Is Facebook the New Street for Protests in Closed Societies? Azerbaijan's Democracy Movement

Facebook Protests - The New Street in Closed Societies?

In Azerbaijan elections are looming and the country's citizens are engaged. Facebook is becoming fast one of the major vehicles through which political movements in the country are communicating and organizing.  President Ilham Aliyev is expected to be nominated in the coming weeks as the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party’s candidate. Opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar and the jailed Republican Alternative leader Ilgar Mammadov are among his potential challengers. 

While Yeni and Aliyev have built a power base for years, the landscape is changing rapidly, thanks to social media. According to Eurasia Net reporting, the use by citizen gruops of Facebook in particular is growing.

The Internet’s influence was most recently illustrated by a Facebook campaign that led to an unsanctioned rally in Baku in January against police treatment of protesters in the regional town of Ismayilli, and by a similar initiative to pay the fines of those demonstrators arrested. The social network also has been used as an information distribution vehicle about other protests and about a high-profile bribery scandal involving incumbent President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party.

A “Let’s Collect Five Qapik” campaign, organized via Facebook, Twitter and Internet forums, raised 12,500 manats ($15,930) from “more than 7,000 people” over two weeks to pay fines for those arrested during the Baku demonstration...

According to SocialBakers.com, the number of Facebook users in Azerbaijan is now at over 1 million, by far the largest in the Caucasus and numbers of new users are groing quickly.

The increased interest in Facebook and other social media is in no small part due to the restrictions on street protests this year. Faced with staggering increases in fines for unauthorized demonstrations, Azerbaijani opposition activists see Facebook as a still-available form of communciation and organizing. According to Eurasia Net,

A November 10 amendment to the Law on Freedom of Assembly hiked penalties for participation in unsanctioned protests nearly eighty-fold from a mere seven to 13 manats ($9-$16) to a hefty 500 to 1,000 manats ($637-$1,275).

Those charged with organizing such protests would incur far larger fines: depending on the extent of the individual’s alleged role, the punishment would range from 1,500 to 30,000 manats ($1,900 to $38,265). The average monthly salary in Azerbaijan is currently about 388 ($494) manats. The penalties for organizers represent up to a six-fold increase over earlier fines.

But, as Eurasia Net reporting also points, out, "practically speaking, it is no sure thing that voices of dissent will become bolder online than they are on the streets." Officials already carefully monitor Azerbaijani citizens’ online activities.

And, the official backlash is not far behind, however. According to the Expression Online Coalition in the country, there is concern "over government’s plans to introduce new bill that would grant the government broad new powers to restrict online content, ostensibly to protect children from pornography and other harmful material."  According to EOC, a draft bill is currently being written. 

The Expression Online Coalition is comprised of the Azerbaijani freedom of expression NGOs and experts and led by the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS).

According to IRFS Director Emin Huseynov, in "authoritarian regimes introduction of such restrictive laws is followed by technical censorship of the internet. Often government organizations prepare blacklists of prohibited sites; as a result of it citizens’ access to these sites is blocked." In Russia recently, sites such as YouTube were intermittently blocked under similar legislation. 

Photo credit: Internews