The run-up to the April 11 Azerbaijani presidential election has seen Baku take a page out of the Kremlin's playbook—according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) it is harassing journalists with online trolls and bots. The watchdog said it interviewed several journalists prior to issuing its conclusions.
Although Azerbaijan is heading to the polls to vote for the next president, little is expected to change. The incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, is rather more than the hot favourite to win by a landslide. Critics have long accused Aliyev, who will be serving his fourth term in power, of targeting critical voices over the years, by harassing them and their families, forcing them into exile, and jailing them on trumped-up charges. Faced with an unprecedented backlash over its human rights violations, the Aliyev regime has maintained the same line - reiterating, ad nauseam, that the Azerbaijani government respects all democratic freedoms, including freedom of speech. As if repeating something often enough makes it come true, observe Azerbaijan analysts.
The same government that claims to respect freedom of speech moved to vote in laws (there is little separation between the executive and legislative powers and the judiciary in Azerbaijan) to criminalise "libel" and to allow the government to remove online content without court orders. In December, the government also decimated the legal profession, making it virtually impossible for people who are not in the government's good graces to receive representation from a lawyer at all.
In May 2017, the government blocked some of the last remaining online media in the country - Meydan TV's website, the website of the local edition of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Azadliq, which has been investigating Aliyev's stealthy fortune since 2011, and online broadcasters Turan TV and Azerbaycan Saati.
In September, after the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a network of investigative journalists based in Sarajevo, published information about Baku's attempts to corrupt European institutions and companies, the Azerbaijani government blocked their site and threatened to sue them.
Baku has also sued two French journalists for calling Aliyev a dictator; it lost the case, after a French court dismissed the claim last November.
More recently, however, Azerbaijani authorities have moved to hack the social media accounts and websites of critical media, to flag them for inappropriate content through third parties, and to unleash an army of trolls against them, according to the CPJ.
Thus, Meydan TV's Facebook account was hacked on January 29, which led the media outlet to lose a fifth or 100,000 of its subscribers, and all its content posted since 2012. In December, a Turkey-based organisation with offices in Baku, Muse Network, flagged some of Meydan TV's YouTube videos for allegedly infringing copyright rules, causing the videos to be temporarily taken down.
The same Muse Network flagged six of Azadliq's YouTube videos for the same reason - copyright violations - in January. The videos were taken down, but later restored after Azadliq complained to YouTube.
DDoS attacks and trolling
Azerbaijani journalists have also reported an increase in digital denial of service (DDoS) attacks and trolling, according to the CPJ. Khadija Ismayilova, arguably the country's most famous investigative reporter, told the Caucasus Knot that she believed that "employees of state institutions or journalists of pro-government media" are behind the recent attacks. Ogtay Gulaliyev, the leader of Azerbaijan without Political Prisoners advocacy group, seconded her statements in the same publication, by noting that he noticed an increase in troll attacks every time he posted something critical about Ali Hasanov, Aliyev's public relations chief.
On April 8, journalist Sevinc Osmanqizi circulated a letter she had sent to Hasanov, in which she called on the government official to order his "trolls" to stop attacking her on Facebook and YouTube.
Hasanov denies any connections to the online attacks. "I unequivocally declare that the accusations and the slander that I instructed troll or some fictional groups to insult certain individuals are clearly defamatory and target the government of Azerbaijan and me personally," he said in a statement distributed through pro-government media.
In response to Hasanov's statement, Richard Kauzlarich, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, tweeted: "Oh but you did organize slander against me personally five years ago - using false news in government-controlled media." Kauzlarich was labelled a spy after he criticised the Azerbaijani government's poor freedom of speech track record.