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#KeepItOn: government of the Republic of Azerbaijan and internet service providers must  maintain free, open, and secure internet access throughout upcoming elections

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Your Excellency Ilham Aliyev,

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

CC: Ali Asadov, Prime Minister of Azerbaijan; Rashad Nabiyev, Minister of Digital Development and Transport; Ali Naghiyev, Head of State Security Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan. 

СС: Zaman Verdiyev, Deputy CEO Aztelekom LLC, Zarina Zeynalova, CEO “Azercell Telecom” LLC, Gunnar Pahnke, CEO Nar (Azerfon), and Klaus Mueller,  CEO Bakcell. 

Nations across South Caucasus, and the world, must ensure people can access open, free, and secure internet when they need it the most — during important national events. This election, we urge the government of Azerbaijan to #KeepItOn.

We, the undersigned organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network that unites over 300 organisations from 105 countries  working to end internet shutdowns globally — appeal to you, President  Ilham Aliyev, to publicly pledge your support to maintain free, open, and secure internet access for the people of Azerbaijan before, during, and after the presidential elections scheduled for February 7, 2024.

As the people of Azerbaijan prepare to vote, it is essential that your government adopts and prioritizes measures to ensure that the election process is inclusive, free, and fair by providing everyone with unfettered access to information and avenues for free expression, assembly, and association — both offline and online.

The internet and social media platforms play a critical role in enhancing participatory governance, advancing inclusiveness and transparency, and enabling the enjoyment of fundamental human rights in a democratic society – all principles enshrined in the Constitution of Azerbaijan. These platforms enable public discourse about election processes and political candidates, and allow voters to hold governments accountable for their actions. Access to the internet and digital platforms also facilitates effective election reporting, monitoring, and coverage by journalists, human rights defenders, and election observers. 

History of internet shutdowns in Azerbaijan

Amidst military operation in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region launched by Azerbaijan on September 19, 2023, the authorities throttled internet access in the city of Fuzuli.  Meydan TV reported that all main providers, Aztelecom, Nar Mobile, Bakcell, and Azercell blocked access to the internet without  providing any explanation to the people of Azerbaijan. 

A year before, during the military offensive at the Azerbaijan-Armenia border on September 14, 2022, TikTok became inaccessible in Azerbaijan. Previously, during the military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between the Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries in 2020, the government of Azerbaijan announced that it would restrict access to the internet throughout the country, not mentioning the duration of the outage or which services would be blocked. People have reportedly experienced problems accessing social media, and OONI Measurements results indicate reduced access to services such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter, and Skype. The action lasted 46 days—Azerbaijan’s longest internet disruption to date

Internet shutdowns harm human rights, disrupt emergency services, and cripple economies

Research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand-in-hand. Shutting down the internet during times of conflict, protests, or public health emergencies restricts the availability of vital, timely, and potentially life-saving information, as well as limiting access to emergency services. By disrupting the flow of information, shutdowns can exacerbate existing tensions, potentially instigate or conceal violence and human rights violations perpetrated by state and non-state actors, and spur the spread of misinformation. 

Shutdowns also make it extremely difficult for journalists to report from the ground, thereby denying people both in and out of Azerbaijan access to credible information. Shutting down the internet would also make it hard for key stakeholders, including The Central Election Commission of the Republic of Azerbaijan, national and international election observer groups, political parties, media outlets and civil society to closely monitor the electoral process. 

Imposing internet shutdowns also leaves devastating impacts on people’s livelihoods and has a negative effect on entire economies. Shutdowns can cost nations billions of dollars, with businesses, public organizations, and private institutions which rely on the digital economy losing huge sums of money when they occur. 

Internet shutdowns contravene national and international laws 

Internet shutdowns violate fundamental human rights guaranteed by national, regional, and international frameworks including the Republic of Azerbaijan constitution (article 47, 49, 50), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Azerbaijan has ratified. 

The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the ICCPR, emphasizes in its General Comment No. 37 that “state parties must not, for example, block or hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies.” Moreover, the UN Secretary General and other experts have affirmed that, “blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law.”  

According to the State Security Service of Azerbaijan, the decision to restrict TikTok within the country was made due to the platform’s hosting information regarding Azerbaijan’s offensive “that casts a shadow on the successes of our army, contains military secrets, and aims to create a wrong opinion in the society.” However, as the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément N. Voule, has rightly noted, attempts to tackle problems such as disinformation and hate speech cannot justify “internet shutdowns, which are disproportionate by default, and should strictly adhere to international human rights principles and standards, including those concerning the right to freedom of expression.”

Telecommunications companies have a duty to respect human rights and provide access to remedy 

Businesses also have a responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to respect human rights, prevent or mitigate potential harms, and provide remedies for harms they cause or contribute to. Telecommunications and internet service providers operating in Azerbaijan — including  Aztelekom LLC, “Azercell Telecom” LLC, Nar (Azerfon), and CEO Bakcell, and others — have a responsibility to provide quality, open, and secure access to the internet and digital communication tools. 

Internet shutdowns — whether in Azerbaijan or elsewhere — jeopardize human rights and must never become a norm. We encourage businesses in Azerbaijan to integrate the UN Principles and OECD Guidelines when responding to censorship and network disruption requests in any market where they operate. 

Recommendations to the Government of Azerbaijan:

As organizations championing  the internet and digital platforms as enablers of human rights, we call on you to:

Ensure that the internet, including social media and other digital communication platforms, remains open, accessible, and secure across Azerbaijan throughout elections, possible civic unrest, and thereafter;

  • Stop shutting down, throttling, or blocking the internet, and make a firm  commitment to refrain from imposing any unlawful restrictions on internet access and telecommunications in the future, particularly amid the ongoing conflicts in the region;
  • Repeal and amend any laws and policies that legitimize internet shutdowns, and enact rights-respecting in compliance with Azerbaijan’s obligations under international human rights law.

Recommendations to telecommunications providers:

  • Preserve evidence and reveal any demands from the government of Azerbaijan urging you to disrupt internet access, and any pressure to conceal those demands;
  • Publicly disclose details such as when the internet and related services have been disrupted, their status throughout the shutdowns, and when they come back online;
  • Consult civil society and rally peer companies to jointly push back against government censorship demands, and issue regular transparency reports to ensure open and secure internet access and deter future shutdown orders.

Please let us know how the #KeepItOn coalition can support you in upholding a free, open, secure, inclusive, and accessible internet for all in Azerbaijan.

Sincerely, 

Signatories:

  • Access Now
  • African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)
  • Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)
  • Bloggers Association of Kenya (Kenya)
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
  • Digital Rights Kashmir
  • Human Constanta
  • Human Rights Journalists Network Nigeria 
  • International Press Centre (IPC)
  • JCA-NET(Japan)
  • Life campaign to abolish the death sentence in Kurdistan
  • Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
  • MediaNet International Centre for Journalism
  • Media Sabak Foundation 
  • Meydan TV
  • Miaan Group
  • Nubian Rights Forum
  • Organization of the Justice Campaign
  • Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC-Nigeria)
  • Common Cause Zambia