Four websites blocked within two days

Avaz Zeynalli: ''This court ruling is politically motivated"

Shamshad Aga: "It's not a legal proceeding but a farce"

Since the beginning of the week, a Baku district court has ruled to block four online news sites. The Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies had filed lawsuits against the sites xural.com, arqument.az, monitortv.info and 24saat.org, accusing them of libel.

On 8 August, the Sabail District Court blocked access to Xural and fined its editor-in-chief, Avaz Zeynalli, 10 manat. The website 24saat.org was blocked the day before.

Zeynalli said they did not receive a warning from the Ministry before the proceeding. He considers the court decision to be politically motivated.

"The Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies directly asked the Sabail District Court to block our website. The Ministry criticized four articles in particular, but none of them had been Xural's, they were taken from other news sites."

The articles in question were about the attempted assassination of Ganja mayor Elmar Valiyev, a case of patient's deaths in the Sabunchu hospital, imprisoned blogger Mehman Huseynov being refused to visit his critically ill mother (who has since passed away), and the early release of Deputy Prime-Minister Ali Hasanov's grandson from prison, who was convicted for his role in a fatal traffic accident.

Əvəz Zeynallı
Əvəz Zeynallı

"It's interesting. The Electronic Security Service of the Ministry found these alleged violations, but the lawsuit filed with the court was signed by Minister Guluzade. The legal proceedings revealed that the officials from the Ministry were clueless about the articles, they could not answer questions during the hearing", Zeynalli said.

He removed the criticized articles from Xural's website before the hearing:

"It was a weird situation. When I explained that the articles in questions were no longer online, the judge and the representatives of the Ministry looked almost disappointed. We did it on purpose to expose their intentions – when we arrived at the court, we learned that the website had already been clocked. That is why I believe this is a politically motivated ruling."

The same court also ruled to block access to the news sites monitortv.info and arqument.az, which had reported about a conflict between the head of the Lerik district authority and residents.

Şəmşad Ağa
Şəmşad Ağa

According to Shamshad Aga, editor-in-chief of arqument.az, the court proceeding proved that the claims of the Ministry were groundless:

"We received a notice from the Ministry, and we immediately responded. 24 hours passed without reaction. We even called them, but the only thing they told us was that they have received our statement. We got the notification from the court within the next few hours. That's when I knew there would be a politically-motivated ruling. I also said this to the judge, and that I would legally dispute his decision. We argued based on the law on mass media, but it was not taken into account."

Alasgar Mammadli, a lawyer and a media specialist, commented on the blocking of the websites on his Facebook page. He argued that the Ministry exploits libel charges for their own intentions:

"A libel accusation against a media outlet has to be proven in a court of law. It's not just happening by saying 'this is libel'. Read the laws of this country. Article 147 of the Criminal Code says that information has to meet three criteria in order to be considered as libel: circulation in mass media, lies and conspiracy."

Ələsgər Məmmədli
Ələsgər Məmmədli

He continued: "How can reporting on a protest be libel? There is no lie or conspiracy in reporting about them. There is a picture of the protesters outside the authorities' office, proving that they were protesting. And it's not conspiracy either, it's the job of media to cover socially important developments. And this is of major social importance."

According to Mammadli, the party who was slandered usually has the responsibility to prove that a case is libel indeed: "The head of the district authorities should put together a lawsuit, send it to the court in the district where the website is registered, come on the day of the court proceeding and prove that he has been slandered. In this case, he found a shortcut: he directly contacted the Ministry because they are very good at abusing our law on information."

***

On 12 May 2017, the Sabail District Court ruled to block the websites of Radio Liberty, the Azadliq newspapers, Meydan TV, Turan, and Azerbaycansaati. The court ruling followed a lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies, based on an appeal from the Office of the Prosecutor-General claiming that the websites had published articles damaging state interests.

Just two months before, in March 2017, a plenary session of the National Assembly amended the laws on information and telecommunications, adopting procedures that allow state agencies to officially block websites they consider to be against state interests.