just Kurdish, but also non-Kurdish people started there.”

The return of the 1990s

Two years after the peace petition, things are further deteriorating, Gündoğan says. And according to Burç, the charges against the academics were never dropped, and an increasing number of them are losing jobs.

The ban of the word ‘Kurdistan’ in the parliament happened a few months ago. And then a few weeks ago, they changed it so now you can’t even mention the Kurdish region. This is also reflected in the academia. For example, a Ph.D. student,  defending their thesis, using the word ‘Kurdistan’, or anything related to the Kurdish realities. A few of my friends told me that the reviewing committees advise the students to change and remove those words.  The general conclusion is that either one has to leave the country to do it, or just stop their Ph.D. thesis. Or they have to adjust to the new standards in the academia,” she says.

She adds, however, that in future there will be research, and “anything that is related to the issue of autonomy, the issue of communalism in the Kurdish areas, the Kurdish identity, since they are considered a threat to the current Turkish government narrative,” will remain banned topics for academics.

Source: www.indexoncensorship.org

Authoritarian states are using all-too familiar constitutional mechanisms to consolidate power.

Fatima Mövlamlı, an Azerbaijani teenager, is used to seeing İlham Aliyev, her country’s president, everywhere: on TV, street billboards, on portraits at her school and health clinic. The man would always be kindly smiling in various settings: surrounded by children, villagers, workers, happy citizens of prosperous Azerbaijan. His seemingly omnipresent, inescapable smile watched over her as she grew up.

But when Fatima turned 17, she looked around and saw a different picture: in the city where she grew up, although the dictator smiled at everyone from the posters, big and small, people rarely smiled back. Their faces conveyed anxiety, they seemed preoccupied with making ends meet as officials made pronouncements on the health and strength of the economy, constantly repeating the adjective “analogue-less” in reference to Azerbaijan. The smiles were slowly and gradually giving way to disquiet, fear and hopelessness.

When she looked around, Mövlamlı saw a country ruled by a dictator.

This is why when Ilham Aliyev called for snap elections in February 2018, she decided to act. On 26 March, Mövlamlı left home with posters of Ilham Aliyev to take part in the “Know Your Dictator” campaign, launched by Azerbaijani emigres in Europe in order to draw attention to Aliyev’s rule. The posters contained a QR code with further information, and Mövlamlı was determined to inform people of the dictatorship and its use of elections to further consolidate Aliyev’s grip on power.

“I did this to demonstrate that our youth hasn’t lost the ability to fight, and to give people reason to summon their courage,” she says.

Mövlamlı was immediately summoned to the Binagadi district police station in Baku, where she was interrogated for five hours. After her release, Mövlamlı attended a 31 March protest, proclaiming that detention can’t make her stop campaigning. She says she was kidnapped by the authorities after the rally and, in direct contradiction of Azerbaijani laws, kept incommunicado from her family and friends for five days. In a video published a few days after her release, Mövlamlı claims she was forced to undress, then a video of her was taken and she was held for days without access to her family or lawyer at the Main Department on Combating Human Trafficking.

Commenting for this article, Mövlamlı says she didn’t expect to be kidnapped. “Given the fact that I am only 17, and my experience is pretty limited, naturally, I couldn’t foresee the events I’ve been through with much clarity. I thought I could be arrested, I didn’t think beyond the arrest. Not of being kidnapped, not of being slandered, it wouldn’t even enter my mind that such a mighty government would deal with a 17 year old girl with such ruthlessness and show such inhumane treatment.”

To Mövlamlı and others who participated in this campaign against the 11 April snap elections, the fact that that they happened without much condemnation from the international community, and that Ilham Aliyev secured a fourth term, was a tragedy. But for the Aliyev regime, much like other dictatorships across Eurasia, these elections were simply a mechanism of further power usurpation. While for Mövlamlı, Aliyev’s fourth presidency is a curse of another seven years that she has to battle, across Eurasia it was just one domino tile of many.

Notorious for copying each other’s authoritarian traits, whether taxation of NGOs and “foreign agent”-style legislation or imprisoning political opponents on petty criminal charges, Eurasia’s dictators have discovered yet another technique: call snap elections, seize the political momentum and rig the results while society is dazzled, the opposition is in turmoil and the international community’s attention is elsewhere.

Snap election epidemic

Across Eurasia, snap elections happen rather frequently. In some contexts, such as after revolutions and during political crises, they are justified (Kyrgyzstan, possibly soon Armenia). In other contexts, while there are clearly circumstances that do require snap elections, it’s also obvious that this mechanism is used by authoritarian regimes to their benefit (Turkey). And then there are clear-cut dictatorships that shamelessly use snap elections to run their own show (Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan), and once one country is able to pull this trick off, others start replicating it.

“One way of looking at what purpose snap elections serve is: what purpose do elections serve? If elections are a complete show, snap elections are probably also a complete show. Generally, snap elections are critical to the point that elections are critical, as a general rule of thumb,” says Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a research associate at the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz.

In democracies, snap elections usually happen at a time of a political crisis, says Anar Mammadli, Chairman of Azerbaijan-based Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, referring to elections in the UK, Czech Republic and Turkey, before the country succumbed to authoritarianism. But in authoritarian states, such as Kazakhstan in 2015-2016 and Azerbaijan this year, the snap elections mechanism is being used to further consolidate power.

Anthony Bowyer, Senior Program Manager at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) says that in these scenarios: “You would almost think they’d be more honest with themselves if they just extended presidential rule rather than to go through the trouble of having what is obviously an orchestrated process, which… would certainly draw the ire of the international community a bit more than having a flawed election in some ways.”

Where elections don’t matter

Snap elections matter in places where they can create some sort of unpredictable change, says Karabekir Akkoyunlu. But in states like Kazakhstan (snap elections in 2015 and 2016) and Azerbaijan, snap elections demonstrably bring no significant change.

In Kazakhstan, the elections in general haven’t mattered much for the past 20 years, says Andrei Grishin of Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights, even prior to the snap election the number of government-supporting parliamentarians was very high, but president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since 1991, was concerned about losing public trust and therefore used administrative resources to further usurp power.

“We didn’t have any political crisis. Nazarbayev suddenly announced that we needed changes, and we had the snap elections. As a result, he simply consolidated more power,” Grishin adds.

But when Kazakhstan did it, nobody blinked an eye in the international community, and after a couple of usual statements of concern, everyone went back to business as usual. But while international organisations never bothered to check out of the kingdom of Morpheus, across the Caspian Sea, in another regime, Azerbaijan, president Aliyev and his team were watching closely and taking notes. The snap election mechanism was a flashy new toy to play with, all while consolidating yet more power.

Some rights reserved.But Aliyev couldn’t just call an election straight away. So first he called a referendum in 2016, which extended presidential term limits and gave the president the authority to call presidential elections at any time. This move, in a way, predicted the April 2018 snap elections, says Anar Mammadli.

“The referendum gave additional powers to the president, such as extending the presidential term to seven years, created the institute of vice-president, who is appointed by the president. At the same time, in 2016 the human rights crisis in Azerbaijan had worsened, so did the relations with the West; and the social-economic crisis has resulted in a certain discontent among the people,” says Mammadli, adding that by calling snap elections in April 2018, Aliyev tried to extend maximum control and usurp power even further.

Indeed, presidential elections were to be held in October 2018, but Aliyev moved them to April. The 2016 referendum and previous electoral code changes have limited the opposition and practically removed all effective campaigning tools. But, by moving it to April, Aliyev avoided whatever international outcry could possibly result from it, because the international community was busy with the Russian presidential elections and escalation in Syria. According to Mammadli, Aliyev was also concerned that with the worsening economic situation, inflation and increased unemployment the fall might bring surprise socio-economic protests – and this is a scenario he’d rather not face. In the cases of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, calling for snap elections had to do with lust for more power, reinforcing the legitimacy of the president, mobilising different parts of the power vertical, says Nate Schenkkan, Director of Nations in Transit at Freedom House.

“You force everyone to demonstrate their loyalty. That’s how they get the numbers they want”

“You force everyone to demonstrate their loyalty. That’s how they get the numbers they want. You make sure students, doctors, etc. are mobilised during the election. It’s a way to check the system, and to demonstrate power. You show how you can make this happen, fast and unscheduled,” Schenkkan adds.

In these cases of authoritarian rulers, when using the snap elections, power holders make it clear to society, the political landscape and the international community that “they have the initiative to decide when elections can be held” and that “they have the power to infuse a (degree of) unpredictability in the political arena which authoritarian rulers do use,” says Karabekir Akkoyunlu, explaining that the snap elections give the ruler “the power to control further dynamics”. He reminds us, however, that the same logic applies to snap elections in democratic systems, as well.

“Whoever has the ability to call the shots presumably does so in a way that fits their interests. So, we could even talk about this in a liberal democracy,” he adds.

But just a month away the region is to see another snap election, this time, in Turkey. While an argument can be made that the situation is fundamentally different under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a number of trends resemble Eurasia’s solid authoritarian regimes.

“You compete, I win”

In Turkey, snap elections have for a long time been a constitutional mechanism used by politicians at times of crisis or change. During the 1980s and 1990s, collapsing fragile coalition governments, perceived turns towards socialism or Islam, all ended in early elections – both with and without tanks in the streets.

However, with what some qualify as an increasingly authoritarian rule of the former Prime Minister-turned-President Erdoğan, the element of unpredictability has faded as his party, AKP, has consistently gained the majority in the parliament. This has meant AKP hasn’t had to form fragile coalition governments with other political parties like so many of its predecessors. In this climate, snap elections are used for different purposes and under different circumstances this altogether: “They still are a competitive authoritarianism. But we have similarities,” says Anar Mammadli, comparing Turkey to Azerbaijan, which, though they share geographic proximity and cultural ties, have very different political systems.

“The big difference is whether the system has true competition to call it a democracy, or a truly competitive authoritarianism which I would classify Turkey as being”

“They also had a referendum, and now again the election, which was held early. So, Erdoğan, just like Aliyev, used the referendum and was granted certain opportunities by it. Same as in Aliyev’s case – Erdoğan capitalised on his improved rating due to [a military operation in] Afrin, and gambled that he could win [the election]. Plus, he wanted to do a “renovation” and bring in a new team after the election to strengthen his grip on power. So, although, there are indeed similarities, these aren’t equal situations. Erdoğan, even if not in the first round, but in the second round is going to win.”

“Snap elections aren’t inherently wrong, and this is the argument that Turkey makes,” says Nate Schenkkan. When critics condemned the emergency situation and claimed that it had limited and shrunk the space for political campaigning, the Turkish government pointed to the French snap elections held in France in 2017, which were also held in an emergency situation. “This was a different kind of emergency,” Schenkkan clarifies.

“The big difference is whether the system has true competition to call it a democracy, or a truly competitive authoritarianism which I would classify Turkey as being, or whether elections are not at the stage of producing real institutional change, as I would say is the case is for Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan at the moment,” says Karabekir Akkoyunlu. “Because, however we look at it, despite the fact that Turkey is really moving along the path (towards) consolidated authoritarianism, there are significant differences here.”

Akkoyunlu points to the referendum that Erdoğan won by 51%, and the presidential elections in 2014 that he won by 52%. “There is a long history, and still institutional memory and practice of democratic competition that doesn’t go away (so soon).” For Akkoyunlu, what sets Turkey apart from the two former Soviet states is the possibility of meaningful competition: “In the case of Turkey it’s clear that calling the snap election can give the government an advantage, (as) they decide when the best time is because despite all this illiberal move, there’s still real competition both in the society, but also in terms of political parties.”

This resonates with Schenkkan’s position, who says that Turkey’s election is “not completely unlike the normal snap election in a normal parliamentary system.” Citing the government’s concerns about the state of the economy, he says: “In a way it’s logical why they want it now, and that’s within the range of what you can do.” However, according to him, the caveats are the state of emergency and the fact that some MPs are in prison which make these elections “not a normal election.”

Observe, but don’t interfere

As elections do not happen in a vacuum, there’s something to be said about the role of the international community in observing, validating and legitimising these processes, both at the level of nation-states and their groupings: “Individual countries can certainly (condemn the process or the outcome), and embassies and ambassadors who have a particular profile in the world, and the U.S., has been one of that sort, do so,” says Anthony Bowyer. According to him, international organisations, such as the Council of Europe, as well as member-states of these bodies “have a lot to lose by having a flawed election or political process” within their borders.

However, when it comes to the clear commonly-accepted standard or statute to which a particular election can be held within the context of the international law, it gets more complicated. While Schenkkan points to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe as a set of standards and rules that would be expected to apply to members such as Azerbaijan and Turkey, for Akkoyunlu, it is not so clear cut: “I am not aware of the discussion of the snap elections within international law. It is very much part of the countries’ domestic political systems, I am not aware of any international legal bases that (cover) or institutionalise the use of snap elections and impose certain regulations. I don’t think it exists.”

At a maximum, according to Akkoyunlu, we can talk about the role of the international public opinion or particular countries making their opinions known, as the United States did when it decried snap elections in Venezuela in January of this year. “There could be a public or diplomatic reaction, but beyond that its very much a national issue, and I am not even sure the international law is even relevant.”

Anar Mammadli admits that there are no specific international mechanisms to prevent a snap election without a reason, but says there are international documents that express principals under which such elections could he held. “According to the UN convention on civil and political rights, the elections have to be held within a reasonable time. So there is a principle, but no mechanism. Because electoral process has a lot of national specifics, it is hard to call it to account. There are no universal mechanisms. In that regard, one needs to look from the point of each citizen’s opportunity to use his or her right to make a political choice,” he adds.

Even when I’m 44

Responding to a seemingly simple question, “What did you feel when you learned of İlham Aliyev’s reelection?” Fatima Mövlamlı pauses for an instant, before firing back: “I only blamed the people. Why? Because even a child would guess that Aliyev would be (re)elected president. The only thing needed to prevent this was for the people to rise up, and they didn’t.”

In her opinion, the creation and strengthening of the Aliyev regime is conditioned on people remaining silent, and since they remain silent, the president can re-elect himself not just for the fourth time in a row, but fourteen times. “The only way out is that the people rise up, like it’s done in civilised societies, and protest.”

Mövlamlı, who now reportedly finds herself a subject of a travel ban, will be 24 by the time Aliyev’s current term expires. Reflecting on that fact, she says: “The main reason behind my struggle is because I realised it is my civic duty to fight against injustices. Forget 24, even if he’s president when I am 44 years old, Fatima Mövlamlı will still continue her struggle.”

“The most fearsome thing is, if during this next term the ruling government doesn’t see the power of the people, if it doesn’t see them rise up, I think we will see even more tragic events. Azerbaijan will be indistinguishable from North Korea, and I don’t want this to happen.”

Source: www.opendemocracy.net

Photo: Fatima Mövlamlı. Source: Youtube.

In Eurasia’s less geopolitically significant countries, democracy advocates are struggling to keep their priorities on the international agenda.

At a recent international human rights roundtable, an activist from Venezuela was heard recounting the recent developments in his town. “Within a year, we saw hundreds arrested,” he started, when a journalist from Turkey interrupted “Wake me up when you reach thousands,” he said with a forced indifference. “This is nothing in comparison to our country, we even stopped counting our dead,” a Syrian defender called out.

However cynical, this exchange is emblematic of a clear pattern in human rights advocacy: while certain issues and countries are evergreen, others tend to pick up at certain points, then fade quickly.

In Eurasia, countries like Russia and Turkey are the usual headliners when it comes to the major events and discussions. In the past few years, with a coup attempt in Turkey, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in Donbass, Turkey’s referendum and re-election of president Vladimir Putin, these two have ascended to the top of the agenda for international human rights organisations, multilateral institutions and western governments.

With all these developments overwhelming the Eurasia portfolio, and the Syrian crisis ablaze on the other flank, one can’t help but wonder whether countries like Azerbaijan or its neighbours in the region, such as Belarus or Uzbekistan, receive any share of the already fragmented attention of international civil society. What does a country’s civil society do when its human rights situation no longer resonates with those in the global human rights community? Is it possible to prevent reaching the tipping point and avoiding the advocacy fatigue?

When the flavour runs out

“Obviously, cases of mass genocide occupy the attention of policy makers, first and foremost. Like it or not, there’s also a hierarchy of human rights violations, and genocide captivate[s] the public imagination,” says Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia researcher.

“Luckily, we didn’t have cases like that in Eurasia, we have the slow burning, perpetual slide towards authoritarianism. And those things are a little bit less dramatic, a little harder to make sexy, make interesting for a wider audience. That sounds cynical to put it that way, but I think that’s one of the reasons why Eurasia has been a little bit more ignored,” he adds.

“There are so many terrible things in the media, and policymakers especially hear so much terrible news all day long, that they suffer information fatigue/overload and become desensitised to it,” says Annie Boyajian, Advocacy Manager at Freedom House.

“The ECHR will sit and wait for a coup attempt to happen in Azerbaijan the same way it did in Turkey, and then it will consider the cases in a priority manner”

Azerbaijan is a victim of compassion fatigue all too often. A tiny country of nine million in the South Caucasus has just shooed in its president for the fourth term. The process — saddled with countless violations and could barely qualify as a bona fide election — handed Ilham Aliyev, president since 2003 and who happens to be the son of the previous president Heydar Aliyev, another seven-year term. But aside from a handful of news articles, this event has gone unnoticed by the international community. A country that was on everybody’s tongue once has fallen off into oblivion.

The times were quite different in summer 2014 as Azerbaijan became a spotlight country during the major crackdown when top human rights defenders were targeted for a wave of brutal reprisals, says Necmin Kamilsoy, an activist of the N!DA civic movement and son of prominent lawyer and former political prisoner Intiqam Aliyev. “International organisations, human rights watchdogs, Western governments considered that crackdown as a frontal attack [on] themselves, as those who [had] been promoting their values were locked up,” Kamilsoy concludes.

Prior to 2014, international organisations and western governments were engaging with Azerbaijani authorities on legislative matters and reforms, according to Rauf Mirqadirov, political observer of Ayna/Zerkalo Newspaper and a former political prisoner. International organisations then turned into firefighters putting out fires, and their work had become limited to rescuing the arrested opponents of the authorities, Mirqadirov adds.

At the time, the stars of international human rights like Samantha Powell, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, to stars of a different sort altogether, like U2, helped elevate the cases of jailed Azerbaijani political prisoners — at press conferences in Washington or stadium concerts in Europe. But this enthusiasm didn’t last long. What changed, then?

“First of all, they are tired of waiting,” says Mirqadirov, adding that the international advocates noticed that “not only things aren’t changing for the better, the situation is becoming progressively worse.”

The attention of the international community towards human rights and political processes in Azerbaijan started to dissipate as of 2016, says Nicat Mammadbayli, an Azerbaijani civil society activist we reached for a comment in Geneva, on the sidelines of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review pre-session meeting on Azerbaijan. This drop in attention was connected with the fact that in March 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities released a large group of prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders. While that was a positive move, the overall situation didn’t change. In fact, just two months later, in May 2016, the authorities arrested a later charged with 10 years of imprisonment each, two youth activists who painted graffiti on a monument to Heydar Aliyev. But the world had already moved on to the next gig.

“It was Russia’s turn. The processes there were more important to the west, looked more attractive, maybe that was the reason,” says Mammadbayli.

Kamilsoy, another panelist at the Azerbaijan UPR pre-session (where he tried to draw attention to the worsening climate for dissent in Azerbaijan), agrees:

“There is a trend of increasing authoritarianism and populism in all parts of the world. In that context, non-democratic regimes are encouraging each other to become harsher in suppressing democratic institutions. It is understandable that international community… cannot [devote its] full attention to any specific country all the time. For instance, what happened in Turkey overshadowed the situation in Azerbaijan for many institutions that both of these countries are members of.”

The constant shifting of attention often happens due to international organisations’ being forced to be strategic and “refusing to waste efforts and resources on the ‘incorrigible’,” Mirqadirov says, illustrating it with an anecdote. “One of the Azerbaijani delegation members to PACE in a private conversation with me characterised the relations between the Council of Europe and Azerbaijan, saying ‘They always ask ‘When will you?’, and the reply from Baku is always ‘Why would we?’”

Azerbaijan’s example is hardly unique. Other countries in the Eurasian region had gone through similar internal and external dynamics, such as Belarus and Uzbekistan.

Belarus: the little tractor that could

Back in the early 2000s, Belarus had its moment, and for all the right reasons. With political disappearances, scores of political prisoners, massive crackdown of president Aleksandr Lukashenka’s government on the civil society and academia, Belarus was at the centre of international attention.

According to Valery Kavaleusky, senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute of America, this was also due to Belarus civil society’s strong messaging on the violations. But in the 24 years of Lukashenka’s rule, as time goes by, “the regime weakens the society more and more, taking it under control, suppressing its will and ability to speak up. This in turn decreases the visibility of protests,” Kavaleusky says.

The conditions in Belarus were stable but bad, but with more horrific crises happening in the region, the global human rights community and western governments became fatigued and moved on to other issues. “We aren’t sexy anymore,” says Ania Gerasimova, director of Belarus Human Rights House, adding that in order to be in the centre of international attention any country needs “constantly escalating repressions.”

On the one hand, Belarus is a country that experiences repressions continuously. But as things escalated in Russia and elsewhere in Eurasia, Lukashenka, who for years was the bearer of the “Europe’s last dictator” title, suddenly didn’t look so bad in comparison to, for example, Vladimir Putin.

“It’s no longer the worst situation. Arguing the case of Belarus has become much more difficult”

“It’s no longer the worst situation. Arguing the case of Belarus has become much more difficult,” Gerasimova says, admitting that she and her colleagues “discuss this fatigue issue frequently.”

So, why is Belarus no longer the flavour of the month? Gerasimova thinks that geopolitics dictate the level of attention closely, adding that the 2014 Ukraine-Russia standoff had majorly contributed to the shift, but also did the Syrian conflict, the migration crisis in Europe as well as the developments in Hungary and Poland. “The world doesn’t revolve around Belarus,” she concludes.

Another contributing factor to the diminishing interest towards Belarus is the “barely visible international role of Belarus in world affairs,” Kavaleusky says. “Major events happen that demand immediate attention of western governments and international organisations. At the same time, Lukashenka’s regime, albeit brutal and undemocratic, has always stayed within its national borders, never becoming a threat to international peace and security. And to the international community this is the most important threshold after which attention and counteractions escalate exponentially.”

On the other hand, “being a very close ally of Russia, Lukashenka has developed a deep, restraining dependence on the opinion and will of Moscow. The world does not see much impact from its actions on the behaviour of Lukashenka,” he adds.

Uzbekistan: a totalitarian middle-of-nowhere-land

Uzbekistan is another example of sudden global attention to an authoritarian state followed by complete consignment to oblivion just a few years later. In Uzbekistan’s case, ever since president Islam Karimov took over, the repressions have been steadily on the rise.

But as Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, puts it, the international community tends to pay attention when something absolutely horrible happens. “In the case of Uzbekistan, that was the rebellion of 2005 in Andijon and the gunning down of this rebellion when the lowest estimates put the number of the killed at 500 that were gunned down… When you have 500 bodies, it’s hard not to turn your attention to it,” Niyazova says.

Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, says that after Andijon, “the EU nations imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan, and the US government removed its military base from Karshi-Khanabad. Such a reaction of the international community led to the release of 27 famous political prisoners. Then, the EU sanctions started turning into a dialogue on human rights between the EU and the Uzbek government.”

But, just like with Azerbaijan and Belarus, the attention span of the west didn’t last. In the following five years after 2005, the sanctions were slowly and quietly scuttled despite the fact that the Uzbek government failed to meet most conditions.

Niyazova, who was arrested following the Andijon events, was released at the request of the international partners, but this was one of the few “easy” conditions for the Uzbek government to fulfill, but “the condition of investigating the unlawful use of the deadly force and the punishment of the guilty [parties] for the murder has not yet been [fulfilled] and the Andijon story has now been closed, as if it had never happened,” she adds.

Policy prescriptions for the rolling blackouts

However, the international advocacy train with those beating the drum of international advocacy on Uzbekistan’s Andijon massacre and political disappearances in Belarus, has since barreled down the tracks towards the next more brutal and, therefore, sexier destination.

Similarly, in Azerbaijan, the elections are over. The spotlights are turned off. The media crews, such as they were, have packed and left. The blackout ensues. The country isn’t anticipating any major international attention at least until another major sporting event, such as a Formula 1 race in Baku later this month.

Azerbaijan’s civil society and its problems remain and arguably the lack of the attention and spotlight exacerbate their day-to-day problems and pressures. That said, the human rights defenders and others in civil society have learned to live in between the high profile international sporting and cultural events, riding the wave of the international scrutiny that invariably accompanies such galas lavishly hosted by a regime that desperately seeks international acknowledgment. “The problem is that such events don’t happen every day or every month in the country,” says Rasul Jafarov, a former political prisoner and human rights defender.

“Support of international human rights organisations is crucial in advancing the message. What makes the work effective is institutionalising pressure on the authoritarian regimes”

Jafarov acknowledges that civil society, however, “cannot just wait every time [for] such events to be happening in the country. There should be other mechanisms, which are difficult to establish, [but] it doesn’t mean that nothing should be done.”

Other mechanisms are the ones that keep the Eurasian regimes in check and seek accountability. Niyazova suggests one such mechanism, the United Nations Human Rights Council UPR pre-sessions. These pre-sessions, on the sidelines of which Niyazova was interviewed, are held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. Hundreds of human rights activists, advocates and civil society representatives attend from all over the world.

Gerasimova suggests developing institutional capacity of the civil societies, but also the conditions for such institutions’ existence. “You have to develop the civil society in-country, not just one, two or three organisations or 10-15 individual activists or journalists working. You need to invest more in development and involvement of the youth, create an atmosphere for development of the grassroots organisations and groups that could investigate, talk about, report, write,” she says.

Another piece of advice is to have a clear agenda, be effective at public messaging and have unified backing from civil society, Gerasimova says. “General phrases don’t really help in that regard. You have to be specific about the issues that need to be improved.”

This kind of messaging should be done by “well-educated, well-motivated people” who know the peculiarities of how western governments and international organisations operate and make decisions, says Kavaleusky. These are very complex institutions that require effective navigation, he notes, adding: “Support of international human rights organisations is crucial in advancing the message. What makes the work effective is institutionalising pressure on the authoritarian regimes.”

But who should the messaging be directed at? Authoritarian governments themselves? Mammadbayli is quite skeptical, and says, for example, Azerbaijani government isn’t interested in hearing the policy prescriptions. He points to the fact that just a few minutes prior to the interview, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the mission left the proceedings citing an urgent need to cast a vote in the Azerbaijani presidential elections that were being held that day.

“We all know full well none of these recommendations will be implemented. The ECHR will sit and wait for a coup attempt to happen in Azerbaijan the same way it did in Turkey, and then it will consider the cases in a priority manner. This is just one side of the issue. Those who had attacked the OSCE mission this morning did the same thing the day after the 2013 election,” Mammadbayli says, describing the mayhem created by the Azerbaijani pro-government journalists and observers who shouted down the OSCE election observers during their press conference in Baku. “Nothing changes. The OSCE mission came this time, it will come also seven years from now,” Mammadbayli adds.

Would it be better to seek international community’s attention? But how? Annie Boyajian, Advocacy Manager at Freedom House, says civil societies’ best bet is to connect to whichever audiences they are pitching their problems to. “The individual, human face of an issue is more compelling than talking about an issue in general terms. Issues should also be presented in the most compelling way possible. Activists should explain why the issue impacts the United States, what leverage they think the US has on the particular issue, and how the US should wield that leverage. And, to prevent fatigue as much as possible the issue should be raised regularly in new and fresh ways: interviews, videos, hearings, constituent letters to Members of Congress,” she concludes.

Source: www.opendemocracy.net

Illustration: Anastasia Vikulova