If the Armenian and Georgian blogospheres attracted most interest during 2008 after one bitterly disputed presidential election in the former and an albeit short war with Russia in the latter, Azerbaijan was the undoubted focus in 2009. In particular, youth activists quickly embraced both new and social media to spread their message online, especially following a ban on foreign radio stations using local frequencies ahead of a controversial referendum to remove restrictions on presidential term limits.
However, the local blogosphere was to particularly make an impression in the days following the 30 April massacre of students at a Baku university. A week and a half later, many young Azerbaijanis protested inaction on behalf of the government in light of the tragedy and took to the streets. Some were detained and Twitter became an invaluable tool for updating friends and supporters on their situation. Blogs also provided first hand accounts of the heavy handed police action.
So effective was the use of new and social media in Azerbaijan, however, that the main event of 2009 was also the most concerning and unfortunate. Following reports that the Azerbaijani government had purchased donkeys for tens of thousands of dollars, youth activists Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli uploaded a satirical video on YouTube which also criticized government plans to change the law on local NGOs.
Soon after, Hajizade and Milli were assaulted in a downtown Baku restaurant and detained instead of their assailants when they reported the incident to police. Citizen media leapt to their defense with other activists as well as friends and supporters skillfully using new and social media such as blogs, social networks and micro-blogging tools to campaign for their release.
It wasn't long before the international media caught up and also highlighted their predicament while Global Voices Online continued to extensively cover the trial thanks to blog posts and tweets from both inside and outside Azerbaijan.
Unfortunately, however, Hajizade and Milli were sentenced on 11 November to 2 and 2.5 years respectively. Global Voices Online interviewed Parvana Persiani, a leading Azerbaijani youth activist and Hajizade's girlfriend, on the case as well as the use of new media to promote change a day earlier.
The Presidency of the European Union, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the verdict. Amnesty International has declared both men to be prisoners of conscience.
Meanwhile, despite the action against the activists, many observers expect the role of blogs to increase in the region during 2010, and especially in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Unfortunately, the cost of Internet connection in Armenia remains the highest while its speed is by far the slowest.
As an example, a 256k connection costs $30 a month in Armenia, while a 4mb connection in neighboring Georgia costs just $19.