Providing Legal Support Against Cyberviolence in Azerbaijan

Getting legal support to defend against online violence can be a challenge. Media Defence is looking to change that by providing legal assistance to women journalists so they can seek justice for the crimes that are committed against them.

Media Defence works globally to provide legal and financial assistance to journalists, citizen journalists and independent media around the world. We provide emergency funds to journalists facing costly litigation and undertake strategic litigation of our own to improve the legal environment in which the media operates.

Combatting online violence, especially against women journalists, has become a key focus of Media Defence’s work. In May 2021, we filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Azeri journalist Gulnara Mehdiyeva, whose devices were hacked – and her private messages leaked online – as a result of her work on LGBTQ+ and women’s rights issues in Azerbaijan. 

Background: Cyberviolence in Azerbaijan

Gulnara is not alone in her experience; in recent years, women journalists in Azerbaijan have had their social media accounts hacked, been subject to surveillance and blackmailed. Others have had intimate photos, videos and personal messages spread online.

Authorities deny involvement in any of these attacks, yet those targeted are almost always outspoken critics of the government. Human rights groups have even linked some of the IP addresses used by the hackers to the Ministry of Interior, causing many to speculate that the cyber violence is a coordinated attempt to silence critical voices (see Amnesty International; Qurium Media Foundation).

The cyberattack: March 2020

Gulnara’s devices were hacked just three days after she organized and reported on a protest to mark International Women’s Day in Baku in March 2020. Having gained access to her email and social media accounts, the hacker downloaded her private data and deleted three Facebook groups dedicated to LGBTQ+ and women’s rights – including the public page for the online LGBTQ+ magazine of which Gulnara is editor-in-chief.

The content across all three pages was lost, along with their substantial follower base – a significant loss in a country where independent and critical media operates almost entirely online. Further, the identities of group members, including minors and other vulnerable individuals, were exposed.

Investigating the cyberattack and developing a case

Gulnara made contact with Media Defence just days after her accounts were hacked. We immediately referred her to Qurium, an organisation which has investigated cyberattacks against Azeri journalists since 2016. Analysing her accounts, Qurium were able to identify two IP addresses used in the attack, one of which had previously been used to carry out attacks against other independent media in Azerbaijan. Qurium linked those attacks, and the one carried out against Gulnara, to internet infrastructure connected to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Interior.

Gulnara alerted law enforcement to these events and requested that they investigate. But authorities refused to do so, claiming that they lacked the “technical capacity” to investigate the IP addresses.

Supported by Media Defence’s emergency funding and represented by Azerbaijan-based lawyer Zibeyda Sadigova, Gulnara commenced domestic legal proceedings to challenge that decision. Unfortunately, the court refused to engage with the substance of her complaints – an unsurprising outcome given the lack of independence of domestic decision making in Azerbaijan.

Taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights

In May 2021, Media Defence elevated Gulnara’s case to the European Court of Human Rights. Focusing on the failure of the police to investigate the cyberattack, we argue that:

  1. The police’s refusal to take any action violated Gulnara’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression (Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, respectively);
  2. There is sufficient evidence to find that the authorities were actually involved in or facilitated this particular cyberattack – amounting to a further violation of Gulnara’s rights; and
  3. Gulnara was clearly subject to a homophobic and sexist attack. That attack, and the refusal to investigate it, constituted discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender.

Where we go from here

This case not only aims to vindicate Gulnara’s rights, but to expose the systematic cyber campaigns being waged against critical voices in Azerbaijan. We also hope to develop the case law so that when cyberattacks occur, there are clear legal standards and detailed guidance on what these investigations should entail to be human rights compliant.

Meanwhile, the cyber harassment of Azeri journalists continues. In March 2021, hackers accessed the social media accounts of Gulnara’s colleague Narmin Shahmarzadeh, just a day after she helped organize another IWD march. Shortly after, anonymous accounts began to publish pornographic content, which they claimed depicted Shahmarzadeh, along with fake private conversations containing sexual content.

Shahmarzadeh is also being represented by Zibeyda Sadigova. We look forward to working together to support any domestic proceedings and are prepared, if necessary, to bring her case to the European Court.

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