If you live in the West the answer to the question ‘How much freedom do you really have online?’ is probably ‘quite a lot’. But this month I learned that the freedom TO speak doesn’t always lead to being free AFTER you speak, when I met journalists and campaigners at the 7th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Baku, Azerbaijan.

“The Internet may not be a human right but it is fundamental to the exercise of human rights, expression and access to information and exchange. If someone takes the Internet away from you that is a violation of your human rights of expression.” - Vint Cerf speaking at the Internet Governance Forum 2012

I’d known there was going to be a big focus on freedom of expression at this year’s event as Azerbaijan’s human rights record had made international headlines several months earlier when the Eurovision Song Contest rolled into the capital city. But I have to confess to being caught a little off guard by how up-front and in-your-face criticism of the host nation would be.

IGF sign 520x354 How much freedom do you really have online?

Normally you don’t know the meaning of the phrase ‘politically correct’ until you’ve been to one of these UN meetings, but in Baku, local journalists, bloggers and human rights campaigners turned out in force to point the finger directly at President  Ilham Aliyev, standing as eye-witnesses and even victims of violent beatings and online persecution they accuse the government of being implicit in, or at best doing nothing to prevent.

If you have no idea what the IGF is, now would probably be a good time to jump back a year to the article I wrote for The Next Web about the IGF in 2011; Who owns the Internet? Things haven’t changed much in a year – well this is the UN we’re talking about – so you can use it as a guide without my having to repeat the basic structure again.

Cutting through the noise

Wanting to get on top of the issue that was clearly going to dominate this meeting I’d arranged to meet Mike Harris from Index on Censorship at a pre-event session on human rights, organised by local pressure group Expression Online. The atmosphere was tense as the partitioned room tucked away in a corner of a vast exhibition hangar began to fill up with people. The venue was huge, big enough to fit the Plenary Hall and several dozen other rooms for meetings and workshops incumbent to an IGF into one half; in the other half was the country’s biggest annual Telecoms expo. A constant cacophony of white noise flowed up into the high rafters and you had to wear headphones hooked up to the sound system to hear anyone speaking more than a few meters away from you.

IGF meeting 220x117 How much freedom do you really have online?Once the session I had come to watch started it became clear this wasn’t going to be an easy ride as a ‘technical glitch’ meant that an Azeri translation had to be broadcast on the same channel everyone was listening to. The keynote speaker, OSCE Freedom of the Media Representative, Dunja Mijatovic, made a valiant attempt to stay patient as each sentence was laboriously repeated in Azeri, but the atmosphere was already tight following claims by the session organisers that local reporters and bloggers were being refused entry to the venue on the grounds they might protest.

Pretty soon ‘Audio Channel 1’ had devolved into a buzzing babble of voices talking over each other louder and louder in English and Azeri. Next, it was time for the Q-and-A session during which there was an angry exchange between the moderator and a pro-government commenter from the audience who accused Mijatovic of censorship when she tried to hurry him along to his point so that others could have time on the microphone.

Fighting for freedom

Despite the lack of intelligible information during the session I did have a chance to speak with some of the contributors afterwards and record my own ‘Audio Channel 1’ without all the raised voices and confusion. I spoke to Emin Huseynov, a freedom campaigner and reporter who in 2008 ended up in intensive care after being severely beaten at a police station.

He told me: “We don’t have freedom of expression in Azerbaijan right now because we got 10 journalists in prison; the government might say we have Internet freedom because they don’t block websites and there is good infrastructure delivering the Internet, but bloggers, journalists and activists who speak against them are arrested routinely for other provocative reasons and this creates a type of self-censorship within the Azeri media organisations.”

IGF stage 520x315 How much freedom do you really have online?One of many shocking stories I heard that day was that of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter working for Radio Liberty who has had government corruption and the Azeri telecoms sector well and truly in her journalistic sights lately. Earlier this year she reported having her home bugged and an intimate video of her with her boyfriend used in an attempt to blackmail her into ceasing her investigation into government corruption. The story is well documented if you want to read up more, but suffice to say a weaker woman – especially in a Muslim country where many people still have very conservative views about sex – might have crumbled under the pressure.

Ismayilova refused to step down from the issues and so the video was published online, although outrage from the public has since caused the government to condemn the act, launching an investigation into the crime that Khadija says has gone nowhere in the seven months it’s been active. As she spoke to me, crammed into a nook of a corridor between partitioned conference segments, her eyes kept darting off to the right, unconsciously taking stock of anyone passing us by:

“Investigative journalism proved to be deadly profession in Azerbaijan and being critical of the government is not a safe thing. In 2005 our colleague Elmar Huseynov was killed and now the case, or the government’s non-action in solving his case and finding the perpetrators of his assassination, is being filed to the European Court of Human Rights and we are expecting them to consider this case. It’s the same with other journalists; none of the crimes against journalists who were critics of the government has been solved yet. Nobody has been punished for those crimes so this creates an impunity condition for them. That creates an open season on journalists in this country. Living with the feeling that you’re scared to do what you want to do is worse for me than the things that the government have done. I don’t want to feel scared and other people to tell me what to do and what not to do. It’s a basic right; it’s called freedom.”

Azerbaijan under fire

Despite the European Courts doing their best to reign in President Aliyev’s heavy-handed officials, Mike Harris from Index on Censorship believes there are much deep issues starting to get tangled up in this increasingly international performance: “Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe so it has to abide by the European Convention on Human Rights and this has helped, because court judgements have got political prisoners out of jail. But at the same time the government is lobbying in Strasbourg to stop those court rulings being implemented.

“So they are a member of a club but they spend lots of time and money on undermining the rules of the club, and we should be much tougher when this happens,” Harris continued. “Expression Online’s latest policy-note – the IGF organisers refused to allow it to be distributed because apparently it contains criticisms of the government. This is a UN conference, this is not an Azeri government conference, so the idea that people shouldn’t be allowed to freely criticise the government of the host nation is just absolutely ridiculous.”

President Aliyev 220x213 How much freedom do you really have online?

President Aliyev

For other observers such tactics were not a surprise, like Courtney Radsch whose organisation Freedom House has just released an annual “Freedom on the Net” report, which analyses the state of Internet freedom in 60 countries.

She explained: “Authoritarian governments are increasingly aiming to control images and control information getting out of their countries. One of the strategies they use are cyber assaults and this is when they focus on attacking activists online, which can happen through trolling and hashtag bombing – this is essentially when they use online mechanisms such as creating fake Twitter accounts and attacking the activists online, trying to discredit and dishonour them and defame them online.

“Then there’s content manipulation and surveillance, where governments are creating pro-messages to win framing battles and set the agenda and discredit activists online,” Radsch continued. “So for example, in China we see pro-government bloggers being paid $0.50 for a comment they post – these are known as the 50 centers. Women face a specific threat online and off-line because certainly a lot of the cyber-attacks try to defame them and dishonour the,, accusing them of being prostitutes or other culturally relevant threats.”

One person who was fiercely critical of the situation in Azerbaijan was European Commissioner, Neelie Kroes. Her office put the boot in quite publicly with several acerbic press releases during the event and Kroes herself posted a couple of provocative tweets from outside the prison walls on Wednesday afternoon:

And not long after:

Once back home and the dust had settled, Kroes didn’t let up pressure on the government, posting a scathing write-up on her official blog which stated plainly:

“I was denied access to meet political prisoners, despite a commitment from the President himself. Activists were harassed at the Internet conference. My advisers had their computers hacked. So much for openness.”

No waste of time

So was it a total waste of time when it comes to freedom of expression at this year’s IGF? Not according to Markus Kummer from the Internet Society. As one of the founding fathers of the IGF, he was at the World Summit in Tunis where the idea was conceived in 2005. At that event he heard the Swiss President during his opening speech call for freedom of expression to be respected both inside and outside the hall.

Kummer told me, “The Tunis government at that time was rather authoritarian, but nevertheless we went ahead with the meeting and maybe it also contributed to an opening up of the Tunisian society – and now as we know there is a different government in place. We had an IGF in Sharm El Shake in Egypt, which was also held in a country at a time when there were bloggers in prison. We accepted the offer of the government under the agreement that whatever is said in the conference hall is held under UN auspices and hopefully it carries the message also out into the country.”

One of the few countries to send a minister to the event this year, the UK did its people proud with three parliamentary representatives including Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, and his shadow opposite Helen Goodman.

When I caught up with Vaizey he was quick to echo Kummer’s sentiments about holding the event in Baku: “Azerbaijan is a strategic ally of the United Kingdom and we have a lot of investment here in oil and gas; BP has a large presence here so a lot of British companies are based in Azerbaijan. But we don’t shy away from challenging Azerbaijan on its human rights record and calling for it to improve. I met with a group of bloggers and opposition politicians this afternoon in Baku to talk about their issues.

“So we reach out all the time to alternative voices in Azerbaijan as well as working with the government,” Vaizey continued. “We make no secret of our concerns and they listen to what our concerns are. I would say that a country like Azerbaijan, which one should remember was part of the Soviet bloc just 20 years ago, is on a journey. And it’s important I think as well as raising concern, it’s also important to engage. I think bringing the Internet Governance Forum to Baku and bringing a whole range of different voices into Azerbaijan could only be good for Azerbaijan and its future.”

Beyond freedom at the IGF

Childnet panel 1 220x146 How much freedom do you really have online?There were of course lots of other issues on the agenda in Baku, and I got the chance to take in many interesting and sparky debates about things like regulation and infrastructure and the never-ending topic of copyright and IP. I actually chaired a really interesting workshop on that very subject that came out of earlier policy meetings at the UK IGF (which you really should try and get to if you care about these kinds of issues by the way).

I plan on writing a full feature about that for you in the next few weeks – for the rest you can check out the transcripts on the IGF website as long as you have a high threshold for bureaucracy and nothing else planned for a while. But the underlying current of every workshop and discussion I attended in Baku was freedom. It wasn’t so much the elephant in the room as the big fat gorilla jumping around on the table. The last person I spoke to on the subject was Johan Hallenborg from the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The Swedish government are very vocal on matters of freedom and believe that the human rights we enjoy off-line are equally applicable online. This idea was formalised by the UN this summer when they adopted a resolution applying the freedoms laid out in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to online activity as well as offline.

He told me: “We have a lot of local activists coming to the IGF and speaking about the situation in their own country and that happened at the IGF before, but it happened more here than I have seen before and I think this has to do with the borderless character is the Internet. Providing a platform like [the IGF] allows all stakeholders to come, and I think what the IGF has proven to me at least is that it’s become more and more penetrated by human rights issues over the years. And that is something that we have actively been trying to promote, so that’s something we really welcome. We do think that all decisions on Internet policy, all discussions should be done from a human rights perspective.”

Despite cautious optimism at the close of the event, since I’ve been back in the UK there have already been more reports of journalists targeted with police brutality in Baku, despite wearing vests that clearly identified them as media workers. Change doesn’t happen overnight but now the UN circus has moved on it will be important that the world keeps watching for any after-shocks such out-spoken criticism might have had; on both Azerbaijan and its people.

It will also be interesting to see the reaction of next year’s IGF host nation, Indonesia. Bali might sound like an incredibly tranquil place to spend a week talking about Internet governance, but the country has its own very real human rights issues, and based on what I saw this year I have a feeling the voices speaking out for freedom of expression are going to get louder and louder at these gatherings from now on.

Image credits: Handcuffs: Getty Images / Thinkstock; President Aliyev: Harald Dettenborn / Wikimedia Commons; all others by the author.