Cursing the president online has become a criminal offense in Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet republic that is big on energy, but, critics say, short on freedom. On November 30, the Azerbaijani parliament amended the country’s criminal code to protect the long-serving President Ilham Aliyev from online insults, defamation and trolls.
Azerbaijan already had a ban in place against online defamation, but, ever solicitous about the country’s 54-year-old ruler, the general prosecutor’s office apparently felt the need to prohibit the online “defamation, and derogation of honor and dignity” of the president as well.
Violations of the new amendment will be subject to a fine of up to 1,000 manats ($570) or two years of community service or two years in prison, depending on the instance.
What exactly constitutes an insult or defamation of the president depends on the courts, an institution known for its obeisance to the ruling establishment.
Those with an urge to rail against Aliyev (or any successor) are not advised to hide behind fake social-media profiles. The amendment stipulates that individuals using “fake profiles and nick-names” and allegedly defaming or insulting the president could face a 1,500-manat ($866) fine, two years of community service and even one year of imprisonment.
Many Azerbaijanis, though, already have been mincing their tweets and posts. Arrests of anti-government Facebook activists are not unheard of.
Aliyev, who took over the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003 and has aged on the job since, has proven more than sensitive to expressions of public disapproval. His government has drawn international opprobrium for ridding the country of critical journalists, independent media and democracy-promoting groups, and for placing many of those left behind bars.
While the internet offered some respite from such measures, the government has been increasingly targeting this forum as well.
In 2013, Azerbaijan criminalized the general online use of offensive language and defamation. Human-rights groups interpreted the move as an attempt to muzzle criticism of Aliyev ahead of that year’s presidential election.
There’s no election this year, but there is an ongoing economic malaise, brought on by the global slump in oil prices. Grumbling about the government’s response persists on Facebook, Azerbaijanis’ preferred social network.
In future, they might have to put their anger extremely politely.