Jodie Ginsberg: Five things you need to know before visiting Azerbaijan

London-based daily newspaper Metro ran a feature this month extolling the delights of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The photo-driven feature article comes at a time when the government of President Ilham Aliyev is ratcheting up pressure on dissenters, including denying independent news outlets the kind of freedoms that a paper such as Metro, whose parent company is outspoken on the importance of press freedoms, enjoys in the UK.

Despite attempts to present itself to the outside world as a modern and open society — in part through a concerted international PR campaign — Azerbaijan has a woeful human rights record and continues to arrest, detain and harass any opponents to the regime of President Ilham Aliyev. In the last few months, many campaigners and activists have been arrested in an attempt to silence them.

Metro highlighted 10 things to do in Baku. Here we list just five things you need to know about Azerbaijan before you go. We ask our supporters and all those who care about a free press and free expression to draw attention to these so we can counter the whitewash of the Aliyev regime.

There is an ongoing crackdown on government critics

A number of high profile Azerbaijanis known for their criticism of authorities have been jailed in a matter of weeks. These include human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and journalist Seymur Hezi. This new wave of repression followed the jailing of two human rights defenders who lead the only independent group monitoring elections in Azerbaijan.

Independent media is silenced

Azerbaijan’s last independent newspaper Azadliq, which was named 2013 Guardian Journalism award winner at the Index Freedom of Expression awards in March 2014, was forced to suspend printing in July because of financial pressures from the government. This is a familiar pattern for Azerbaijan’s critical press, which has long been subjected to an array of attacks. Independent news outlets face economic sanctions and are often barred from distribution networks. Journalists are also victim to legal threats. In the first six months of 2013, 36 defamation suits were brought against media outlets or journalists. Award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was subjected to an aggressive smear and blackmail campaign in retaliation for her coverage of government corruption and continues to be targeted by authorities.

Internet users are targeted

Ahead of last year’s election Azerbaijan extended penalties for criminal defamation and insult to cover not just traditional media, but also online content, including social networks. The potential length of pre-trial detention has increased from 15 to 90 days. In May, a university student and member of the Free Youth organisation, was arrested for a Harlem Shake video posted on YouTube. A human rights defender was sentenced to four years in jail on hooliganism charges after posting videos on YouTube containing interviews with victims of a gang they alleged had connections to local police officers. A freelance journalist who was outspoken in his criticism of the government on social media was given a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence on charges that included appealing for mass disorder.

Artists are censored

Despite the fact that Azerbaijan has committed to respect and protect artistic freedom of expression, authorities restrict this right. This is especially the case for alternative artists and those deemed to be critical of the government, whose ability to perform, display, or disseminate their work is limited. Self-censorship is one consequence of this, with many artists shying away from producing critical or controversial work for fear of the possible consequences. Musician Jamal Ali, who has spoken out against President Aliyev, was allegedly tortured by the police.

Democratic principles are ignored

Current president Aliyev has been in power since 2003, when he took over from his father Heydar, and in 2009 he removed term limits for the presidency. According to the international observer mission, the October 2013 election “was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association”, with “significant problems” observed throughout election day. The 2003 and 2008 votes also failed to meet international standards. Transparency International has called Aliyev’s government the most corrupt in Europe. Meanwhile, authorities have engaged in a wide-reaching international PR campaign. In 2012, the country was given a chance to project a positive image to the world through hosting the Eurovision Song Contents. Preparations included urban renewal programs that saw homes demolished and families evicted. It remains to be seen what will happen next year, when the inaugural European Games come to Baku.

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