Azeri court supports block on several media websites

BAKU (Reuters) - A court in Azerbaijan on Friday supported the blocking of the websites of several media outlets critical of the government, including the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE).

European institutions and rights bodies accuse the oil-producing former Soviet republic Azerbaijan and its leader, Ilham Aliyev, of tightening restrictions on the media and on people’s freedom of expression.

Azeri officials deny the accusations.

The ruling by the court in the capital, Baku, came after a complaint by the Communications and High Technologies Ministry and after prosecutors accused several media websites of inciting mass protests and actions aimed at undermining the government.

Apart from RFE’s Azeri website, the court ruled in favor of the blocking of the websites of opposition newspaper Azadliq and TV channels Meydan TV, Turan TV and Azerbaycan Saati.

RFE is backed by the U.S. government and broadcasts news and other programming in 26 languages to countries including Russia, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

It said in an article on its website that it would appeal Friday’s court ruling, which it called “another blatant attempt” at silencing its reporting in Azerbaijan.

It said the Azeri government had already limited access to its website since March 27.

“This verdict contradicts the European human rights convention, and that’s why these websites cannot be blocked. We will appeal this verdict,” Samed Ragimov, a lawyer for RFE and other blocked media outlets, told reporters.

Azerbaijan last year made online defamation of the president a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment.

It criminalized defamation on the Internet three years ago, meaning many people now use aliases and covert accounts, but there was no separate mention of the president in the earlier law.

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

The country’s biggest bank, the International Bank of Azerbaijan, said on Thursday it had suspended payments on some of its debts.

Reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Alexander Winning