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Throwing Spitballs from Berlin to Baku

An online prankster plays a serious game with Azerbaijan’s government. Third in a series.

by Arzu Geybullayeva 2 May 2012

This is the third article in an occasional series about political satire in the former Soviet Union.

 

In 2005 Hebib Abdullayev, an Azerbaijani satirist, commentator, and video blogger who lives in Berlin, started a website called tinsohbeti.com. It offered a mix of straight political commentary and a good dose of caricature, usually of President Ilham Aliev.

 

Ilham Aliev
Not long afterward, visitors to the site in Azerbaijan were greeted with messages that it was not available or did not exist. As the government controlled long-distance telephony, blocking the site was hardly a problem. Yahoo, which hosted the site, revoked the domain name, under pressure from the government.

 

So tinsohbeti.com – the name is a compound of the Azeri words tin, meaning corner or fumes, and sohbeti, meaning “the talk of” – became tinsohbeti.org. The mouse had made his move. Next it was the cat’s turn.

 

Once again, access to the website was blocked within Azerbaijan, despite protests by press freedom groups.

 

Abdullayev said an agent of Azerbaijan’s government came to Berlin and threatened him and family members who remained back home. “He said if I didn’t shut down tinsohbeti my relatives would get hurt,” he says.

 

Aliev tells a journalist that Azerbaijan has all the freedoms: Freedom Square, Freedom Avenue, Radio Freedom, the Freedom newspaper.

 

With his site, Abdullayev – more commonly known by his pen name, Muntezir – was stepping into a void created by the systematic elimination of political satire in Azerbaijan.

 

Since the 1990s, magazine, newspapers, and websites such Mozalan (Gadfly), Cheshme (Spring), Qulp (Lock), Baku Bulvar (Baku Boulevard), and pur.gen.az – some of which had been publishing since the Soviet era – have been shut down, and some of their writers arrested.

 

The satirical publications that have taken their place steer clear of politics. But not Abdullayev. The 28-year-old continues to throw spitballs at Aliev and his henchmen from 2,200 miles away in Berlin, where he moved in 2002 to follow his father, a political activist who had been threatened by the government.

 

“[Government officials] told me that because my father left the country, my family and I would have to take responsibility” for his actions, Abdullayev says. The rest of the family sought asylum in Germany, where Abdullayev lives with his father and siblings (his mother died two years ago) and runs a web design firm.

 

Abdullayev fears for his life if he were to return to Azerbaijan. Journalists who run afoul of the government there have been beaten up, targeted for blackmail, sued, and imprisoned. In a notorious 2009 case, bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to prison after being attacked in an Internet café. They had recently posted a satirical video poking fun at the government’s reported purchase of expensive donkeys from abroad. The two have since been freed.

 

Abdullayev says he continues to receive threats to his family via email, anonymously, or through intermediaries. But, he says his relations “all do their own jobs and are not politically active,” which he believes keeps them safe.

 

Too much butter! Arrest immediately!

 

His own safety is a concern, but not the only one, according to those who know him well.

 

“This is an idealist, doing his job,” says Vafa, a friend from Azerbaijan who lives in the Netherlands and says she relies on Abdullayev’s Facebook page for an accurate picture of life in her homeland.

 

Araz, another friend, says, “The qualities this man has won’t let him do something else.”

 

A BIGGER AUDIENCE

 

Abdullayev has moved his work away from standalone websites and onto social media, which he says allows him to reach more people. After tinsohbeti finally shut down for good in 2008, he turned to Facebook, where he has around 5,000 friends and 3,000 subscribers. On YouTube, his muntezirin kanali channel has attracted more than 3,700 subscribers and almost 10 million total views in its two years. Last year alone, it got 5.1 million total views, making it one of the most popular channels in Azerbaijan.

 

During the country’s parliamentary elections in 2010, Abdullayev had fun with video of campaign debates. He mashed together the pro-government candidates’ most outlandish goofs and statements – for instance, obsequiously comparing the country before the time of President Heydar Aliev, the incumbent’s father and predecessor, to a ship lost in the middle of the ocean after a terrible storm – and  posted them on YouTube, generating thousands of comments.

 

Some of his less-pointed caricatures and edited photos still run in Azerbaijani newspapers. “They know what [is acceptable] to publish,” he says.

 

Abdullayev’s status updates on Facebook travel around the Azeri-language pages of the site, often purloined and unattributed to him, until a friend unwittingly suggests Abdullayev post a particularly funny one on his wall. Recently, he used Facebook to tell the apocryphal story of a bus driver who was detained by police for 12 days for shouting out the name of his next stop – the Azadliq subway station, whose name means freedom.

 

Far from backing away, as many satirists do, from the notion that the genre can change society, Abdullayev sees it as an effective way to wake people up about their rulers and government.

 

“If that weren’t the case, then none of my websites would have been banned,” he says.

Arzu Geybullayeva is a journalist in Istanbul. She tweets at @arzugeybulla.

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