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Azerbaijan's Donkey Bloggers Are Just The Beginning

An Azerbaijani blogger dressed in a donkey suit gives a press conference. Now that blogger is in prison.
An Azerbaijani blogger dressed in a donkey suit gives a press conference. Now that blogger is in prison.
In a confident democracy, their "crime" wouldn't even have registered, the second-rate stuff of late-night cable.

A satirical video, distributed on YouTube, mocking the government for wasting oil revenues after reports that state funds had been used to import two donkeys for $41,000 each. In a mock press conference, an activist in a donkey suit says that in Azerbaijan you have a better chance of success if you're a donkey.

A few weeks later -- and a year ago today -- on July 8, 2009, two of the activists and bloggers responsible for the video were arrested on hooliganism charges after a scuffle in a Baku restaurant (they say they were attacked). Last November, an Azerbaijani court prompted international outcry when it handed Adnan Hajizada a two-year sentence and Emin Milli, 2 1/2 years.

Spooked by the volatility of restless and tech-savvy youth in neighboring Iran, the Azerbaijani government was sending a message to a new generation of opposition-minded youth who have courageously used Internet technologies to circumvent their government's stranglehold on the media. The message was clear: You can have your Turkish soap operas on YouTube, your 24-hour soccer channels and dating sites, but stay out of politics.

Azerbaijan's traditional political opposition knows the feeling of being broken only too well. Denied access to government-controlled media, banned from holding rallies anywhere but obscure locations on the edge of town, and up against unfree and unfair electoral practices, opposition parties have performed badly in elections, between them never having received more than a dozen seats in the 125-seat parliament.

To compound the dismal state of the almost extinct opposition, the Azerbaijani government has tightened its grip on traditional media in recent years. Since the beginning of 2009, foreign media -- including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the BBC -- have been banned from broadcasting on national frequencies. Opposition-minded newspapers live in fear that the government will put pressure on companies to pull their advertising if they stray from the official line. In a May 3 report, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders listed President Ilham Aliyev as among its top 40 "Predators of Press Freedom" alongside Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and others.

The killers of Elmar Huseynov, a crusading journalist, have never been found five years after his death, with activists accusing the government of stonewalling the investigation. A prominent newspaper editor and colleague of Huseynov, Eynulla Fatullayev, on July 6 was given a third jail sentence of 2 1/2 years after being imprisoned in 2007 on charges of terrorism and inciting ethnic hatred. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled this year that Fatullayev should be released from prison and paid 25,000 euros ($32,000) in compensation. In court, Fatullayev told the judge it wasn't a trial, but a show.

Fleeing To Cyber-Freedom

With a traditional media steering clear of politics and merely serving as the Aliyev clan's public-relations department, young people have increasingly turned to the Internet. In particular, social-networking sites offer opposition-minded youths two distinct advantages: the power to distribute and receive uncensored information and the ability to mobilize while remaining anonymous. (With a population of nearly 9 million people, there are around 160,000 Facebook users in Azerbaijan, and they tend to be the most politically and socially active segment of the population.)

Democracy activists turned to Facebook for news about the trial of the "donkey bloggers." Brave citizen journalists surreptitiously live-tweeted the trial proceedings from inside the courtroom. Hundreds signed an Internet petition calling on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise the issue with the Azerbaijani president on a July 4 visit.

Techno-utopianists like to wax lyrical about the power of the Internet to hold governments accountable. Well, go to Azerbaijan to see that in action. The popularity of video-sharing sites and the prevalence of cell-phone cameras has several times got the government into hot water. The most recent example was a bullying, hectoring police officer caught on camera insulting a citizen. The clip went viral after being posted on YouTube, prompting a traffic-police spokesman to claim that it was a stage show and they had no idea who the police officer was.

As Ali Novruzov, a pro-democracy activist and blogger, wrote for RFE/RL: "It is the lack of media freedom that drives Azerbaijan's youth to turn to more creative forms of news distribution.... Local television channels completely ignored the detained-bloggers story; the whole staff of a popular youth newspaper resigned en masse after sponsors blocked the publication of the bloggers' photo."

In the realm of the Internet, things are likely only to get worse before they get better. Azerbaijani politicians are increasingly talking about the need for greater control of cyberspace, while at the same time assuring the international community they are committed to a free and pluralistic Internet. But just as less-than-democratic governments have used the momentum for rooting out extremists in the global "war on terror" as an excuse to clamp down on domestic political oppositions, in coming years governments like Azerbaijan's will likely tackle digital dissent under the cover of campaigns to fight terrorism and pornography on the web. Young people will be "protected" like never before.

A 2009 report by the U.S.-based group Freedom House said the Azerbaijani authorities had "deepened their authoritarian grip on the country and governed with increasing impunity." It is precisely that impunity that scares democracy activists in Azerbaijan the most.

The fact that Fatullayev received another jail term two days after Clinton visited Baku and reportedly broached the issue of media freedoms with President Aliyev has led some to quip that it is not the U.S. government, but Azerbaijan that deserves the "yes we can" slogan. Yes, we can imprison journalists. Yes, we can beat opposition protesters. Both Hajizada and Milli have paid an exorbitant price for having the courage to stand up to the government and say, "No, you can't."

Luke Allnutt is editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL