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A court in Baku has rejected an appeal by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service against the blockage of its website,
, backing a move that has been condemned by rights groups and Western governments.
The Baku Cassation Court ruled on June 4 that the Communications and High Technologies Ministry’s decision to cut off access to the site was correct and therefore should not be changed.
Azadliq.org has been blocked in Azerbaijan since March 2017 at the instruction of the Prosecutor-General’s Office, which has claimed that the website posed a “threat” to the Caspian Sea country’s national security.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said on May 12 that blockage of the site was “part of a deliberate campaign” aimed at silencing its reporting in the tightly controlled country, whose long-ruling president tolerates little dissent.
After hearings in a lawsuit filed by RFE/RL against the move began on April 27, a court ruled on May 12 that the Communications Ministry’s request for the blockage must be followed. The new ruling came in an appeal against that decision.
The ruling also affected opposition newspaper Azadliq and Meydan TV, as well as two other Internet TV programs.
The ministry has accused azadliq.org and the other outlets of “posting content deemed to promote violence, hatred, or extremism, violating privacy, or constituting slander,” but did not produce any examples to back up its accusations.
The only remaining legal recourse for the media outlets now is to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The decision to block the media outlets has been condemned by the European Union. The move was “not in keeping with the need for free, diverse, and independent media in modern and democratic societies,” Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said in a statement on May 14.
The U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House also criticized the court’s decision.
“By banning independent media websites, the Azerbaijani government has disproved President Ilham Aliyev’s most frequently used argument that Azerbaijan enjoys freedom on the Internet,” said Robert Herman, vice president for international programs at Freedom House, in a May 12 statement.
Azadliq.org has been targeted by Azerbaijani authorities after RFE/RL published investigative reports about financial dealings involving members of Aliyev’s family and his inner circle.
The reports were the result of cooperation between RFE/RL and the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Aliyev, 56, has ruled the oil-producing former Soviet republic with an iron hand since shortly before the death of his father, Heidar Aliyev, died in 2003 after a decade in power.
He has repeatedly rejected criticism from rights groups and Western governments that accuse him of jailing his opponents on trumped-up accusations and abusing power to stifle dissent.