Azerbaijan: “There is no official censorship – but anyone doing real journalism is at risk.”

The journey from an Azerbaijani prison cell to London’s School of Oriental and African Studies is perhaps not the most conventional route for a student to take.But it does mean Emin Milli’s interest in freedom of expression and using digital platforms to speak out and to bypass state restrictions is very much first hand.The campaigner is now writing a dissertation on the new media and the Arab revolutions. But it was his own campaigning in Azerbaijan – using blogs, Facebook and Twitter – to reveal government abuse and repression that put him in prison for 16 months in 2009. Three years ago, along with fellow campaigner and blogger, Adnan Hajizade, Milli was attacked by two strangers in a restaurant. They reported the attack to the police but were themselves arrested on a charge of hooliganism. The assault came just a week after the two activists had posted a satirical video clip on YouTube showing a man dressed as a donkey holding a press conference. Milli likes to use humour in his criticism of the government,  but officials clearly failed to see the joke. The bloggers were not charged over what they had written though, instead it was claimed they had committed some trumped up offence. “Azerbaijan’s president tries to sell the country as a tolerable version of authoritarianism,” Milli explains. “We do not have massacres of thousands of people in the street. We have targeted attacks on people representing all social classes and different professions. They don’t jail all the bloggers. They pick up two or three who go – in their view – too far.”The fact that this happens within a member state of the Council of Europe makes it worse, thinks Milli. He gives the example of Eynulla Fatullayev, a journalist imprisoned after his views on Nagorno-Karabakh angered the government. Amnesty International launched a world-wide campaign for Eynulla’s release and the European Court of Human Rights declared the charges against him violated his right to free expression, and ordered his immediate release. Azerbaijan then “discovered” drugs on him in prison and brought fabricated drugs charges against him before quashing the original charges to comply with the European Court judgment. He is now free following a global campaign that made great use of Twitter and Facebook. After four and a half years wrongful imprisonment he was even compensated – with 28,000 Euros. But Milli believes material compensation can never make up for time lost in a prison cell. “My father died when I was in jail. They released me the day after he died but he was buried without me. Nothing can compensate me for that. It was very important to me. It is ridiculous that the Council of Europe will allow dictators to sit in their dachas laughing at such things.”“There are many courageous journalists there but the world doesn’t know about them. [The new media] is very important to Azerbaijan. My response is to write about these people and to inform other media about the outrageous facts.”“Bloggers and tweeters have a wider reach than traditional journalists. Internet penetration in Azerbaijan is more than 50% and Facebook use is growing. People are looking to the internet for truth.”But in some respects the new media is no different from traditional media. “It depends on what sort of journalist you are. Exposing injustice is dangerous. If you write about real issues you will be targeted. [In Azerbaijan] the government guarantees the rights of journalists will be upheld – there is no official censorship – but anyone doing real journalism is at risk. Words are dangerous.” Milli illustrates that observation by pointing out one of Azerbaijan’s most celebrated journalists, Idrak Abbasov, who in March received the Index on Censorship award in London for investigative journalism, is now in hospital having been brutally assaulted by police and officials of the state oil company, SOCAR, as he attempted to film illegal house demolitions.Milli returns to Azerbaijan in September to continue his fight for freedom of expression. “The absurdities of everyday life in Azerbaijan inspired me to start writing them. The people who read them in future will not believe them. They will think they are fantasies!”At the end of May, the Eurovision Song Contest will be held in Baku and some activists have called for a boycott. Milli disagrees with that strategy. He points out the irony of the fact that a musician – Jamal Ali – reported being tortured in the police department just a couple of months ago. He had been arrested for “petty hooliganism” after insulting the President’s late mother. Milli wants those visiting Baku for Eurovision to “take the opportunity to look at the reality of Azerbaijan”.