"... lets be clear, we are not comparing like with like" wrote Neelie Kroes on her personal blog reflecting on this past week's IGF held in Baku while referring to some of the EU member states as Hungary, Bulgaria, and Greece where freedom of expression issues are also present. Indeed, we are not and should not compare like with like, especially when that "like" has to do with which country has worse human rights record or more journalists facing bogus imprisonment charges.
Azerbaijan is no Pakistan yes, where recently a 14 year old school girl blogged about the difficulties at her school under the Taliban regime and got a shot in a head for that (this is not to say we should forget Elmar Huseynov's case, who too was brutally murdered on the door steps into his apartment in 2005).
For all the critical remarks, statements and comments voiced during the conference there is a lesson to be learned for those who speak of the reality in Azerbaijan and for the Azerbaijani government. We, Azerbaijanis, living in and outside of Azerbaijan must continue telling the truth about the situation on the ground with regard to human rights, net freedom, freedom of expression, political prisoners, and prisoners of conscience. We must continue discussing the difficulties the country's citizens face as a result of lack of "generosity" of the country's greedy officials (lets not start debating which official owns how much). Azerbaijani government, should stop comparing itself to country's that are doing much worse in any of the above mentioned aspects and realize that counter arguing international reports that only state the obvious when it comes to human rights record or the state of the free press damages already shaken image of a country that once was a promising land of freedom, equality and liberty.
Why strive to be better? Well, one message to the authorities is to accept and try to improve rather than shrug it off. Why? Wouldn't be so much better when for once something positive is written about Azerbaijan? Why not improve the situation? Why not strive to be a better country?
What I saw during IGF was that Azerbaijan's government representatives actually do not understand the importance of hosting such important and global events. We might be the "Dubai of the Caucasus", we might have high-end boutiques selling non-affordable (at least for most of the Azerbaijanis) products, we might have construction boom but its not something to talk about during a venue as IGF nor it is a place to tell its visitors to enjoy the PRed-Eurovision-flashy videos while forgetting (or not considering?!) to provide translators (to Azerbaijani) for the opening session and boasting of the development of its ICT sector while failing to provide fast internet connection at an internet focused forum.
It is also not a place to prove anything. The majority of participants and speakers at IGF already knew the situation in the country. Watching short promo videos on Azerbaijan wont form their opinion. Few statements on how things are perfectly fine in the country wont convince them. If proving and convincing is the case, then why is it that every time someone from the government or pro- government raised a question in the audience or made a remark quickly disappeared from the room never staying for after discussion after the sessions (essentially showing that none of things said matter because they don't care because they refuse to accept)?
I understand that its difficult to accept ones faults and weaknesses. But things can, should and must be improved. Instead of claiming to have free access to Internet why not assure and guarantee Azerbaijani citizens, advocates, activists freedom of expression? Why issue bogus arrest warrants? These people would not write what they write if things were as perfect as officials describe!
Looking ahead, and trying to think positively, perhaps Azerbaijani state officials will take this forum as an opportunity to sort itself out (which doesn't mean to arrest more journalists, shut bloggers up, and take other terrible measures against advocates). We must be better! We could be better! We need to be better! We need to be building future while not destroying the wealth we have! We don't need Guccis, Burberrys and Dolce&Gabbanas. We need uncorrupted education. We need smarter spending measures. We need to work on our reputation and we need to start now. Perhaps, the first step would be to release imprisoned journalists and let them do their job?!
IGF2012 is over, but the difficult situation in Azerbaijan isn't. So I am also asking international actors, organizations and representatives who were here this past week, don't forget of your promises and don't give up on Azerbaijan. There is still hope...