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Azerbaijani Authorities Attempt To Clamp Down On 'Protests'

With the organizer of an antigovernment Internet campaign behind bars, the authorities are trying to minimize the risks of any social-network-fuelled protests.

Another activist, Etibar Salmanli, told RFE/RL he has been visited by the police after a campaign video was posted on YouTube. The video is titled “The day when Azerbaijan changes! The end of the beginning!" and shows Salmanli walking through downtown Baku handing out rose-colored leaflets promoting the March 11 protest.

The Azerbaijani authorities are clearly concerned about the likelihood of an "Egypt scenario." They have been for a while -- just look at how they clamped down on the "donkey bloggers" shortly after Iran's postelection unrest in 2009.

A few weeks ago, on February 16, the pro-Government ANS TV aired a show called "Cyber Politics," which talked about the negatives of Facebook and Twitter.

The show starts with Hillary Clinton's speech on Internet freedom. The anchor then suggests that the United States is using the Internet to achieve its political goals. After several expert opinions, the anchor concludes that Azerbaijanis should be careful with social networks.

On the show, Murad Isayev, a local psychiatrist, talked about the negative impact of Facebook. He suggested that people are becoming dependant on Facebook and can easily get depressed or upset by reading undesirable news. Bizarrely he mentions stories circulating that in 2012 we will witness the end of the world. These messages and programs could be planted in the minds of people, he said. And then, more revealingly, he adds that this is not a network that "we can control."

Another interview subject, local Internet expert Cahid Ismayiloglu, said there is news shared on Facebook that could damage Azerbaijan's national security. "For example, I follow Facebook and I can see a lot of news against Azerbaijan's interests and our image. It is impossible to prevent it. Either the Azerbaijani government has to ban Facebook…but we live in a democracy and it can damage our image among international organizations."

In the program, Information Minister Ali Abasov ruled out suggestions that these "dangerous" networks should be banned. He told ANS that social networks have become an open space where young people can exchange their opinions. The Internet is free in Azerbaijan and this is in accordance with the law, he said. However, with the ante upped, Abasov might be reconsidering that ban after all.

(Many thanks to my colleagues in our Azerbaijani Service for translating all this for me.)

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