RSF calls on Azerbaijan to end online harassment of Swedish journalist
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for an end to a smear campaign being waged against Swedish freelance journalist Rasmus Canbäck by supporters of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, especially on Twitter. RSF also urges Swedish foreign minister Ann Linde to remind Azerbaijan’s ambassador to respect press freedom and journalistic independence.
“The case of Rasmus Canbäck is typical of the way the Aliyev government tries to intimidate journalists and undermine press freedom in European countries, even Sweden, a press freedom exemplar,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Not content with crushing any form of pluralism in their own country, the Azerbaijani authorities do not hesitate to hound critical journalists beyond their borders. RSF demands an end to this harassment and urges the Swedish authorities, especially foreign minister Ann Linde, to remind the Azerbaijani ambassador of the principle of journalistic independence.”
“Islamophobe,” “terrorist”, “spy” and “funded by the Armenian lobby” are some of the insults and accusations to which Canbäck is being subjected on Twitter because of his articles about Azerbaijan, especially for the online magazine Blankspot. He has been writing about Nagorno-Karabakh – a region with an Armenian majority where a long-standing conflict as just erupted again – and about Azerbaijan’s alleged use of bribes in its “caviar diplomacy” and lobbying.
Named in nearly 900 tweets in September
Azerbaijani trolls* and diaspora members in Sweden began attacking Canbäck assiduously on Twitter in May, shortly after he wrote about a Swedish foreign ministry-funded think tank’s links with the Azerbaijani government. According to an analysis by RSF, Canbäck’s account was mentioned in nearly 900 tweets from 1 to 21 September, compared to 113 during the same period in 2021. This was despite the fact that he blocked 150 accounts in August because of their hate content.
“It was too intense,” Canbäck said. “By comparison, I had to block fewer than 300 accounts during the whole of last year.” One the hashtags associated with the harassment of Canbäck is the #FaceOfCorruption, which is also used to harass US politicians critical of the Azerbaijani government. The first use of this hashtag in connection with Canbäck was on 29 August.
These attacks by Azerbaijani diaspora members are also targeting Blankspot editor Martin Schibbye, a journalist who has received several awards including the RSF Sweden Press Freedom Prize. Canbäck and Schibbye are portrayed as having been bought by Armenia in the rhetoric used in the attacks, which have been echoed in the Azerbaijani media.
Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Sweden, Zaur Ahmadov, follows Blankspot closely and has contacted at least six Swedish media outlets and publishers, including the Göteborgs-Posten daily news and “P1 Medierna,” a radio program specialising in the media, in order to question Canbäck’s independence. He also often attacks Canbäck and Schibbye on Twitter and shares defamatory remarks about them, sometimes accompanied by a cartoon. This is what he did on 19 September, for example, retweeting an Azeri designer’s defamatory tweet accusing Canbäck of corruption and calling Blankspot an “Islamophobic and Turkophobic portal.” The ambassador deleted his retweet shortly after RSF emailed him asking for an explanation.
He addressed Canbäck in two tweets in mid-August that were later deleted. In the first he wrote: “I guess wealthy Arm [Armenian] lobby will soon fire you from your post of anti-Azerbaijani propagandist for inefficiency of your defamatory activities against Aze [Azerbaijan] following your next all-inclusive luxury visit to Arm last week, as Azerbaijan's relations with these countries are developing.” And in the second he asked: “Are 102 Anti-Aze articles in propaganda portal @blanksp_t part of some contract or they appeared by accident?”
“Such behaviour is a disgrace to international diplomacy,” says Erik Halkjaer, the head of RSF’s Swedish section. When Halkjaer began defending Canbäck and Schibbye and calling for an end to the harassment on Twitter in August, he was also attacked by anonymous trolls questioning RSF’s defence of press freedom and independent, ethical journalism. The ambassador then almost stopped tweeting about Canbäck, but the online harassment of Canbäck and Blankspot by others intensified.
When contacted by RSF about the harassment, Ambassador Ahmadov responded by claiming that Canbäck had “harassed me and my interlocutors.” Likening investigative journalism to harassment, he said: "The Embassy of Azerbaijan has taken issue with about 100 defamatory posts against Azerbaijan that he published on the Blankspot site (...) which we find to be inconsistent with journalistic principles.”
The ambassador also denied using trolls, and said members of the Azerbaijani Diaspora had a “right of reply to consistent defamations.” Nonetheless, the ambassador has yet to bring any lawsuit against Canbäck or Blankspot, which is renowned for the quality of its investigative reporting and reliable sources.
Azerbaijani government methods
Canbäck was on an Azerbaijani persona non grata list that is no longer published but which, on 8 January 2021, included 130 journalists who had previously entered Nagorno-Karabakh via Armenia. Canbäck, who has been covering the conflict since 2019 and is writing a book about it, was refused entry to Nagorno-Karabakh via Armenia for the first time in July 2022, officially for security reasons and unofficially at the behest the Russian forces that have controlled access to the region since the ceasefire signed after the war in the autumn of 2020. Denied entry to Nagorno-Karabakh, Canbäck went to a part of southern Armenia near the border, where he was stopped and questioned ten times in five days by Russian and Armenian forces.
The harassment of Canbäck is not an isolated case. Social media moderation policies can still be easily exploited in order to harass journalists beyond Azerbaijan's borders without causing problems for the platforms. Targeted harassment is prohibited in theory but it is not clearly defined. Only racist insults, explicit threats or loud and clear calls to harass an individual directly contravene Twitter’s rules. These are very specific and therefore easily avoided. By slightly adapting their language, harassers can make very aggressive remarks without offering platform moderators anything they can object to.
The Azerbaijani government also uses pro-government media and, in democratic countries, gag suits to smear and harass its media critics. It also resorts to more radical methods. Mahammad Mirzali, a blogger who has political asylum in France, was badly injured in a knife attack in the French city of Nantes in March 2021 and still receives many death threats designed to get him to stop criticising the Aliyev family. Sevinj Osmanqizi, a refugee in the United States since 2012, has long been subjected to death threats and intimidation in connection with her work as a journalist, first for Meyden TV and then for her own social media channel in exile. She is currently being targeted as part of a social media smear campaign backed by the ruling party with the hashtag “Name a traitor” (#xainitanı).
*Troll: Person posting messages online with the aim of starting a controversy or disrupting a discussion.