How Azerbaijan Demonizes the Internet To Keep Citizens Offline

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 11 2012 3:10 PM

How Azerbaijan Demonizes the Internet To Keep Citizens Offline

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Azerbaijani police officers detain opposition activists.

Photo by SAMIR ALIYEV/AFP/Getty Images

On May 22, the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan will play host to the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual competition between singers from countries in Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. Though little known in the United States, Eurovision is the most popular non-sporting event in the world and will be watched by hundreds of millions—many of whom will be seeing Azerbaijan, a small Muslim petrostate bordering Iran and Russia, for the first time. Azerbaijan’s government has spent more than $700 million on promotion and infrastructure in order to put its best image forward. But as the world discovers Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani government is doing its best to keep its citizens from connecting with the world.

Over the past few years, the Azerbaijani government has waged an aggressive media campaign against the Internet. Social media has become synonymous with deviance, criminality, and treason. Television programs show ‘‘family tragedies’’ and ‘‘criminal incidents’’ after young people join Facebook and Twitter. In March 2011, the country’s chief psychiatrist proclaimed that social media users suffer mental disorders and cannot maintain relationships. In April 2012, the Interior Ministry linked Facebook use with trafficking of woman and sexual abuse of children. Since May 2011, the Azerbaijani parliament has been debating laws to curtail social media, citing the deleterious effect on society. Social media has become a vital political issue despite the fact that 78 percent of Azerbaijanis have never used the Internet, only 7 percent go online daily, and just 7 percent—almost all male, highly educated, and wealthy—use Facebook.

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Azerbaijan has a long history of media censorship. During the Soviet era, media were state-controlled, and dissidents faced harsh penalties for publishing political works. Little changed when Azerbaijan became independent in 1991. Almost all media outlets are owned or controlled by the state. The few opposition journalists face harassment, physical violence, imprisonment, and even death.

Most authoritarian states treat the Internet the same way they do print media: They censor it. Azerbaijan has taken a more insidious route. They do not heavily filter or block the Internet but instead leave it open, allowing the government to better monitor and punish rebellious activities. In 2010, two online activists were arrested for posting a video satirizing government waste on YouTube. Their case was never mentioned in Azerbaijan’s print media—but was relentlessly showcased online, where it frightened the bloggers’ peers. As a result, Azerbaijan’s frequent Internet users became less supportive of activism, and online dissent has quieted.

This strategy worked quite well with elites. But after the events in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, the Azerbaijani government decided to adopt a more aggressive strategy to shield regular citizens from discussions of dissent or collective action. Azerbaijan has moved from intimidating users who are already online to keeping the rest of the nation offline by making social media use seem like a form of bad citizenship.

To see how successful Azerbaijan’s anti-social media campaign has been, one need only to compare Azerbaijan to its poorer, yet more democratic, neighboring post-Soviet states Georgia and Armenia. Azerbaijan trails far behind in Internet use despite the fact that the cost of an Internet connection and a computer is roughly the same in all three countries. In Armenia and Georgia, 20 percent use the Internet daily, but in Azerbaijan, it is only 7 percent. In Armenia and Georgia, 40 percent and 33 percent of households have computers, but in Azerbaijan, only 15 percent have them. In Armenia and Georgia, 35 percent and 29 percent of households have Internet at home, while only 11 percent of Azerbaijani households do.

The framing of the Internet as a dangerous place has made men hesitant to allow their wives and daughters access. As a result, only 14 percent of Azerbaijani women have ever used the Internet. More than 70 percent of Internet users, as well as Facebook users, are men. The women who are online are often constrained: It is not uncommon for young brides to give their Facebook passwords to their husbands for monitoring. Women worry about maintaining their and their families’ honor online and offline and tend to prefer to not engage in discussion forums.

Azerbaijanis are proud that their country is hosting Eurovision. The competition symbolizes that Azerbaijan is not a second class country but a player on the world stage. But as the world spotlight shines on Azerbaijan, citizens find themselves increasingly in the dark—and not only in terms of the internet. On May 1 of this year, the government banned foreign television broadcasting , as “foreign television series often contradict our mentality” and may expose Azerbaijanis to new ideas. Decades of exposure to foreign television and film is now ending. The potential of the Internet as a place to learn, explore, create, and communicate is unfulfilled—instead, it is yet another thing citizens are told to fear.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Dr. Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist from Washington University, St. Louis. She studies digital media and politics in the former Soviet Union.

Dr. Katy Pearce is a communication scholar from University of Washington. She studies the use of information and communication technologies under different cultural, political, and economic contexts in the former Soviet Union.