Azerbaijan government seeks order to permanently block news websites

New York, April 28, 2017–The Azerbaijani government should immediately stop trying to permanently block access to five independent media outlets’ websites and should instead lift a decree that has rendered them currently inaccessible, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. A district court in the capital Baku yesterday began hearing a government lawsuit that seeks to compel internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to the sites, adjourning until May 1, according to media reports.

The lawsuit, filed by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technology, asks the court to order ISPs to make permanent the censorship of the websites of the independent newspaper Azadliq, the Berlin-based, online news agency Meydan TV, the Azerbaijani service of the U.S.-government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and online video channels Azerbaycan Saati and Turan TV, according to media reports.

Elchin Sadygov, a lawyer for Meydan TV, told CPJ that Azerbaijani ISPs have blocked access to the five websites since March 27 by decree of Minister of Transport, Communications, and High Technology Ramin Quluzade. The ministry’s lawsuit seeks to make that censorship permanent on the grounds that the websites threaten the national security of Azerbaijan, Sadygov said.

“If five news websites can threaten Azerbaijan’s national security, as the government claims, Azerbaijanis and the rest of the world should be deeply concerned by the country’s fragility,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The Azerbaijani government should immediately stop censoring these important sources of news and analysis, and should instead lift all restrictions on news in Azerbaijan.”

Sadygov told CPJ that a court ruling in favor of the government would set a “very dangerous precedent.”

“If the court rules in favor of the government’s demand–and that is very likely–it will allow the government to prosecute all independent journalists, saying they pose a threat to national security.”

RFE/RL President Thomas Kent called the ministry’s lawsuit an attempt at “blatant censorship.” According to the broadcaster, moves to block RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani website come after it published investigative reports about financial activities linked to members of President Ilham Aliyev’s family and inner circle. The broadcaster’s Baku bureau was forced to close in May 2015 following a December 2014 police raid. One of Azerbaijan’s leading investigative journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, who was also the station’s Baku bureau chief, was jailed from December 2014 through May 2016 for her critical reporting.