With Azerbaijan's October 9 presidential elections rapidly approaching, critical journalists, bloggers and activists are facing growing pressure from a government that is becoming increasingly hostile to criticism and dissent that is expressed online.
The Azerbaijani authorities have long been working to punish and silence critical voices in the country, resulting in a broadcast media environment completely dominated by the state, and a print media climate where the few remaining critical publications are struggling for survival.
Now, with the ruling elite seeking to further consolidate power as incumbent President Ilham Aliyev seeks a third term in office, authorities are increasingly turning their focus towards silencing online criticism .
The most significant threat to freedom of expression online in Azerbaijan is the targeting by authorities of individuals who take to the internet to voice critical opinions.
Among the most alarming developments in recent months have been the extension of criminal defamation provisions to the internet, the posting of a sex video of a prominent female investigative journalist to a pro-government website, and increasing reports of hack attacks against the websites of critical newspapers and human rights organisations.
Criminalised internet defamation
In May, Azerbaijan's parliament adopted regressive legislation extending criminal defamation provisions to online content. Aliyev signed the bill into law in June, in direct contradiction to the national action plan on human rights that he had issued in December 2011, which provided for defamation to be decriminalised in 2012.
The move prompted widespread international criticism, including from the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, who said the adoption of the legislation clearly violated Azerbaijan's international obligations. The two experts expressed concern that the provisions would have a "chilling effect" and would "further erode the already limited space for free expression in the country".
The controversial new legislation took effect on July 30. As a result, Azerbaijanis now face potential fines of up to AZN 1,000 (approximately EUR 950), or prison sentences of up to three years in certain cases, for things they post online.
The courts wasted no time in applying the new legislation. On August 14, a regional court convicted Mikail Talibov of defamation and sentenced him to one year of hard labour, imposed travel restrictions on him for a year, and ruled that 20 percent of his salary would be withheld. His crime? Using Facebook to criticise his former employer - a bank almost entirely backed by international stockholders - for what he viewed to be unfair dismissal.
Jail time for online activity
The imprisonment of journalists and activists in connection with their online postings is not a new phenomenon. The Expression Online Initiative, a consortium of Azerbaijani freedom of expression organisations, concluded in a November 2012 report that "the most significant threat to freedom of expression online in Azerbaijan is the targeting by authorities of individuals who take to the internet to voice critical opinions".
Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Washington and prominent regional media scholar Katy Pearce has often noted that online actions have offline consequences in Azerbaijan.
Unfortunately, there are no mechanisms or institutions that can protect domestic bloggers and social media activists against such persecution.
"In the past five years there have been a number of cases in Azerbaijan where online behaviours have been punished in 'offline' ways, but usually through an 'offline' charge like hooliganism or being accused of a different crime. Now with the new set of laws, there may be no need for a 'cover story' so to speak; the online action itself can be punished. It remains to be seen if this will increase retaliation for online actions, but certainly it provides an easier path to do so," Pearce said.
Indeed, before the adoption of the new legislation, online postings had already played a role in a number of arrests. Journalist Faramaz Novruzoglu is serving a four-and-a-half-year jail term, in part for allegedly posting calls for riots on Facebook; and imprisoned website editor Nijat Aliyev appears to have been targeted for content he posted online which was critical of the government.
As Azerbaijani political analyst and blogger Geysar Gurbanov pointed out, "With a corrupt judicial system, anything you say or write on the internet that the government might interpret as being against its own interests can easily get you into trouble. And unfortunately, there are no mechanisms or institutions that can protect domestic bloggers and social media activists against such persecution. In other words, we are lacking any leverage."
Pressure through blackmail
The adoption of the internet defamation legislation is only one part of a wider campaign to silence online criticism and dissent in the run-up to the election. In July, prominent investigative journalist and correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Khadija Ismayilova faced a serious violation of her right to privacy. A sex video of Ismayilova [SFW], secretly filmed by a camera hidden in her home, was posted to a pro-government website, along with a fake interview attributed to her friend and colleague, dissident writer and activist Emin Milli.
Ismayilova is a well-known and outspoken government critic. In addition to her investigative journalism, exposing issues such as corruption and human rights abuses, Ismayilova is an active user of social media networks, often taking to Facebook to express critical views and challenge state policies and practices.
Websites being hacked
In recent weeks, two organisations have reported a series of cyber attacks against their websites. Azadliq, one of the most critical newspapers with one of the highest circulations in the country, reported that its website had been experiencing DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks since August 13.
Ali Rza, Azadliq's web editor, believes the hacks may have been triggered by the publication of an announcement about an opposition demonstration on August 18, calling for fair and free elections, and for the release of political prisoners in the country. He told me that as of August 22, the attacks were still in progress and were growing. According to Rza, Azadliq's staff believes that the hackers' goal is complete destruction of the newspaper's website.
Media rights watchdog the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) has also reported that its website has been experiencing DDoS attacks during the same period. Through its extensive coverage of freedom of expression developments in the country, the IRFS often exposes issues the authorities would prefer to keep hidden.
According to IRFS's press release, a constant stream of attacks started on August 13 by anonymous hackers using third party computers. The IRFS reported that the hackers have attempted to take the websites down. IRFS Chairman Emin Huseynov stated, "Those are only the attacks that we know about, though. Some media organizations choose not to report incidents, and the majority of cyber attacks go undiscovered."
Indeed, it is hard to determine the true extent of such pressure against online critics, when going public carries such significant risks. But one thing is clear: the internet has become a dangerous place for government critics in Azerbaijan. The authorities seem determined to keep employing new tactics and finding new means of pressure to silence criticism and dissent, and in the absence of serious pressure from international bodies such as the European Union and the Council of Europe, this crackdown seems destined to continue.
Rebecca Vincent is an American-British human rights activist currently based in London. She is a former US diplomat and has worked with a wide range of international and Azerbaijani human rights and freedom of expression organisations.
Follow her on Twitter: @rebecca_vincent
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.