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In March 2020, three new laws were passed by the national parliament of Azerbaijan addressing the publication of “false information” by users of “information-telecommunication networks,” which, in light of media reports of practice, also applies to the placement of content on social media by users. Since the passage of the laws, the representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has expressed concerns regarding the new laws, and reports from certain international organizations have stated that politicians and journalists have been processed under the new rules.
I. New COVID-19 Related Restrictions on Dissemination of “False Information”
On March 17, 2020, the President of Azerbaijan signed three bills into law (Laws Nos. 27-VIQD, 28-VIQD, and 30-VIQD) that the national parliament of Azerbaijan had passed addressing the placement of “false information” on “information-telecommunication networks” by users and adding a criminal offense to the Criminal Code regarding the violation of epidemic-related measures.
A. Amendments to the Information Law
Law No. 30-VIQD amends article 13-2 of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information (Information Law). Article 13-2 of the Information Law prohibits the owners of “internet information resources, domain names associated with these, and users of “information-telecommunication networks” from placing, or allowing the placement of, certain prohibited content on an internet information resource or information-telecommunication network; the prohibited content is provided as a list that includes items such as content relating to the propaganda or financing of terrorism, pornography, unlawful disclosure of state secrets, content that is defamatory, infringing of private life, or infringing intellectual property rights, or content whose dissemination is prohibited by other laws. The owner of the internet information resource and/or the domain name is required to remove the prohibited content if discovered by the owner itself or through notification from others. Likewise, once being informed of the prohibited content, the internet host provider must take immediate measures to ensure that the prohibited content is removed by the owner of the internet information resource.
Article 13-3 of the Information Law provides that if a relevant executive authority discovers the placement of prohibited content by itself or through reporting by private parties or government entities, it must notify the owner of the internet information resource and/or domain name and the host provider of the fact. If the content is not removed within eight hours of the notification, the executive authority must apply to a district court to obtain an order to restrict access to the internet information resource. In urgent cases where the legally protected interests of the state and society are threatened or a substantive threat to the life and health of individuals is found to exist, the executive authority may ex officio temporarily restrict access to the internet information resource; in such cases, the authority must apply to the court, which in turn must decide within 5 days whether to uphold the restricting order. Internet information resources to which access is restricted by means of a temporary order of the executive authority or a court decision is recorded in the ”register of information resources in which prohibited information is placed”; host providers and internet service providers must restrict access to information resources placed in this register and notify the owner.
Law No. 30-VIQD broadened the scope of article 13-2 of the Information Law to include users of information networks to the list of persons responsible for not placing or not allowing the placement of prohibited content online. Furthermore, Law No. 30-VIQD added an additional item to the list of proscribed content, prohibiting the placement on the internet of “[f]alse information [yalan məlumatlar] that might cause threats to harm human life and health, significant property damage, mass violation of public safety, disruption of life support facilities, financial, transport, communications, industrial, energy and social infrastructure facilities or other socially dangerous consequences.” In light of the above, it appears that users who place COVID-19-related content on the internet that falls under the new prohibited content rule will be in violation of article 13-2 as a result of the amendments.
B. Amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses
Law No. 27-VIQD amends article 388-1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO). Article 388-1 of the CAO now imposes sanctions on real or legal person owners of internet information resources and associated domain names as well as on users of information-telecommunication networks for the placement, or the violation of provisions of the Information Law aiming at preventing the placement, of prohibited information on such internet information resources.
The amendment introduced by Law No. 27-VIQD added “users of information-telecommunication network” to the list of persons that can be sanctioned under article 388-1. With the abovementioned amendments in the Information Law, users of information-telecommunication networks who place content on these networks that fall under the new class of prohibited content termed as “false information” may be sanctioned for this act under article 388-1 of the CAO. Law No. 27-VIQD also amended the penalty set for the violation of article 388-1 by adding administrative detention for up to one month as an option. Currently, the penalty for the offense is a fine between 500 and 1000 manats (about US$294–$588) for real persons and 1000 to 1500 manats for officials, with an option of up to one month of administrative detention for both classes of persons depending on the circumstances and the identity of the offender.
C. Amendments to the Criminal Code
Law No. 28-VIQD amends the Criminal Code (CC) by adding article 139-1, which criminalizes “[a] violation of the anti-epidemic, sanitary-hygienic, and quarantine regimes that causes, or creates a substantial threat of, the spread of disease.” Offenders face a criminal fine of 2,500 to 5,000 manats (US$1470–$2940) or alternatively, restriction of liberty, or imprisonment, for a term of up to three years. If the same acts cause death or other serious consequences due to negligence, the penalty is set at a term of three to five years in prison.
II. Responses and Developments Related to the New Laws
On March 25, 2020, Harlem Désir, the Representative on the Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), expressed concern regarding the amendments of March 17, noting that the new laws ought not to impede journalists’ ability to report on the pandemic, recalling a joint statement his office published with David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Edison Lanza, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, that emphasized the importance of access to accurate information in the protection of public health and the crucial function of journalism in the governance of public health emergencies through its role in informing the public and monitoring government activity.
On April 16, 2020, a Human Rights Watch statement claimed that at least two politicians who were members of opposition movements were arrested for their posts on social media, one being sentenced by a court to 10 days in jail for disseminating false information about the epidemic. On April 22, 2020, Reporters Without Borders called for the release of an Azerbaijani freelance reporter who the organization claimed was arrested by Azerbaijani authorities over coronavirus-related reporting, although according to the news report, the journalist was arrested and detained based on other provisions of the CAO concerning the violation of lockdowns rather than the new information-related provisions.
At least two reports of persons processed for violations of the law in connection with their COVID-19-related social media posts have appeared in Azerbaijani media following passage of the amending laws on March 17. One of the persons concerned was jailed for violating article 388-1 of the CAO. Before March 17, the founder of a news portal was reported to have been officially warned by a prosecutor’s office in relation to certain articles published on the news portal for a violation of article 10 of the Law on Mass Media, which prohibits the use of mass media outlets in order to publish “false and spiteful writings,” among other things.
Prepared by Kayahan Cantekin
Foreign Law Specialist
 Azərbaycan Respublikasının İnzibati Xətalar Məcəlləsində dəyişiklik edilməsi haqqında Azərbaycan Respublikasının Qanunu, Law No. 27-VIQD (signed into law Mar. 17, 2020), https://perma.cc/3HL9-SGVR (in Azerbaijani); Azərbaycan Respublikasının Cinayət Məcəlləsində dəyişiklik edilməsi haqqında Azərbaycan Respublikasının Qanunu, Law No. 28-VIQD (signed into law Mar. 17, 2020), https://perma.cc/X2TE-7UKH (in Azerbaijani); “İnformasiya, informasiyalaşdırma və informasiyanın mühafizəsi haqqında” Azərbaycan Respublikasının Qanununda dəyişiklik edilməsi barədə Azərbaycan Respublikasının Qanunu, Law No. 30-VIQD (signed into law Mar. 17, 2020), https://perma.cc/R6VW-VFVE (in Azerbaijani).
 İnformasiya, informasiyalaşdırma və informasiyanın mühafizəsi haqqında Azərbaycan Respublikasının Qanunu, Law No. 460-IQ [Information Law], as amended (signed into law Apr. 3, 1998), https://perma.cc/Q36W-MZKT (in Azerbaijani).
 “Internet information resource” is defined as “an information resource created on the Internet, used for the dissemination of information, and access via a domain name or other designation determined by the owner.” Id. art. 2. No definition of the term “information-telecommunication network” is provided in the law.
 Law No. 460-IQ art. 13-2.4.
 Id. art. 13-2.5.
 Id. art. 13-3.2.
 Id. arts. 13-3.3 & 13-3.5.
 Id. arts 13-3.6 & 13-3.7.
 Id. art. 13-2.3.10-1.
 Id. art. 388-1.1.
 Id. art. 388-1.1.2.
 Id. arts. 139-1.1. & 139-1.2.
 Press Release, OSCE, Сoronavirus Response Should Not Curb Freedom of the Press in Azerbaijan, Says OSCE Media Freedom Representative (Mar. 25, 2020), https://perma.cc/6AV7-TAJ5; Press Release, OSCE, COVID-19: Governments Must Promote and Protect Access to and Free Flow of Information During Pandemic, Say International Media Freedom Experts (Mar. 19, 2020), https://perma.cc/7TXS-W7TZ.
 Koronavirusla bağlı yalan məlumatlar yayan şəxsə xəbərdarlıq edildi, Report İnformasiya Agentliyi (Mar. 19, 2020), https://perma.cc/8RNW-N8AK (in Azerbaijani); Koronavirusla bağlı yalan məlumat yayan qadın həbs olunub, Onlayn Xəber Agentliyi (Mar. 26, 2020), https://perma.cc/N5JS-U3FA (in Azerbaijani).
Last Updated: 12/30/2020