In a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on December 17, members adopted a resolution addressing deteriorating media freedom in Azerbaijan. EU parliamentarians told RFE/RL they want a resolution critical of Azerbaijan to be seen as a warning message for authorities in Baku.
The document critcized the jailing and demanded the release of opposition journalists, including newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev and bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli
, and urged authorities to renew FM radio licenses of international broadcasters, including RFE/RL's Radio Azadliq.
Referring to the issue of FM broadcasts, Tunne Kelam, a Christian Democratic member of Parliament (MEP) from Estonia, told the assembly, "The …problem is a recent decision by Azerbaijani authorities to cancel the FM radio licenses of several international radio stations, like Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, the BBC World Service, and others, depriving listeners in this country of valuable and independent sources of information…I ask colleagues to agree ...not only to voice regret over the situation, but also to urge the Azerbaijani government to cancel its decision and renew FM licenses to the radio stations mentioned."
The resolution comes one year after the Azeri government barred RFE/RL’s Azeri service and other international broadcasters from FM frequencies effective January 1, 2009. The ban
was widely criticized by international rights organizations, but the Azeri government defended it as a measure needed to bring the country into comformity with European standards. “Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan is integrating to the European Union, European standards should be implemented in TV radio broadcasting too,” Nushirevan Maharramli , the head of the National TV and Radio Council, told journalists last October.
Remarking on the resolution, Kelam told RFE/RL in an interview that the European Parliament had made a statement criticizing the media climate in Azerbaijan earlier this year. Later, European deputies met their Azerbaijani counterparts and informed them about their concerns regarding civil liberties, but to no avail, Kelam said.
"It was up to the Azerbaijani government to produce feedback, to react to these concerns, but nothing happened," Kelam said. "Now, it is the end of the year and it has actually become worse. There was no information, no reaction. That's why we decided to come forward with an urgent resolution."
He said that the Parliament welcomed Azerbaijan's efforts to integrate with the Western community but added that European partners also have their expectations regarding Baku. "The current resolution is a strong signal that these relations have a price. They include media freedom and other democratic freedoms," Kelam said.
Vytautas Landsbergis, former President of Lithuania and currently a MEP, was a co-sponsor of the resolution. He told RFE/RL that Azerbaijan is walking on thin ice regarding its commitments to democratization and improvement of media freedom. “[There were] too many events, in a short time, worsening the situation in Azerbaijan but also damaging the good name and opinion about Azerbaijan in [the European] Union,” Landsbergis said. “It looks like the Soviet Union in old times.”
“This resolution should be considered as a warning and call for Azerbaijani authorities not to build any doubts about the line chosen by Azerbaijan -- if it made its choice for European direction,” Landsbergis said.
Bernd Posselt, a Christian Democratic MEP from Germany and another sponsor of the resolution, echoed that the European Parliament wants to remind Azerbaijan to abide by its own commitments. "Azerbaijan, as a member of the Council of Europe, committed to respect conventional human rights. This was not dictated by us. This was decided by Azerbaijan," he said. "We want to inform the Azerbaijani people that the government should fulfill its obligations."
Italian MEP Fiorello Provera, representing the nationalist Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, voiced the only objections to the resolution during the December 17 debate, arguing that it could be counterproductive and trigger an unfavorable Azerbaijani stance in relations with the EU. Posselt responded with outrage, saying, "Mr. Provera is not representative of the European Parliament. We have always this type of people speaking on behalf of dictators. We don't speak on behalf of dictators. We speak on behalf of democracy...I remember the Soviet times. If you did something against the Soviet Union, it was [said to be] counterproductive. But it was not. It was the beginning of the process of freedom," Posselt said. "We supported the opposition movement, so we will go on."
Kelam says Baku's refusal to acknowledge criticism and change things on the ground could eventually affect relations between Europe and Azerbaijan.
"We would need to come back to this issue on a higher level -- that is the relations between European Commission and Azerbaijan and also the European Council. The EU Parliament is going to have a much more important role beginning from next year," Kelam said. "It will be the co-speaker and co-decisive force, also in foreign relations. Therefore, parliamentary resolutions will become more influential and more important."