Azerbaijan: Popular Website “Temporarily” Closed

First they came after dissenting newspapers such as Realni Azerbaijan. Then they came after foreign broadcasts such as BBC and Radio Free Europe. Now, just weeks before the March 18, 2009 constitutional referendum that would institute unlimited presidency, the government of Azerbaijan is allegedly censoring the content of a popular and semi-independent website, www.day.az. In the words of Global Voices Online:

“[…] the content of a leading news site considered more independent than most in Azerbaijan was replaced on Thursday with a message informing readers that the “project is closed.

A day later, after the authorities denied allegations that they were behind the disappearance of day.az, a new message instead explained that the site was down for technical reasons and would reappear after 25 February.

Blogs by media specialists and analysts in Azerbaijan, however, were not convinced.”

Given that the “temporary” closure of Day.az was done without a court order – unlike in the case of other media restrictions in Azerbaijan – it has been assumed that the website will reopen with censored content.

The mainly Russian-language Day.az has been a valuable source of information about Azerbaijan and the region. In addition to original reporting, the website has been republishing information from a variety of regional sources, even posting full PanArmenian.net articles from neighboring Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are technically at war, although the 1994 ceasefire blocked full-scale clashes, over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In addition to the news section, the website has been offering a popular forum. One of the most popular online portals in the entire former Soviet Union, the Russian-language forum at Day.az has had thousands of active users. One of the hottest sections of the forum has been “Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

In November 2004, as a Russian-language Armenian forum user reported at the time, the administration of the Day.az forum promoted its first Armenian moderator, Arthur, giving him the privilege to delete/edit offensive and/or unrelated content from discussions.

The appointment was indeed unprecedented, as the Russian-language announcement from the Day.az forum administrator explained:

“For the first time in the virtual world, a user of Armenian nationality – the respected Arthur – has become the Moderator of an Azerbaijani forum.

We should note that we came to [this decision] after a long year… of surveys, nominees, consultations with other Moderators… and taking into account the opinions of well-respected users. […] It shows also high level of the Armenian users, and atmosphere of tolerance which has developed at this forum.

[…]

P.S. And now you can throw stones at me.”

Another, more recent, controversial move at the forum has been the creation of a private section where users with over 500 posts could discuss and post adult content.

What will be different on Day.az if it reopens on February 25, 2009?

By: Simon Maghakyan, Eurasia Country Specialist

Human rights advocate faces trial in China on eve of UN review

The New York Times reported yesterday that human rights activist Huang Qi was charged with illegal possession of state secrets. Huang was detained by plainclothes police last June after assisting the families of five primary school students who died in the earthquake in Sichuan, China last May. (The families believe local authorities are responsible for the poor construction of public buildings that collapsed and Huang was going to help them to bring a lawsuit.)

Huang Qi is considered the first webmaster in China to be sent to prison. In 1998, he set up the website www.64tianwang.com to help family members locate missing relatives who disappeared after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. The website later included content about the plights of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Huang was detained, charged with “incitement of subversion”, tried in secret in August 2001 and imprisoned until June 2005. According to the court verdict, the prosecution’s evidence included reference to Huang’s posting of the Amnesty International report, The People’s Republic of China: Tiananmen – Eleven Years on (May 2000).

Huang Qi was not deterred by his time in prison – he returned to human rights advocacy after his release in 2005. But, this time around, his freedom was taken away before he could bring justice to the families who lost their children in the earthquake.

Internet censorship has become an all-too-common tool for government authorities to stop dissent and punish dissenters. China is about to face its first Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council next Monday. The Council should be diligent in clearly documenting cases of suppression of dissent, like that of Huang Qi, in assessing China’s record on freedom of expression.

China's e-blockade a blow to human rights victims of the world

It’s not surprising that with the Olympics come and gone, reports are surfacing of China’s cracking down of the Internet, again, and with the help, of course, of Chinese and US companies, including Microsoft and Google.

Unfortunately, Amnesty’s website is again one of the victims.

But when widespread censorship occurs, the “victims” are even more widespread — it’s much more than the author of a site or the person who can’t access it which is harmed. According to media reports, Chinese authorities have clamped down on child pornography and vulgur content. (And, who wants to argue the pro-child pornography point?) But, such categories are also said to include “content depicting violence and depravity”.

Content depicting violence and depravity? Iraq? Gaza? Darfur? All off limits? It’s unfair enough to deprive Chinese nationals of access to the world, but what about those suffering egregious abuses around the world, whose only hope could depend on the awareness and actions of others (citizens of the world/human rights activists/humanists) outside of their borders? What right does any state have to take away not only from its own people, but from people far beyond its jurisdiction? And, how can companies that enable this taking sleep at night?

Make Your Voice Heard for Change!

Change.org wants you to change our government.  Inspired by President-elect Obama’s commitment to “open the doors of government,” Change.org is offering people an opportunity to send ideas to the incoming administration that will bring real, tangible solutions for our country.  They will then present the “Top 10 Ideas for America” to the Obama administration on Inauguration Day and work with partner organizations to turn those ideas into specific policies.

At Amnesty, we know that one of the most important changes our nation can make is to restore its respect for human rights and the rule of law.  A crucial first step is to investigate abuses carried out in the War on Terror and ensure accountability all the way up the chain of command.

We are already pressuring the President-elect Obama through our 100 Days Campaign to make human rights central to his administration.  Help us gather even more support by going to change.org and voting up this issue.  Let’s send the message loud and clear that Americans care about human rights and our government should too!

Australia to join Internet Censors? U.S. Companies Can't Be Allowed to Help.

The New York Times reported yesterday that “[t]he Australian government plans to test a nationwide Web filtering system that would force Internet service providers to block access to thousands of sites containing questionable or illegal content, prompting cries of censorship from advocacy groups.”

 

Not surprisingly, according to the article, Australia is using the same tried-and-true justification of needing to protect itself (and its citizens) from terrorism and child pornography.

 

It’s not to say that child pornography and terrorism aren’t legitimate concerns. It’s just that these are the same, all-too-often abused excuses used to cast a much wider net that unjustifiably censors peaceful expression.

 

So, it’s understandable that people would fear that Australia may be joining the ranks of more infamous censoring regimes, like China, that routinely limit access to information and restrict freedom of expression.

 

The implications for U.S. companies that provide internet services in Australia are clear: just as in other parts of the world, they will likely again be asked to comply with requests that violate human rights standards relating to freedom of expression and privacy.

 

A role for the U.S. government is also clear: congress must act to reinvigorate and pass the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), previously introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). GOFA, in its previous form, would allow the U.S. government to step in and stop U.S. companies from complying with requests that violate international human rights standards.