In the past few days in Azerbaijan, some users have complained that many sites, including Yahoo Mail, Gmail and Facebook, were inaccessible. In a region such as the Caucasus where the Internet is less than reliable at the best of times, such things can happen.
However, because the problems also included users having problems accessing the web site of Radio Free Europe's Azeri service, some automatically assumed it was a government block. Azadliq was prevented from broadcasting on radio frequencies at the beginning of last year after controversial legislation effectively banned foreign stations from doing so.
Such fears were probably also well founded given Azadliq's publication of reports related to last week's exposé by the Washington Post concerning apparently suspect real estate deals in Dubai by the family of the president, Ilham Aliyev.
Word of the apparent problems also spread on Facebook, with some reporting that it only affected some secondary providers. Indeed, when Global Voices Online contacted several Internet users in Azerbaijan, they reported experiencing no problems at all.
Some even chatted over Gmail chat and sent mails from Yahoo at the same time as others reported the sites were inaccessible or not working properly while one even updated his status advising on how they could access the site.
Problems were occurring, however, pushing the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) to publish a news item.
Restriction of access to Radio Liberty website from several internet providers operating in Azerbaijan including Bakinternet”, “Azeronline”, “Uninet”, “Ultel”, “Connect” and “Adanet” is continuing.
The “Facebook” social network disseminated information regarding this. The Institute for Reporters` Freedom and Safety conducted an investigation into this issue. “Ultel” provider told IRFS that the problem is linked to the website itself.
“Connect” provider’s operator Tofig Huseynov said that “Connect” did not impose any restriction on access to Radio Liberty website.
“Azeronline” representative on customer services Tural Omarov said that it is possible to access website by writing www at the beginning of azadliq.org.
Yesterday, IRFS published a statement based on some of the Facebook user reports.
The Institute for Reporters` Freedom and Safety condemns the restriction of access to Radio Liberty’s website by internet providers operating in Azerbaijan and assesses this as censorship by Azerbaijan government on the internet indirectly.
On 6 March, at 3:00 p.m., access to Radio Liberty’s website from several internet providers operating in Azerbaijan was restricted. Comprehensive information regarding this issue was disseminated on the “Facebook” social network. This restriction is still being continued.
IRFS does not rule out the possibility that due to the fact that an Azeri version of the critical article regarding Azerbaijan leadership published in the Washington Post was put onto Radio Liberty’s website is the reason for this censorship.
However, when Global Voices Online contacted two Internet specialists in Azerbaijan asking for their opinion, they ruled out the possibility of a government block, and not least because several other sites of a non-political nature were inaccessible and it anyway only affected a few ISPs.
Another specialist even updated his Facebook status.
The problems encountered within a few days while entering Azadliq Radio and at the same time a number of other sites have nothing to do with providers – the problem was caused by a temporary technical glitch in the communication channel between Delta Telecom and Turk Telekom.
Because of the confusion and differing opinions on why and to what extent Azadliq was inaccessible, Global Voices Online contacted one European visitor to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, to ask for further assessment, especially as the web site of the Open Society Institute (OSI) had been hacked at roughly the same time.
At time of writing, while some allege a block and technical specialists and others who could access the sites in question dispute such speculation, the reality is that confusion prevails. However, similar problems were encountered in Turkey a week earlier with Facebook at least, perhaps backing up the opinion of the technical specialists that there was no block.
Nevertheless, with two video blogging youth activists currently in prison and more activists going online, fears over the possibility of online censorship in the future are very real indeed. Meanwhile, there is no consensus of opinion as to the reason for some users experiencing difficulties in accessing Azadliq and other sites.
Thanks to A. for translation from Azerbaijani into English.
Sabina, just so you know, I have sent a number of people links to a tool available from Global Voices which allows users to run tests for blocked sites in their countries. I have also put some of those people in touch with Global Voices Online’s Jillian York who is one of those responsible for Herdict:
However, I haven’t heard anything yet or if any tests are run. Basically, until they are, and when other users can access Azadliq (and when even its own employees tell me they don’t know what the reason is), it’s too early to say. What we have until then is the opinion of some activists, and the opinion of some technical specialists.
I think it is also interesting to note that RFE/RL in Prague have not yet commented on the problems, leading me to suspect that they too consider it too early to say.
However, I would advise residents in all three countries of the South Caucasus to discover what tools are available for circumventing any blocking.