Azerbaijan's parliament has approved tighter Internet controls in a move media freedom groups fear could be used to curb online dissent and paralyze independent journalists in advance of presidential elections this October.
The parliament voted on May 14 to make online libel and "abuse" criminal offences.
The new law allows for cases of slander deemed to be particularly serious to be punishable by up to three years in jail.
Parliament also agreed on increasing to three months the maximum sentence for so-called "administrative" arrests, under which activists and journalists have been held. The previous maximum sentence was 15 days.
Defending the vote, Ziyafat Asgarov
, the vice speaker of parliament, reportedly rejected international norms decriminalizing defamation, telling lawmakers that society "is not ready for it."
President Ilham Aliyev has the prerogative to veto the law.
Emin Huseynov, Chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety
in Baku, told participants at an OSCE seminar on media freedom in Warsaw last week that under the law, media outlets could be found liable even for readers' comments that appear on their website.
Other observers note that the law is easily susceptible to provocation, since insulting comments can be easily placed with relative anonymity on any website.
Huseynov pointed out that the new provisions for administrative arrest could be used to detain journalists who are unpopular with the government for weeks or months before the polls and prevent them from reporting on the process.
The law contradicts the trend across Europe to decriminalize libel, which seminar participants insisted be a priority for OSCE member states.
The international media rights group Committee to Protect Journalists
said the new bill, if signed into law, would “rob the public of online news” and urged President Ilham Aliyev to veto it.
Earlier this month, Stefan Fuele
, the European Union's Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, expressed concern about proposed moves to curb access to the Internet in the oil-rich nation.