Society 17:35 04/04/2013

IWPR: Azerbaijani authorities are concerned about activity in Facebook

The social networking site Facebook is booming in Azerbaijan, where more than a million people now use the site. They include a new generation of opposition activists who are seen as a challenge by officials accustomed to controlling the media, Shahla Sultanova writes on the site of British IWPR.

According to the article some officials have proposed restricting use of the site, but experts say Facebook is almost impossible to regulate unless it is closed down altogether.

“Facebook’s mobilising power was seen in January, when the first demonstration organised exclusively online took place. The protest followed the death of Jeyhun Gubadov, an 18-year-old conscript soldier who died just three months into his military service.
His mother was officially told that he died of heart failure, but pictures of his body taken by family members showed clear signs of injury. The images spread online, together with pictures of other soldiers who died in non-combat situations, and videos of their grieving parents, causing widespread anger,” the article reads.

According to the author the Facebook page called “Stop Soldier Deaths” called for a protest on January 12, and within days more than 17,000 people had clicked to say they would attend.

“Although the actual protest was not that large – journalists estimated that 3,000 people came – Professor Katy Pearce of the University of Washington said that in a society like Azerbaijan’s, clicking “attending” on a protest event was a significant step in itself,” the article says.

“In today’s social media world, where your ‘attendance’ is visible to the public and the government, this sign of support is meaningful,” she said.

According to Sultanova, it was in any case a large protest by Azerbaijani standards. In spring 2012, the opposition Popular Front and Musavat parties called for protests on the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest. Around 1,000 people attended the first demonstration.

“When fines were imposed on 22 participants in the January 12 demonstration, social networking sites again showed their power with the “five qepik” campaign, in which sympathisers paid a tiny amount each towards the penalties, which ranged between 300 and 600 manats, or 380-765 US dollars,” the article says.

“More than 2,000 people donated during the campaign, the majority of them Facebook and Twitter users,” Pearce said.
According to the article, the government used evidence gathered from Facebook to justify the arrest of three members of the new opposition youth group NIDA on charges of planning violent protests. Their arrests on March 7 came just three days before another Facebook-organised protest was due.

The author writes that, according to the web statistics site, Azerbaijan had 1,013,000 Facebook users in Azerbaijan in February, over 12 per cent of the entire population, but heavily concentrated in Baku.

“The popularity of Facebook gives anti-government activists access to the kind of audience that the opposition newspapers Azadliq and Yeni Musavat, with a circulation of just 10,000, could never reach,” Sultanova writes.

As the article says, the authorities seem alarmed at the emergence of Facebook as a tool for activism.

“National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov has said telecoms companies should help monitor social networking sites, as they are being used to recruit extremists. And Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of the presidential administration, has alleged that certain international organisations are paying and organising young people via social networking sites,” the article says.

Immediately after the March 10 protest and the arrest of the three NIDA activists, Fazail Aghamali, a parliamentarian from the government-aligned Ana Vatan party, said officials should examine whether social networking sites were a threat to national security.
Pearce said that to date, the Azerbaijani government did not seem to have a firm policy on how to deal with the challenges that Facebook might pose to it. The government uses social media to promote itself as well, she said.

However, she added that as with the recent arrests of NIDA members, “information disclosed on Facebook or any internet site – regardless of privacy settings – can be used against people offline.

“Content monitoring and deep packet inspection [intense monitoring of web traffic] is not impossible,” she said.

On March 10, in Baku, a mass protest against the deaths of soldiers in the army in non-combat situation was held. The rally was dispersed by the police; at least 60 people were detained. There were about 3000 protesters at Fountain Square. The number of participants increased due to the relatives of the recruits killed in the Azerbaijani army. Earlier, a similar protest was held on January 12 in 2013 and was also dispersed by the police. Both protests were organized in social networks.

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