The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a UN-sponsored conference which aims to “bring[ ] together all stakeholders in the internet governance debate.” This year it is held in Baku, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan where, starting on Tuesday, government officials, representatives of the private sector, the civil society and academia are to discuss major issues related to the use, policing, management and future of the internet.
Also on Tuesday, Emin Milli, a well known Azerbaijani youth activist and former political prisoner, is publishing an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. The document is meant to coincide with the opening of the IGF, and is published by the London-based The Independent newspaper. In it, Mr. Milli challenges claims by the government that the internet is free is his country. He writes:
You once suggested in a speech that the internet is free in Azerbaijan. I am sure you will repeat this message at this global forum. It is true that people in Azerbaijan are free to use the internet, but it is also a fact that they can be severely punished afterwards for doing so.
Mr. Milli’s letter denounces widespread and warrantless surveillance of the web which, he says, has helped create a climate of fear reminiscent of the Soviet era, effectively preventing people from speaking out:
Today many of our fellow citizens do not dare to speak out against your policies, online or offline. You have successfully managed to silence them.
On July 8, 2009, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada, a video-blogger and pro-democracy activist, were sentenced to 2 and 2.5 years in jail respectively, on trumped-up charges of “hooliganism”. Most observers and rights organizations at the time condemned the verdict as political, declaring both men prisoners of conscience. Many believe they were punished for their irreverent criticism of the regime of Ilham Aliyev and for their efforts to establish alternative communication channels for the youth.
Following an international outcry, both men were conditionally released in 2010.
The regime of Mr. Aliyev has since attempted to paint a picture of a country open to the outside world. The organization of this year's IGF conference is all but one example of that policy. Informed observers of the situation in Azerbaijan describe the emergence of a new kind of authoritarianism there—a “networked authoritarianism” that has successfully taken advantage of an open internet to discourage users to exercise political activism online, and to demonize those who, like Mr. Melli, dare to speak up.
The full text of Mr. Emin Melli’s open letter to President Aliyev can be found on The Independent’s website, following this link: