A battle of ideas: Tolerance in Azerbaijan’s digital space

Journalist: Heydar Isayev,

Illustrator: FIdan Akhundova


On 28 April a controversial blogger named Fuad Rasulzadeh was severely beaten by a group of men. The incident captivated Azerbaijani social media, especially after the attackers released a video claiming that they beat the blogger over a tweet mocking a fallen Azerbaijani soldier.

Internet posts and comments leading to physical altercations are nothing new for Azerbaijanis, particularly for those actively engaging in public life—and especially when they question commonly held values, like patriotism.

Activist Kanan Gasimli experienced that firsthand five years ago, when he was beaten up over a Facebook post about nationalism. “It was a caricature depicting an ad reading ‘the motherland is for sale,’ and a man pointing to it and screaming ‘the m should be capital,’” he remembers. “My point was simply that those who claim to care for the nation should speak up about the real problems of the nation, not symbolic things,” Kanan says.

Sociologist Sanubar Heydarova believes that the majority seek to suppress alternative views out of fear that the norms and values they hold sacred are at risk. When they come across an opinion they consider deviant, they single out, shame and punish the perpetrator.

Sanubar found herself in the minority during the war, after she posted a collage of photos of fallen Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers on Facebook. The collage ran with a caption stating that the war deceived and killed both sides. In response, many social media users left disparaging comments against her on social platforms and called on the state security service to investigate her.

Despite her experience, Sanubar argues that social media has increased tolerance in Azerbaijani society. “They are exposed to the views they hate over and over again,” she adds, “even if they don’t engage in conversations, just as they see and read, they start to tolerate.”

Altay Goyushov, a historian, appreciates the impact of social media on “forcing people to get used to the diversity of thoughts.”

“It helped demonstrate the fact that the society has valuable individuals with alternative ideas and the conservative majority had to accept it, whether they liked it or not,” he says, arguing that overall society has been on a trajectory toward more progressive thinking since the 1990s.

Not everyone agrees, however. 

Parviz Azimov, a marketing specialist and social media observer, says there have been two distinct periods in Azerbaijani social media. The first was the birth of social media until around 2013-2014, when platforms were not too crowded and were dominated by progressives, resulting in the impression that social media itself is progressive, he says. “But since then, hundreds of thousands flocked to social networks and changed the balance in the conservatives’ favor,” Azimov remembers. 

Vusal Nabiyev, a journalist and self-identified conservative, says social media has not made people less conservative. Rather, he argues, it has simply made them more cautious about speaking out on some issues. “Many of my friends and I started simply not commenting on matters we would otherwise oppose. We’re afraid of being labeled backward,” he says.

Determining the level of a society’s tolerance can be challenging, especially in a country like Azerbaijan, where few polls explore citizens’ beliefs and views. Social media trends can be difficult to parse, although there are some topics—such as fallen soldiers, questions about patriotism and the LGBTIQ+ - that appear to trigger a response.

A Gallup survey conducted between the years of 2006 and 2017 indicates that Azerbaijanis view themselves as tolerant: in the latest poll, 60 percent stated the country was a welcoming place for racial and ethnic groups, compared to 33 percent in 2006-2008. A third survey painted a starkly different picture for LGBTIQ+ citizens, however: the 2020 Rainbow Index by ILGA-Europe found that Azerbaijan is the most homophobic society in Europe, with a score of 2 out of 100.

A good indicator, according to Zaur Gurbanli, a blogger, lawyer and politician from the REAL party, is the government’s policy toward the internet.

He notes that in the 1990s, before the advent of smartphones and social media, people had access to a lot more diverse views. “Opposition was especially strong, they had newspapers with hundreds of thousands of copies being published every day. Today some of those papers don’t even exist,” he remembers.

Today, however, there is a lot less air for opinions that oppose the ruling party. Traditional opposition media outlets have largely shuttered and those operating on social media platforms are being blocked.

Freedom on the Net 2020, Freedom House’s scorecard on global internet freedoms, found Azerbaijan is “not free” in terms of internet freedoms. The country scored 38 out of a maximum of 100 points, significantly worse than in the 2011 report, where Azerbaijan received 48 points and “partly free” status.

Azerbaijan Internet Watch, a local internet freedom watchdog, also reports that internet freedom has been on the decline in the country in recent years. “From blocking access to news websites and publicly admitting it, authorities have from time to time blocked access to online social media platforms and applications such as Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp,” their report reads. In 2017 a court in Baku ruled to block websites of Meydan TV, Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service and several opposition outlets.

Parviz Azimov highlights that all freedoms emerge thanks to political freedoms—the more expansive the political freedoms are, the more powerful other freedoms are. “The good news is that as some progressive ideas and topics are not necessarily political, people may feel free to discuss those, but the overall situation, especially with the blocking of websites, confines users’ access to a wide variety of thoughts,” he noted.

“Keeping the masses conservative and obedient is a state policy,” argues Zaur Gurbanli. “Restricting internet freedoms serves this goal as well.”

But philosopher Aghalar Garibov notes that because the Internet made accessible other information, not just that which is allowed by the state and produced by state-controlled media, it enabled new ideas and values to be promoted among the masses.  

However, he also stresses that to speak of the Internet as a factor in increasing tolerance could be misleading. “As long as what we call progressive does not cross the lines set by the ruling class, tolerance, freedom of thought, and related things are also allowed,” he adds, “so the Internet may play a role, but we shouldn’t overstate it.”

For some activists, the risk of intolerance spilling over into real-life remains a living threat.

In the five years since he was attacked over the lowercase ‘m,’ Kanan has reduced his social media presence. He says it is not due to pressure. But he also noted that people feel free to attack and beat those who hold unpopular views because the aggressors are rarely punished.

In the case of the blogger, Fuad Rasulzadeh, the men who attacked him have been identified as relatives of the soldier featured in the tweet, according to a Ministry of Interior Affairs spokesperson. The investigation is ongoing, according to the ministry and no arrests have been made yet.

Azerbaijan law does, however, define “insult,” which could be a social media post or tweet, as a criminal offense. As a result, journalists and social media personalities can be detained and forced to pay a fine—or serve as long as three years in prison for an article or post that someone deems insulting.

Published with the support of COBERM, a joint initiative of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the organization Chai Khana and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of either the EU or UNDP.


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