It was encouraging to see U.S. President Barack Obama sign on May 17 the Daniel Pearl Act, which requires the U.S. State Department to compile a public list of governments that violate the rights of journalists. There is no guarantee, however, that this measure will not be perceived as a mere PR tactic or just another tool designed to intimidate countries already blacklisted by the United States due to other foreign policy concerns.
To preclude that, it is important that the list objectively name the regimes with the worst records on press freedom, including the so-called "friendly dictatorships" in the Middle East and beyond.
To that end, I nominate the first candidate – the leadership of the Azerbaijan Republic.
Azerbaijan's petro-dictatorship not only qualifies as a gross violator of press freedom by any reasonable criteria, it also often uses its energy and geopolitical cooperation with the West to deflect criticism on human rights and democracy. Thus, the inclusion of this regime would send a strong message about the list's impartiality and credibility.
Let's consider the basic "credentials" of this contender for a place on the list.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (right) meets with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Baku on June 6.
The government's most vocal critic, Elmar Huseynov, an opposition journalist and the editor of the popular magazine "Monitor," was murdered in 2005 in front of his apartment building. His killers are still at large, and many observers accuse the authorities of deliberately stonewalling the investigation and failing to bring them to justice. Some even identify powerful figures within the government as the real force behind the crime.
Huseynov's former colleague, dissident journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, has been behind bars for several years on fabricated "terrorism" and "drug possession" charges, and the Azerbaijani leadership has ignored the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ordering his release, which is mandatory for Azerbaijan as a member of Council of Europe.
Last year, two young bloggers, Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, were severely beaten and then arrested on absurd charges of "hooliganism." Despite numerous protests and condemnations from international rights groups, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, European governments, and the U.S. State Department, a court in Baku sentenced them to 2 1/2 years in jail. Many other independent journalists have been imprisoned, physically attacked, blackmailed, or forced into exile.
Under President Ilham Aliyev, who inherited the post from his late father in 2003, all local TV and radio stations have been brought under government control. The broadcasting of Western radio stations, including the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, has been banned from the local airwaves.
The remaining few opposition newspapers are deprived of revenue as the authorities target any businesses that advertise in their pages. They are also subject to bogus "defamation" lawsuits resulting in large fines and in some cases the paper's mandatory closure.
Journalist Eynulla Fatullayev in a Baku court in April
Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan has already been named as one of the top violators of press freedom by leading international organizations. Aliyev has been repeatedly included in the "Predator of the Press" list compiled by the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. The U.S. State Department's own annual report on human rights also lists numerous instances of the suppression of free media and reprisals against journalists critical of the government's policies.
Therefore, not only would it be illogical to exclude Azerbaijan from the new list mandated by the Daniel Pearl Act, such an omission would give credence to the supposition that American policy-makers readily sacrifice democracy and human rights on the altar of lucrative energy contracts.
On the other hand, the inclusion of Azerbaijan in this list would show consistency and the principled nature of the U.S. stance and provide moral support for those forces that struggle for free speech in Azerbaijan and around the world. Elmar Chakhtakhtinski is the chairman of Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy (AZAD), a U.S.-based organization that advocates for democracy in Azerbaijan and other countries. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL