Azerbaijan is far from an easy place to be an independent journalist – the nation ranks 152nd in Reporters Without Borders 2010 survey on press freedom. Even given a hostile press environment, Eynulla Fatullayev has had a particularly rough experience as editor of Russian language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and Azeri language daily Gündəlik Azərbaycan, two of the nation’s most critical and outspoken newspapers. In 2004, he was beaten on the streets of Baku in an apparent response to his criticism of the government. He faced a number of defamation suits filed by government officials, and in 2006, he was forced to suspend publication of his papers when his father was kidnapped. His abductors threatened to the man and the rest of Fatullayev’s family unless he stopped criticizing Azerbaijan’s interior minister.
Fatullayev moved to publishing online, but continued to face scrutiny of the Azeri government and supporters. In 2007, he was accused of slandering the Army in an interview about the Khojaly massacre, a tragic episode in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. He was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison, and an additional 2 1/2 years when prison officials allegedly found a small amount of heroin in his cell. Numerous press freedom organizations have condemned his arrest, and in 2009, Committee to Project Journalists awarded him the International Press Freedom Award to recognize his efforts to open the press environment in Azerbaijan.
Eynulla Fatullayev at home after his release from Azeri prison
On Tuesday, Amnesty UK – which has been advocating on Fatullayev’s behalf since his arrest – launched a campaign to demand the editor’s release from prison. Represented by Jon Snow of Channel 4 and John Mulholland of The Observer, the campaign urged Twitter users to take a picture of themselves holding signs asking “@presidentaz” to release Fatullayev from prison.
By one metric, the campaign wasn’t much of a success – despite the presence of such high profile British journalists, only 800 or so people sent messages or retweets to the Azeri president. (We did our part to promote the campaign, with an article on Global Voices by Onnik Krikorian, our remarkable Caucuses editor.) Most participants didn’t take photos – they retweeted messages sent by Amnesty, Snow or Mulholland.
But those messages clearly attracted attention within Azerbaijan. A few Azeri nationalists, including some affiliated with the İRƏLİ Public Youth Union, responded angrily to the tweets. Some responded by photoshopping images of British journalist Ian Hislop holding a sign demanding Fatullayev’s release, edited to criticize Amnesty’s campaign. One modified sign read “Azerbaijan is not USSR! No double standards!” This tweet from @Vetenim illustrates some of the hostility towards Amnesty: “@amnesty This campaign was enough for Azeri Twitter users to see the real face of @AmnestyUK behind the mask. #Amnesty #Eynulla #Azerbaijan”
Krikorian reports that the İRƏLİ Public Youth Union, and particularly Secretary General Rauf Mardiyev have been posting heavily to Twitter tags used by progressive activists in Azerbaijan, potentially to silence or hide dissident voices in the country over the past few months. We’re seeing this phenomenon in different corners of the Twittersphere. Oiwan Lam reports that the #aiww (Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, now in custody) tag is heavily used by pro-government spammers, with two particularly prolific spammers responsible for 45% of all recent messages on the tag. Anas Qtiesh investigated a set of Twitter accounts that been flooding the #Syria tag with old sports scores, links to Syrian television programs, and random photos on Flickr tagged #Syria, making the tag dramatically less useful for activists. Qtiesh linked the abuse of Twitter to the Bahraini company Eghna Developement and Support, which advertises their work on behalf of Syria on their site. Eghna has denied that they are abusing Twitter in any way, but the tweets associated with these accounts no longer appear in searches for the #Syria tag, suggesting that Twitter may disagree. (Neal Ungerleider has a good overview of the Syria story on Fast Company.)
While these examples are a good illustration of the ways in which social media is becoming a contested space during political conflicts, this use of each other’s hashtags is nothing new to American political activists – activists on the left and right routinely use each other’s preferred tags to insert their views into the other side’s dialogs. What’s been interesting is the volume of these actions – traffic on tags like #Syria or #aiww is lots lower than on popular US political tags, which makes heavy use of the tags to provoke the other side far more visible than in US examples. The utility of hashtags as an easy way to share information with those who share your political perspectives is counterbalanced by the fact that these tags are open channels, and may be as useful to those opposed to your views.
So the Twitter action focused on the Azeri government generated less than a thousand tweets and some of those messages were from government supporters seeking to subvert the campaign. Remarkably, two days after Amnesty launched the campaign, Fatullayev was released from prison under a presidential pardon.
Azerbaijan’s winning entry in Eurovision 2011. Warning: video includes the sort of song that wins Eurovision contests.
Amnesty, understandably, is celebrating their campaign’s role in Fatullayev’s release, and the journalist has thanked Amnesty for their advocacy throughout his detention. As Azeri social media users digest the news of his release, there’s speculation that another factor may be at work as well: Azerbaijan’s recent victory in the Eurovision song contest. Azeri singers Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Camal won the prize, which is both coveted and ridiculed within Europe, but always widely watched. The victory drew attention to a corner of Eurasia many Europeans pay little attention to, and it’s possible that the Azeri government didn’t want to spoil their moment in the sun with Amnesty’s critical campaign.
So is Amnesty responsible for Fatullayev’s release? Is Twitter? Eurovision? And if social media can claim partial responsibility for the release of a prisoner of conscience, will we see this campaign technique used again? Will it be as successful the next time around?
Mary Joyce of the Meta Activism project has warned that a key factor in successful online activism appear to be novelty – it’s hard to articulate “best practices” because one of the best practices is to be the first to try a particular technique. If we take the lesson from Fatullayev’s release that Twitter campaigns, focused on individual public figures who use Twitter, leveraging offline media attention are a useful strategy, it seems likely that campaign organizations will adopt the technique and use it to the point where future implementations aren’t worth an article or a blog post.
Or perhaps directly addressing people in positions of power via Twitter has a directness and immediacy that other forms of media lack. See this recent confrontation between journalist Ian Birell and Rwandan President Paul Kagame via Twitter over Kagame’s statement that the international media has no moral right to criticize the repressive political climate in Rwanda given their silence about the 1994 genocide. As this report on the exchange points out, it’s hard to imagine this exchange taking place in an era before microblogging. Perhaps the sort of unvarnished dialog that Kagame, his supporters and Birell engage in here motivated Azeri president Ilham Aliyev to reconsider the arrest of journalists in his country. My guess – I don’t think it’s that simple, and I think we’re going to have to try a lot more online activism before we know what works, what doesn’t and how new capabilities lead to new dialogs.