In Azerbaijan, a blogger refuses to be silenced

Emin Milli says the Internet is a lifeline for journalists living under oppressive regimes

A woman asked Emin Milli and Jérémie Zimmermann if she could take a photo of the two bloggers as they stood talking at an Internet conference in Vienna this week.

“Yes,” said Zimmermann. “As long as you don’t post it on Facebook.”

“Yes,” said Milli. “As long as you promise to post it on Facebook.”

Milli is grateful for the publicity, even though his fondness for social media recently helped put the Azerbaijani dissident behind bars.

After reading about violent police reactions to protests the town of Isamayili on January 23, Milli called for a peaceful rally in Baku, the capital, in solidarity. Police surrounded the protesters — Milli said “hundreds” attended — and arrested 40 of them.

He tweeted his capture:

All the rest were eventually released, except Milli, who was sentenced to 15 days on charges of organizing an unsanctioned rally. The authorities used one of his Facebook posts as evidence against him.

The 33-year-old blogger, who writes about human rights in both English and Russian, was released from an Azerbaijani jail in the wee hours of February 11, in time to make the Internet conference in Vienna, which began on Thursday.

He had just finished his third glass of wine that evening and was chatting with Zimmermann when the photographer intervened.

While Milli jumped at the chance for more publicity—“It’s important the world knows what is happening in [Azerbaijan],” he said—Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, which fights for Internet freedoms, had a different outlook.

“I come from France. I have the bourgeois comfort that [the government] won’t break my legs if I write something they don’t like,” he said. Hence, he said, he has the luxury of turning his scrutiny to Facebook’s methods of collecting and storing his private data for advertising use. Milli acknowledged during a conference panel on social media that if he didn’t have to worry about government repression, he, too, might share Zimmermann’s concerns.

As it is, though, media freedoms come first. Azerbaijan has one million Facebook users from a population of 9.3 million. Freedom House calls the press conditions there dire. Groups like Reporters without Borders, Human Rights Watch, PEN International, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe regularly monitor — and ultimately condemn — the government of Ilham Aliyev for harassing journalists with impunity, especially ones that work outside of print media, viewed as a government mouthpiece. On the other hand, many see Azerbaijan’s dissident bloggers and their Facebook presences as an alternative source of news — one they can trust.

“We only have the Internet to express our voice,” said Sergey Makarov, a blogger from Kyrgyzstan. He and his colleagues follow Milli’s career with interest, he said.

Still, even in Vienna, Milli could not escape criticism for his work. During the question portion of the panel discussion on Thursday, one Azerbaijani woman asked Milli if he believed limits should be placed on freedom, especially if it related to national security or hate speech. As she spoke, it became apparent that she felt Milli was the threat. Later, another speaker reminded Milli that Azerbaijan was a “developing democracy” and that he should not be so harsh.

On Friday, in closing remarks, the Azerbaijan representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe spoke of the dangers of public protest to public order and property. It prompted Marietja Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, to tweet:

Jillian C. York, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director for International Freedom of Expression, who moderated the panel at which Milli spoke, said, “I’ve rarely seen conflict like that” at a conference, referring to the combativeness of the audience questions.

“I think that Emin is incredibly brave,” she said later. “While there would be no shame, from my view, in taking time to rest after being released from prison, he continues to speak out loudly and risk his freedom for what he believes in.”

Perhaps what irks his critics most is Milli’s eloquence. He studied law in Germany, has traveled extensively throughout Europe and the US and feels comfortable speaking in English and German.

Or, it could be his use of humor to poke fun at the government.

Milli first made headlines in Azerbaijan in 2009 when he and a friend, Adnan Hajizada, posted their now famous donkey video on YouTube.

Dressed likeUsing an ass in a costume Milli had picked up in New York, Milli the donkey held a mock press conference to poke fun of the government’s purchase of two donkeys for 40,000 euros each from Germany. Here in Austria, a donkey costs about 850 euros.

The authorities were not amused. Milli and Hajizada were sentenced to 30 months in prison. They were released a day apart after serving 16 months, primarily due to strong international pressure.

When he got out, Milli said he found it hard to get work. Former employers fear retaliation from the government if they hire him, he said. He still works as a translator when he can. Currently he’s writing short stories, which he plans to translate into English and sell. He said he would use the 1,000-euro speaking fee he got from the conference to pay off debts.

His wife divorced him after he got out of prison and has since left Azerbaijan. But the YouTube experience left Milli resolved to stay and fight.

“The Internet is the only effective tool for people like me,” he said. The government wants to marginalize writers, he added. “If international media give us a platform, then people in Azerbaijan may read it and change their mind. It breaks the narrative.”

That is why Milli tweeted throughout the panel discussion to his 4,957 followers. It is also why he posted photos of the conference on his Facebook page.

Except the one with Zimmermann.

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna. Tags: , , , ,