Azerbaijan criminalizes defamation of the president online

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev waves during a meeting with Pope Francis at the Presidential Palace in Ganjlik, Azerbaijan October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan’s parliament on Wednesday made online defamation of the president a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

With almost all traditional media strictly controlled by the government, social media networks have become outlets for people to voice criticism in a country where the economy has suffered from the global slump in oil prices and a depreciating currency.

Azerbaijan criminalized defamation over the internet three years ago, meaning many people now use aliases and covert accounts, but the existing law made no separate mention of the president.

Parliament on Wednesday passed amendments imposing fines of up to 1,500 manats ($860) and prison terms of up to three years for defamation of the president committed online, including comments which are made under fake names and accounts.

European institutions and rights bodies accuse the oil-producing ex-Soviet state and its leader Ilham Aliyev of tightening curbs on free expression and have been calling the president to reject the law. Azeri officials deny these accusations.

Reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Alison Williams