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Stalls at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, A
Stalls at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan (photo credit: IGF2012)

A free-internet debate in an unfree place

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN: Our Caspian correspondent watches the UN debate internet governance in the oil rich, democracy poor country of Azerbaijan

On November 6th, over 1,500 delegates from all over the world gathered in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, a city nestled on the shores of the Caspian City and the host of this year’s Eurovision song contest, for the Internet Governance Forum. A UN organized event, IGF2012 was seventh in the series of multi-stakeholder events. One of the main topics of this year’s conference was freedom of expression. But while for many having Internet Governance Forum hosted in the capital of oil rich Azerbaijan means little or nothing at all, for others more familiar with the country, it raised some eyebrows. 

Azerbaijan witnessed a democratic awakening in 1918 before the Bolsheviks took over in 1920. Its next democratic breakthrough took place 75 years later when Ebulfez Elchibey, the then-popular public figure took over the government. That encounter with free elections was also brief.  When an ex- KGB officer Haydar Aliyev took over in 1993, the dream of democracy was buried in the depths of the oilrigs and gas fields. Almost 20 years later, the notion of a democratic state has never been so distant.

The country is notorious for its poor human rights record and freedom of expression. On 26th of June, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijani of which the council estimates Azerbaijan to have more than 80. There is no room for political satire from where the country’s authorities stand. After uploading a satirical video on YouTube in 2009, two online activists were jailed on bogus charges and given two-year imprisonment sentence. In 2007, Eynulla Fatullayev, the editor of the local paper was arrested and jailed also for criticizing and digging too deep. In 2012, another well-known journalist was blackmailed and threatened with a video footage of an intimate nature of after her investigative work into government business and its shady deals. The list continues with human rights defenders barred from practicing their profession, advocates arrested and more.

Now, fitting into this equation IGF component makes things even more interesting. No doubt, global platform as IGF served as a venue for local activists to voice their concerns, international actors to actually take action and current government still play the good old tune of everything’s gonna be alright.

Personally, having IGF 2012 in Baku was a perfect opportunity to shed light on reality of present day Azerbaijan – the living conditions of average Azerbaijanis, corruption, poor social services, gender equality, and freedom of speech. For once, the glossy, flashy facades were brought down. Whether the news of the forum resonated across the country and reached many Azerbaijanis I have doubts as there wasn’t much coverage of the forum proceedings in the news, nor was there any mentioning of critical remarks raised by the foreign delegates. Whether this was a deliberate step that is another question, just like whether not having access to the Internet throughout the forum was simply a technical glitch, a result of poor organizing or intentional blackout. What is important now, is to see how quickly Azerbaijan stops being interesting to the outside world, just like it did after the Eurovision. Although, there is hope that things might turn out just a tat bit different this time around. For us, the humble observers, all is left however is to sit, wait, observe and write – at least while we can.

Text: AG