Two video bloggers from Azerbaijan are being held in prison by local authorities after uploading a satirical video to YouTube, according to a BBC News report. Andnan Hajizade and Emin Milli are part of a youth movement known as “OL !” that works towards a democratic civil society in Azerbaijan. The duo produced and uploaded a video of a press conference with a guy in a donkey suit in late June. The clip criticized Azerbaijan’s government for new laws against NGOs while making fun of staged government press conferences.
The video makers were arrested in early July after allegedly taking part in a scuffle at a restaurant — a charge that has been widely criticized as being politically motivated and an attempt to legitimize censorship of the duo. Hajizade and Milli were officially charged with hooliganism, which could land them in prison for up to five years. Their trial is scheduled to begin this Friday.
The video in question shows a donkey at a press conference, where uncritical journalists ask him questions like what kind of animal he would like to be in his next life. His answer is full of praise for his host country: “In Azerbaijan possibilities for donkeys are enormous. If you are donkey enough, you can succeed in possibly everything.”
The clip takes a turn to more serious matters toward the end when the donkey touches the issue of the government hindering the work of opposition groups: “I want to create (an) NGO to protect (the) rights of donkeys. I read in the press that (the) government is trying to pass new NGO legislation in the parliament…It will be impossible for me to have any kind of social activity.” The video ends with a warning: “There will be someone to protect donkey civil rights. But who will protect human civil rights?”
The irony of the case is that the government completely failed to suppress the video. The clip has received thousands of views since news of the arrest became public, and a brief excerpt was even featured on Bloomberg. There’s also a video petition against their arrest.
Press freedom is virtually nonexistent in Azerbaijan. The country prevents its citizens from listening to foreign radio networks like the BBC and Voice of America. There are currently four journalists in jail in Azerbaijan as a result of their work. A fifth journalist, newspaper editor Novruzali Mamedov, died last month behind bars after suffering a heart attack. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for an independent investigation of his death, suspecting that Mamedov received inadequate care in prison.
Azerbaijan traditionally has had a more hands-off-ish approach toward the Internet, which could explain why it didn’t try to block YouTube over the video, like China and Pakistan have done before. The OpenNet Initiative reported in 2007 that Azerbaijan to that point didn’t engage in widespread online censorship because it wanted to establish itself as a regional tech hub. It seems like the regime instead tries to suppress freedom of speech online by putting direct pressure on content creators.