Clara Zid, February 2021
“My motherland has been in the hands of illiberal politicians exploiting it. These so-called leaders have looted its resources, gained power at the expense of others, and who have turned my motherland into a fiefdom“. These are words from Arzu Geybulla, Azerbaijani columnist and journalist in exile, who wrote these words in 2018.
Arzu advocates for democratic reforms in Azerbaijan and peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. This has resulted in her being called a traitor and she has suffered a long campaign of online harassment for her work. The harassment started already in 2014, the same year she was featured on BBC 100 Women Changemakers.
The last episode of this harassment campaign started in October 2020, she says: “A group of idiots calling themselves intellectuals and journalists took my Instagram picture, while doing yoga, and publicly accused me of “spreading my legs” during a minute of silence dedicated to the fallen soldiers during the second war with Armenia, on December 4. I was furious. That picture was posted at 10.30AM not at noon“.
The accusation quickly spread via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Arzu explains: “Everyone jumped on the bandwagon of accusing me of being a whore having no respect for her country. Even those who claimed to know me, calling themselves my friends, wrote to me in private asking whether I actually did that”. Arzu felt frustrated and disappointed, especially by the silence of individuals she used to call friends and used to work with.
“I’m no traitor. I never was. And I will keep holding my values above anything else”
She interprets their attitude “because we ended up disagreeing about whether the war was a necessary step. I was against the war from day one, they had doubts, and eventually joined the caravan of war supporters. They were also against any reporting done about democratic challenges the country was facing. Now it was not the right time to talk about these issues I was told”.
Anyway, the past months’ experience won’t change her position: “I still believe in peace and reconciliation. I believe in fair reporting. I am no traitor. I never was. And I will keep holding my values above anything else“.
Defeating online harassment
Arzu Geybulla was targeted by online hate speech for the first time in 2014 when she was working at the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos. She says: “It was a pretext to punish me for the work I was doing outside the country, advocating for free and fair elections, democratic reforms and so on”. At that time, she felt alone and helpless when the harassment took place, she felt that there was no one there to support her. But she was wrong: “I found support, I found comradely and solidarity and I found a solution”.
The solution was to keep speaking up. Not only about what was happening in Azerbaijan but about what was happening to her. Another part of the solutions was to monitor and get to know the trolls: “I wanted to know who was engaged in this behavior and what were their motives”. Arzu stopped seeing herself as a victim and started looking at things as social experiment: “Studying it, writing about it. And most importantly exposing it”.
Arzu is not alone. Targeting women journalists is common practice in Azerbaijan, she explains: “Just recently, two women journalists who report for Meydan TV were targeted on Facebook, where a picture of them appeared in a post critical of them as “women who destroy families””.
Monitoring information controls in Azerbaijan
Geybulla started blogging in 2008 when she was 25 years old. She has written for Al Jazeera, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Global Voices and worked for several non-profit organizations and Think Tanks, always with a special focus on human rights and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. Today she continues to work as a freelance journalist and lead her own project, Azerbaijan Internet Watch (AIW).
With financial support from the Open Technology Fund (OTF) and International Republican Institute (IRI), and collaboration with Qurium and OONI as technical partners, the AIW project focuses on information controls in Azerbaijan. It is a documentation and monitoring platform that tracks any developments in order to find, analyze, and explain in depth Internet disruptions, specific digital attacks and Internet censorship.
“Azerbaijan is just one of many countries where technology is used to disrupt civil society and spy on them”
The digital persecution of dissidents began early in Azerbaijan, says Arzu: “As far as 2009 activists are sentenced to administrative detention because of their posts on social media”. Also, since 2013 “the authorities have relied on surveillance tools they have purchased from various vendors, including the notorious Hacking Team and Sandvine, paying hefty amounts”. The last three years we have seen more forms of Internet persecution in the country: phishing, spear phishing, DDoS attacks, account hacking or account take down requests, Arzu explains.
The pandemic is used to tighten the control
According to Arzu’s research, surveillance technologies are getting more popular and in demand by leaders of certain governments across the world: “Azerbaijan is just one of many countries where technology is used to disrupt civil society and spy on them, and I’m certain there is so much out there that we don’t know“. In Azerbaijan, as in other countries, there are no accountability measures for surveillance technology.
The journalist has also documented how the pandemic has been used to crack down on dissidents and journalists and to control the general public in Azerbaijan. According to a new regulation since early April 2020, journalists must register with an e-permission platform. Citizens wanting to go outside were required to obtain a permission made via SMS request with National ID numbers indicating the reason for wanting to go outside. E-Tebib App, an app that informed about the pandemic in Azerbaijan, was also introduced but there were many complaints about its privacy and people didn’t use it.
Life in exile
Arzu lives in Istanbul since 2010. It was her personal decision to leave Azerbaijan then, at the time, when there were no threats to her safety. But as a result of her work and campaigning over the past decade, it is no longer safe for her to return.
The first harassment campaign against her coincided with the crackdown against civil society in Azerbaijan in 2014. Lots of people were arrested, including pro peace veterans. In 2016, when she considered going back, the news about Meydan TV, an independent Berlin based online news platform covering Azerbaijan, was targeted in a criminal investigation. Arzu, having worked as Meydan TV’s English language editor, and being a regular contributor at the time was among a list of 17 people affiliated with the news platform and whose names were featured in the investigation.
The last time she checked, she was advised against traveling to Azerbaijan. She says: “Today, the only reason I would want to go back to Azerbaijan is to visit my father’s grave. I have not been there since 2014”.
Azerbaijan Internet Watch (AIW) is hosted with Virtualroad.org since 2019. AIW and Qurium are collaborating around forensics cases that concern Azerbaijan.