Russia and Azerbaijan: Serious deterioration in freedom of expression on- and offline ahead of UPR

Civic Space 5 min read
ARTICLE 19

Today, 11 April, ARTICLE 19 and partners presented recommendations to improve protections for freedom of expression in Russia and Azerbaijan at the pre-sessions for the countries’ 3rd UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The full review will take place in May 2018, and will assess the countries’ compliance with their human rights obligations. We urge states to raise these issues at the UPR sessions in May, and push both countries to undertake genuine reform to protect freedom of expression.

Russia and Azerbaijan have marked a sharp decline in the environment for freedom of expression and associated rights since their last UPRs in 2013, despite accepting multiple recommendations from states to protect these rights. Calls to improve the situation for the safety of journalists and protect media freedom; to guarantee that civil society can operate freely; and to respect the right to peaceful protest have gone unheeded, despite commitments from the countries during their last review. Instead, both countries have enacted a series of restrictive laws and pursued policies that have further undermined freedom of expression.

Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Center, presented recommendations to improve freedom of expression in Russia, on behalf of a joint coalition including ARTICLE 19, the Mass Media Defence Centre, Roskomsvoboda, OVD-info and PEN International, based on a joint submission, at a pre-session on Russia at the UN in Geneva. We have also shared key recommendations on Azerbaijan based on our joint submission to the country’s UPR.

Russia

The situation for freedom of expression and related rights in Russia has seriously deteriorated in recent years, with a notable acceleration after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Russian government has enacted numerous highly restrictive laws and policies that are used to target political opposition and civil society and have a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression within the country.

Independent media operates under hugely restrictive conditions and the government has sought to limit Internet freedom, including the right to digital privacy. The Russian government has implemented expansive website blocking measures since 2012 and sought to enhance its already extensive surveillance capabilities. This has affected independent media, civil society, opposition figures as well as ordinary Internet users.

Azerbaijan

Since its last UPR in 2013, Azerbaijan has pursued aggressive measures to limit media freedom and restrict the activities of civil society. Authorities have targeted critical voices through politically motivated arrests on spurious charges, the use of extensive pre-trial detention, and application of harsh custodial sentences. There are currently 11 journalists in prison, with the majority of independent media outlets in Azerbaijan forced to close or go into exile in the past couple of years. New provisions enacted in March 2017 have enabled the authorities to block websites that contain information considered “a danger for the state or society”, after which access to a number of independent news sites were permanently blocked.

Amendments to the Constitution of Azerbaijan were approved through a hasty referendum in September 2016, without any parliamentary debate or scrutiny of the proposals. The amendments consolidated the powers of the President, weakened democratic checks and balances (including the independence of the courts), and undermined the efforts of civil society and human rights defenders to bring national law into compliance with international human rights law obligations, and secure accountability for human rights violations.

The UPR is a valuable way for states to review and improve their human rights compliance on an equal footing with their peers, and relies on states acting on accepted recommendations. The increasingly restrictive environment for free expression in Russia and Azerbaijan since their last review shows the states have failed to fulfil these commitments. We call on states at the 30th UPR session in May 2018 to make concrete recommendations on these areas of concern in both countries, and push for action on violations of these rights.