Crossing the line of slander: from online intimidation and sexual harassment to death threats
Crossing the line of slander: from online intimidation and sexual harassment to death threats
Nestled on the shores of the Caspian Sea Azerbaijan, looks like the Dubai of the Caucasus. Mass construction projects, skyscrapers, boutique stores and whizzing around luxury automobiles. From the outside it looks like any other oil rich nation, investing in infrastructure along with the looks. The remake however, of the 9.3million majority Muslim nation is only superficial. Beneath all the glitz, Gucci stores and the glamor exists a different Azerbaijan where there are currently over 80 political prisoners, including journalists, bloggers, activists, prominent rights defenders and advocates. Freedom House described Azerbaijan as “a consolidated authoritarian regime” in its most recent country report. The Committee to Protect Journalists places Azerbaijan among ten most censored countries. Other international watchdogs condemn the country for an unprecedented crackdown that has taken place over the years but more so since the summer of 2014. The government of Azerbaijan silenced the country’s most well known critics, among them investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, rights activist Rasul Jafarov, rights advocate Leyla Yunus, rights defender Intigam Aliyev, political activist Ilgar Mammadov, and many others. The extensive list of all political prisoners in Azerbaijan includes many other independent and opposition journalists as well as a number of heads of non-governmental organizations. Not only are these people in jail or facing trial on bogus charges but the government of Azerbaijan also amended laws bringing critical revisions to the legislation on NGOs, foreign funding and so on. In the meantime, officials continue to deny any allegations about political prisoners.
Photo: Berge Arabian
Crossing the line…
It all began a few years ago. I remember it started with an email. The sender of that email claimed I was an agent, working for the Western powers, wanting to discredit the regime in Azerbaijan. He was absolutely sure that I wasn’t representing my views and that whatever I wrote and said was all lies. I was appalled. I remember my hands shook and my heart pounded as I tried to write back. I wanted to explain to him that he was wrong, that his conclusions and claims were unsubstantiated. Little did I know that this was not someone I could talk any sense into. Or that he was acting alone, on his personal initiative. This email was the very first of many more to come. And as social media landscape sprouted in Azerbaijan, this sort of accusations was only going to grow. This was my trolls and slander 101 lesson. It was 2008.
Azerbaijan’s landscape of repression
I grew up in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Sandwiched between Iran and Russia Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim nation. It is also in a state of war with its neighbor Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, disputed highland on the territory of Azerbaijan. One side is calling for territorial integrity while the other for self-determination. Although both sides to the conflict signed a ceasefire in 1994, exchange of fire on daily basis continues on the front line while reports of casualties rarely stop coming in. Some call it a “frozen conflict”, but for many years now, it has been far from frozen. In the meantime, the two sides have failed to secure peaceful resolution to the conflict. And war rhetoric is part of the rubber stamped government policy. Because of this, engaging in any kind of cross border work comes with a price tag and at times interpreted as an act of treason especially in the recent years.
But here is the catch 22. There is no government policy or a parliament resolution stating no connections or partnerships can be made between the two countries. In fact, in the early years of the ceasefire, many exchange visits took place, including visits to the front line. Projects were initiated, articles written, relations established. This became harder to maintain as the government of Azerbaijan began initiating stricter rules and setting requirements for each cross-border visit. And yet, the cross border work continued. This was the track-two diplomacy in the making and while the governments of the two states continued their negotiations, representatives of the non-governmental organizations, journalists and other initiatives, continued their work, in parallel, building bridges, establishing ties, and setting the stage for the post-resolution period.
In 2009, I made my own contribution to this track two-diplomacy world. Through a blog, which I started in 2008 I met a photojournalist from Armenia. We exchanged comments and talked a lot about reconciliation. In 2009, we had the opportunity to meet offline. We were invited as trainers at a regional workshop that brought together young men and women from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. As trainers we focused on the role of the social media in transforming conflicts. We were living examples and we wanted to share our experience. Due to the limits imposed by the closed borders, there was little that could be done in the real world but the possibilities of the Internet and quickly growing social networks had no boundaries.
The training was organized not far from a village that was populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia. And so together with the Armenian colleague we drove to the village. We talked to the local people about their lives in the village, the difficulties, and of course the conflict. There are many villages in Georgia where both Armenian and Azerbaijani people live. But even after hearing people’s thoughts on the conflict, we did not reveal the ethnicity of the Armenian trainer. He introduced himself as British, which he was half way.
As we walked around the village that day, we stumbled on a house that constantly had people coming in and out. Curious we popped in, and to our great surprise, we found ourselves in the midst of a wedding preparation. After spending a few hours with the families helping to prepare the food and set the tables, we received a formal invitation to attend the wedding ceremony that evening. We were ecstatic.
That visit was documented in this story. This was 2009.
In 2010, I was introduced to a small non-for-profit organization, Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation that worked with youth from Armenia and Azerbaijan bringing them together for a dialogue retreat. To my ears it sounded like a mission impossible – youth coming together for ten days to talk about history of the conflict, fears, needs, concerns, and the future. I was invited as a trainer once again, to talk about the power of the online media platforms. In 2011 I joined the organization as its co-director. Their work is an inspiration to this day.
In the meantime, I continued to write on my critical of the Azerbaijani government blog. I wrote extensively on the on-going crackdown in the country. I was also very much interested in the social problems and lives of the ordinary Azerbaijanis. The blog was my individual platform to share stories from home. Whether it was about the sudden closing of an online news platform or arrest of two young activists or violated elections. The ideas kept coming, and so did the posts.
In the meantime as I continued to write, the online accusations similar to the email I mentioned earlier, kept coming in, readers leaving comments on my blog were becoming angrier. How could I be so blind some would write, why cannot I see the progress others would add.
Strangely, I was asking the very same questions, but in a different tone – how can they not see the regress? How could one not see the diminishing space for political and individual freedoms? Why everyone accepted soaring corruption in the country?
Somewhere between criticism of what I wrote and my working in the field of conflict transformation I gained a new label: traitor. But it was my work with an Armenian daily Agos in Istanbul that triggered the wave of defamation. I was an occasional contributor, writing on Azerbaijan related news every now and then. For practitioners in the field of conflict transformation and especially those who work on information wars and media propaganda, such collaboration was an example of breaking of stereotypes but for some circles in Azerbaijan, this was a perfect excuse to come after me. And come they did. Mass online defamation was launched by some mediocre if not poor quality [by international standards] media platforms. I was immediately named the enemy, the sell out, and a whore. Sexual harassment and online sexual abuse was the gravest. Shortly after came the questioning of my family background. Was it my mother a whore from Armenia or was it my father, a traitor from Azerbaijan who married an Armenian whore. In comments and posts on social networks users discussed the many various ways of punishing me: I was to be hanged by my feet, to be extradited from Turkey, immediately arrested and taught a lesson, killed and so on. The discussion then went from these platforms and social networks onto pro-government television channels, and eventually state media outlets.
Needless to say, the paid army of online trolls who all seemed to think simultaneously and tweet at me with their exact same tweets were there too.
Earlier, many of my friends warned me, telling me it was one thing collaborating with the enemy through projects and another to contribute to an Armenian paper in Turkey.
Today, the pressure and harassment has not subsided. To “punish” me for my independent work, I am still a sell out Azerbaijani journalist working for Agos [no one seems to mention many other outlets I write for]. Often, after each international conference I speak at, I get hit by yet another wave of slander. It has become a routine occurrence.
But something out of ordinary happened some weeks ago when I received a caricature of me, in the arms of the President of Armenia, with my father’s grave in the background and him, holding his hand over his face, ashamed of my doings.
Many of my friends have been subject to slander, and such campaigns. Award winning investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayil, who is currently in pre-trial detention awaiting trial, was blackmailed with a sex tape, which was filmed with a secret camera in an apartment where she lived in Baku.
The sight of how low can some fall is all too familiar.
Today there at least three political prisoners in Azerbaijan who are also accused of treason. Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus, and a journalist, Rauf Mirkadirov. All three were involved in cross border work, extensively. Leyla Yunus headed a non-governmental organization that was involved in reconciliation with Armenia. Last summer , she was charged with treason, and some other criminal offenses. Like Yunuses Mirkadirov, who was reporting from Ankara prior to his arrest is too charged with treason. All three are in pretrial detention and are yet to be officially sentenced.
Yunses and Mirkadirov are victims of a much larger crackdown that shook the country in 2014. This was by far the most difficult year for Azerbaijani civil society. Over 30 high profile cases of arrests and detentions were reported including of activists, bloggers, journalists, rights defenders and the leaders of the non-governmental organizations. It was clear, in the run up to the European Games the government of Azerbaijan declared a witch hunt locking up its outspoken critics who played a major role in exposing the reality behind all the facades of glitz and glamor.
So what went wrong?
A combination of things. Granting full freedoms, respecting rights was never a priority for Azerbaijan’s post- Soviet development phase. Economy on the other hand and the exploration of the Caspian riches was. As one article recently puts it “The clearest model [to adopt following the break up of the Soviet Union] was this grotesque form of capitalism, and that’s what they’ve [Azerbaijan authorities] tried to copy. And with the wave of wealth that’s hit the country, that’s the sort of capitalism that they’ve built for themselves — grabby, nasty, blingy.”
So with equal rights, free and fair elections, media freedoms off the “to-do list” the rest was easy. This recent OCCRP work depicts the pressure against media and journalists ever since the country’s independence very well. The persecution of independent journalists and media isn’t new to Azerbaijan. The same can be said about the election fraud and violations. The introduction of draconian laws for non-governmental organizations and media was a natural consequence too as a result of growing repression in Azerbaijan. It was only a matter of time that from bad Azerbaijan’s state of freedoms would go to worse.
This also implied to the on-going conflict. While the government of Azerbaijan continued negotiations on an international level, at home, the war rhetoric grew only stronger. The conflict was used as pretext to instill more hatred. Anyone working in the direction of reconciliation and in addition was critical of the government policies at home, was labeled a traitor.
The most striking element in all of these dirty campaigns is the never-ending hope that the country’s outspoken critics are going to give up. What these cheap and poor attempts demonstrate however is the fear. Azerbaijani government officials have created an imaginary monster under the bed and are afraid of its very presence.