A game of free-speech cat-and-mouse is moving into another media sphere in Azerbaijan, where officials in Baku are mulling the introduction of a licensing system for online radio and TV operations. Media rights advocates are decrying licensing plans as a means of control over the free flow of information.
Citing claims about Internet users’ alleged "illegal activities,” Minister of Communication and Information Technologies Ali Abbasov on April 17 called for the licensing of websites, including radio, TV and online “commercial services.”
The minister did not provide details about the supposed “illegal activities,” but described licensing as a way to provide for Azerbaijan’s information security.
"There is no mechanism today to influence them,” the news portal Sia.az quoted Abbasov as saying, referring to news websites. “If we would have licensing, we would be able to systematize our Internet activities and it would lead to [their] development, as well.”
The head of Azerbaijan’s National TV and Radio Council (NTRC), Nushiravan Maggeramli, made similar comments on April 22, when he called for stronger controls for online radio and TV. EurasiaNet.org could not reach Maggeramli for clarification, but NTRC attorney Tohid Aliyev said that the council has been working to develop a mechanism for the regulation of online media outlets for some time. He could not state whether or not a draft plan for licensing has been formulated.
"There is no doubt, electronic media should be under control,” Aliyev said. “It is not permitted that everyone can say whatever comes into his mind, something against the state or pornographic materials. Therefore, a legal framework should be established in order to prevent illegal activities.”
Azerbaijan’s Internet usage has exploded in recent years, a period that has coincided with a government crackdown on more traditional broadcast and print media outlets. These days, television and radio stations are largely limited to government-sympathetic programming. [For additional information see EuarsiaNet’s archive]. Minister Abbasov put the number of Internet users in Azerbaijan at between 2.3 million to 3.0 million – roughly a third of the number of mobile phone users, Radio Azadliq reported. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development stated in a May 4 release that Azerbaijan’s number of Internet users has quadrupled since 2002, although as many as 70 percent of subscribers still rely on dial-up service providers.
Despite a paucity of Internet Service Providers outside of Baku, the country features an active network of bloggers; social networking sites like Facebook are also routinely used to disseminate information critical of the government. Facebook reports that its number of users from Azerbaijan has increased by 50,000 people since January 2010 alone to almost 155,000 people.
Calling the licensing statements “a shameless offensive against the Internet,” international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders asserted in a May 6 statement that Azerbaijani officials want to license radio and TV sites in order “to maintain their monopoly of news and information.”
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, representatives of 15 media and civil society organizations expressed similar concerns, noting that “[m]any Azerbaijani citizens have lost their trust in traditional TV and radio broadcasters, and have moved on to more credible and objective information sources.”
Mehman Aliyev, director of the pro-opposition Turan news agency, who signed the statement, asserted that the government’s motivation for the licensing plan was to restrict opportunities for free debate and discussion. The government’s desire to control public discourse is expected to intensify in the coming months, as the country is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections November 7.
"The Internet is a platform for mass communication between people on various issues, including political, social and economic. … As the number of Internet users increases, the Internet’s impact on public opinion increases, too. And, this is dangerous for an authoritarian power,” Aliyev said.
Currently, only Azerbaijan Network Television (ANTV), a citizen-journalism operation, could be termed an online TV outlet; it also uses YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to broadcast its video reports. One founder of ANTV, Emin Milli, is now serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for alleged hooliganism. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The website for Radio Azadliq, the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has also become an increasingly popular source for news. The station lost its ability to broadcast on Azerbaijan’s domestic airwaves in 2009. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute of Reporters' Freedom and Safety, said there are ways for websites to evade the licensing scheme’s apparent intent. Online TV sites can easily register abroad to broadcast Azeri and Russian-language programs, he noted.
Huseynov added that efforts to introduce regulations for online TV sites may be influenced by how quickly the channels develop. "If, indeed, alternative Internet TV channels appear in Azerbaijan, which could attract a wide audience, then the adoption of such a law is not excluded," he said.
Together with Turan, Huseynov’s Institute plans to launch a “professional online TV” site modeled on Euronews with news reports five times per day, Huseynov said. Tests for the site have already begun.
If Azerbaijan moves to license such sites, he continued, “[t]hen Azerbaijan will be in line with China and Cuba, where the Internet is under state control.”
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.