While leaders across the globe encourage people to stay calm and be diligent with the measures put in place to combat the global pandemic, in Azerbaijan the spread of the global virus is used as an opportunity to threaten independent voices and political foes
The tone of the annual presidential Novruz address ahead of the holiday was rather tense this year. Aside from the usual praise for the economic progress and growth, president Ilham Aliyev's statement of March 19th paid special attention to “traitors” and representatives of “the fifth column”, allegedly spreading rumours and provocations.
“[...] We see open provocations. Where do these provocations come from? From the very fifth column, from the enemies who are among us, the elements calling themselves opposition, the traitors who receive money from abroad. Their main goal is to destroy Azerbaijan. The worse for Azerbaijan, the better for them. Look at their addresses on social networks, they are full of hatred and provocation. They seem to want riots to happen. They want turmoil. They want panic. And then they claim that they care about the Azeri people. They are our enemies, and we must openly state this. It is not known what this disease will lead to. Therefore, during the existence of the disease, the rules of completely new relationships will apply. Let everyone know this. It is possible that a state of emergency may be declared at some point. In this case, the isolation of representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity [...] But we cannot allow the anti-Azeri forces, the fifth column and national traitors to take advantage of this situation to commit various provocations. Let everyone know it”.
Over the recent weeks, many in Azerbaijan have been wondering whether the government's response to the pandemic is adequate – and, more importantly, whether the indicators reported are accurate. While the country did eventually close its borders with neighbouring Iran and stalled all air and ground travel between Turkey, Russia, and Georgia, the questions remain about the state of the country’s healthcare system, its capacity to handle the growing number of patients, and the treatment offered.
In late February, a group of Azeri nationals was quarantined after crossing the Iran-Azerbaijan border at a local hospital in the Astara region of Southern Azerbaijan. Appalled by the poor conditions at the hospital, patients took their complaints to social media, where they shared videos of the abysmal state of facilities at said hospital. As a result, the head of the hospital was dismissed, and the country’s Medical Area Management Association vowed to address the demands of the patients and provide all necessary equipment.
In another case, the authorities only accepted Azerbaijan did indeed have the first infection only after a citizen of Iran was diagnosed with the virus at the border in Georgia, having travelled there from Azerbaijan.
Stop information, not the virus
The flow of information inside the country is what seems to bother the authorities, more than the quick spread of the virus. On March 18th, the lawmakers approved the first reading of the amendments suggested to the Law on Information, Informatisation, and Protection of Information. A special clause on “information-telecommunication network” and “information-telecommunication network users” was added to article 13.2. of the law.
While there are is no definition of what the “information-telecommunication network [and its users]” clause actually means, some media experts and journalists have suggested that this refers to social media platforms and users. In Azerbaijan the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies already holds broad powers to block websites without a court order. If these recent amendments to the law are approved in the final reading, this will further deteriorate freedom of speech online, as social media users posting content the Ministry may deem as misinformation may be arrested and face charges.
MP Ganira Pashayeva even suggested setting up a special unit that would monitor social media platforms and holding those spreading rumours accountable.
As of March 19th, the official website set up to inform Azeri nationals of the situation in the country reports 44 infected patients. Reportedly, a 51-year-old woman who was in Iran receiving medical treatment and returned to Azerbaijan is the only patient who has died so far.
Meanwhile, in the absence of free and independent media and with limited resources at hand, a group of volunteers is working hard to inform the public of the virus, its consequences, and measures to stop it from further escalation.
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