Azerbaijan has adopted a controversial law that Amnesty International claims targets online freedom of speech. A new amendment to the country’s defamation law makes “slander” and “insults” on the internet punishable by fines, imprisonment or hard labour.
According to the state news agency APA, those found guilty of slander face a fine of up to the equivalent of €493, as well as one year corrective labour or jail time of up to six months. The punishments are even harsher if the slanderous comments are deemed to have been ‘insulting’.
The changes come shortly before the country’s presidential election in October, leaving human rights groups worried that authorities are trying to silence all critical voices and meaningful debate.
Amnesty International has condemned the move in a press release, calling it a “further attack of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.”
David Daz-Jogeix, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme said, “The Azerbaijani authorities’ fear of critical voices has already led them to attempt to keep peaceful protesters off the streets and to muzzle the mainstream media. This new law aims to shut down one of the few last resorts of legitimate protest – the internet.”
Even before the legislative changes, President Ilham Aliev’s regime was regularly criticised by organisations defending human rights. They accuse the government of persecuting independent journalists, attacking political opposition candidates and detaining activists during anti-government protests.
In March 2012 two musicians were arrested and tortured for insulting the President’s late mother in a performance.
Despite the criticism, the President, who has been in power for the past decade – following a decade of his father’s rule – remains the favourite to succeed himself in October’s elections.