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Photo courtesy of Meydan TV

Has Copyright Become a New Weapon Against Online Media?

Fake accustations have led to video reports on Azerbaijan being pulled from YouTube

Dispatch

YouTube’s copyright rules are being abused by the Azerbaijan government in an attempt to censor content from the global video-sharing site according to one of the country’s few independent news services.

The Meydan TV network says four of its video reports, which highlighted allegations of official corruption, were removed on the grounds that they infringed YouTube’s copyright rules. And under the Google-owned giant’s terms, this brought the channel close to being taken off the site altogether.

YouTube is one of the few remaining mediums Meydan TV has for reaching audiences in Azerbaijan. The government blocked its website last year, and it has also jailed the network’s journalists.

It produces dozens of videos about a wide range of issues. But the channel’s director, Emin Milli, says it was just four pieces that were targeted — which included reports on the financial dealings of the country’s autocratic president Ilham Aliyev and his family, the state oil company and allegations of police abuses. “These were not just some random videos,” he says. (Disclosure: Meydan TV is a member of Coda’s network of editorial partners). And Milli is adamant that the network either owned all the footage itself, or had the rights to use it.

Meydan TV says it was a company called Muse Network — which partners with YouTube and helps channels promote their content — that filed the complaints. The company is actually based in Turkey, but has an office in the Azeri capital, Baku. However, Milli is convinced that the Azeri government was behind the intervention. “It was so organized. It was so systematic.”

Muse Network’s Baku office says the accusations are unfounded (see update below). “The state does not engage in such small work,” said its Azerbaijan director, Shahriyar Taghizade, in a series of text messages. “This is wrong thinking to blame the state in everything.”

He also denied filing the copyright complaints against Meydan TV, saying they were due to an “automatic” technical error in YouTube’s systems. But he then restored the videos, which he pointedly described as: “lying and self-fiction fantasy films.”

The same company also played a role in a similar incident involving the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Last weekend, its staff discovered that six of its videos had been removed from YouTube after being flagged by Muse Network for alleged copyright violation. Ilkin Mammadov, director of RFE/RL’s Azeri service, says there was a note on the videos saying they had been “manually detected.” After complaining to the company, he says their videos were also restored.

The Azeri government has also blocked RFE’s website. And both media companies see their problems with alleged copyright infringement as part of a continuing government campaign against them. This is a new kind of online interference, according to Mammadov. “They create disruption for a few hours, and audiences run if they see you are blocked,” switching to different channels.

But using copyright claims to disrupt content is a perfect tactic, according to Mammadov. Complaints can easily be overlooked and left unchallenged. But under YouTube’s policies that can amount to an admission of guilt. After three strikes, or violations, it can block a channel for good.

Though both the RFE and Meydan TV videos have been restored, Milli is concerned that the threat to his network’s content remains. At the moment, he says YouTube is “failing badly” in policing its own rules.

Correction and update: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Muse Network is an Azeri company. Muse Network has asked us to make clear that it is a Turkish company based in Istanbul, with an office in Baku, Azerbaijan. In a statement, the company said an “irresponsible employee” in its Baku office had removed the Meydan TV videos and that it respects “the freedom of speech principle that YouTube embraces.” The statement added that all “necessary legal actions” were being taken against the employee.