Using Comedy to Push the Envelope in Azerbaijan
As part of our ongoing series of Cyber Activist profiles, Movements.org recently spoke with Mehman Huseynov, a 22-year old photojournalist and blogger from Azerbaijan who has faced significant government repression for his work to promote free expression in the country. Huseynov recently founded the independent news, commentary, and satire website Sancaq ("Pin" in the Azerbaijani language) that brings people together by lampooning current events. Huseynov founded Sancaq because he felt the need for his country to have an independent and engaging media outlet amidst a cacophony of dull, state-sponsored media voices. Last June, Huseynov was arrested and charged with "Hooliganism" for insulting an officer during protests in his hometown of Baku. The charge of “Hooliganism” carries a sentence of up to five years in jail. The charge may be connected with Mehman's free expression work, or the work of his brother Emin, who is chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a non-profit organization where Mehman also works. A previous interview we conducted with Azerbaijani cyber activist Emin Milli- conducted by live Twitter chat- can be seen here.
What do you do at Sancaq?
We satirize political events and social issues by featuring pictures and videos on our site, both attracting and informing our viewers as much as possible. As a result, I can say people are not afraid of anything anymore, because we kind of “flirt” with politics here, but, at the same time, inform people about the politics in Azerbaijan. This has happened very successfully so far.
What led you to journalism?
In fact, I didn’t have any idea that I would become a journalist one day. I entered college, looking to study Economics among other things, but started to be keenly aware of the problems in our society: namely rampant bribery and economic corruption. These issues were unbearable, and there wasn’t an outlet that would give them coverage. Thus, I founded Sancaq Productions to enlighten people.
How did Sancaq come to life?
Sancaq Productions was inspired from my activities on social media sites. I would share my thoughts and opinions on social media, and I would receive two vastly different reactions: One: from people who are afraid of politics, frightened to even “Like” videos and pictures with underlying political themes, and keep their distance from politics as much as possible. Secondly: from groups who are active and would “Share” and “Like” my feeds. I thought of bringing these two different groups together. That’s how the Sancaq project was born.
How popular is the Internet in Azerbaijan?
Government pressures newspapers and shuts them down. This is one of the main reasons that journalists and ordinary people use social media to share and receive news: because they can read whatever they want from wherever they like.
How can supporters around the world help Azerbaijani activists like yourself?
The Internet is censored here and this is where the West can help us by spreading the word. Cyber activists are under pressure here; including myself. The government has opened a criminal case against me only because of my cyber activities. Many other activists have also been imprisoned for long periods of time, like Baxtiyar Haciyevi, Emin Milli, and Adnan Hacizadeni. Americans can introduce our young and imprisoned cyber activists to the whole world.
What do Azerbaijani cyber activists such as you need to continue their work?
Journalists are faced with many problems in Azerbaijan. They have been beaten, imprisoned, sued, their income and reputation have been threatened or ruined and in the worst cases, they have been killed like Rafig Tagi and Elmar Huseynov [two Azerbaijani journalists who were murdered in 2005 and 2012]. Their murderer hasn’t been arrested yet.
How would you summarize Azerbaijan’s latest political situation for us?
The political situation in Azerbaijan is getting worse as we approach the 2013 presidential elections. But more imprisonment and more fear won’t stop journalists and cyber activists.