Disinformation and propaganda related to the COVID-19 outbreak in Azerbaijan reiterated the same topics circulating in the other countries of the Eastern Partnership. Despite statistics, many Azerbaijanis initially denied the existence of the outbreak or believed the threat was exaggerated. Popular narratives focused on the successful collaboration with Russia or Turkey – two countries seeking to maintain their influence in the region by continuing to exert their soft power. Additionally, the government used the opportunity to try to consolidate its legitimacy by promoting its own efforts and alleged success in fighting the virus. An attempt at this was the publication of letters allegedly written by citizens to their President to express their gratitude and to praise his efforts and the performance of having the least numbers of deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
“Dear Mr. President, we, the families of martyrs, are very happy about your concern for the health of every citizen of Azerbaijan and the provision of financial and moral support to the people in these difficult times. Personally, I am proud of my President.” (Source: Oxu.az)
Media and Legislation
Azerbaijan ranks 168 in Press Freedom Ranking as a consequence of President Ilham Aliyev’s restrictive measures towards his opponents and critiques of his 17 years long rule. In this specific context, the president took advantage of the confusion regarding the pandemic and accused his opponents of trying to sow disorder and panic. International human rights organizations and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights have already stated their concern and outrage at a series of arrests of oppositionists in Azerbaijan.
As expected, the pandemic outbreak offered a great opportunity for the leadership to capitalize on media freedom. Generally, unlike social media, there is control over TVs and Radios which prevents the spread of fake news. However, in March, lawmakers passed a bill that prohibits the dissemination of false information about the pandemic that is spread specifically in social media. According to the amendment, the owner of any Internet information resource is required to prevent the publication of false information online. Although the amendment sounds relevant and even well-intended in the sensitive context of protecting public health, it is considered that the legislation was far-reaching because it extends to the publication of information unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic that could be regarded by the authorities as “dangerous to the public.”
Exposure to propaganda
With regard to Azerbaijan’s vulnerability towards Kremlin-led propaganda, the Disinformation Resilience Index assessed that it is moderately exposed. Generally speaking, Russia is not seen in a positive way as it is viewed as an actor that involves in regional conflicts (see Nagorno-Karabakh conflict). Thus, any pro-Russia news would meet low support or reactions, which means that Kremlin has to manage the situation in a more subtle way. A way to influence the public opinion in Azerbaijan is through its diaspora in Russia, as well as the presence of a Russian speaking population in Azerbaijan.