Frequently criticized for its treatment of reporters and its crackdown on free media, Azerbaijan has thought of a way to give back to its journalists -- by housing 155 of them in one apartment block.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev inaugurated the Baku building on July 22 -- National Press Day -- in a move reminiscent of the Soviet-era practice of awarding apartments to writers and other cultural figures.
In a speech at the inauguration ceremony, Aliyev was full of praise for freedom of the press in his country, which Reporters Without Borders ranks
156th on a list documenting freedom of the press in 179 countries.
A sign on the building -- located in the Bibiheybat settlement -- quotes Aliyev: "It’s a great honor to be a friend of journalists."
In his speech
, Aliyev said the housing project shows there is no discrimination in any sphere in Azerbaijan.
"Internet journalism is developing in Azerbaijan as in the world. The state carries out programs on the proliferation of the Internet. So we can say that freedom of speech has been fully ensured," he said.
'What's Free Media?'
Many independent journalists, however, would probably be reluctant to label Aliyev as a "friend." Earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists called
on Azerbaijan to halt its crackdown on the press.
According to the watchdog, imprisoned journalists such as newspaper editor Hilal Mamedov
are serving time on politicized charges.
A sign on the apartment building -- located in the Bibiheybat settlement of Baku -- quotes President Ilham Aliyev as saying: "It’s a great honor to be a friend of journalists."
Just last month, the Azerbaijani president signed into law
a bill that criminalizes online defamation. The move was criticized by media freedom groups who worry that the law could be used to restrict online dissent and provide obstacles for independent journalists ahead of the country's presidential election in October.
Vuqar Safarli of the state-run Fund of Mass Media Development, which underwrote the apartment project, noted that independent journalists were also awarded apartments.
Independent journalists are often harassed and attacked
for their work in Azerbaijan. Many have questioned whether the apartment-granting largesse is a government attempt to bribe journalists.
"What's free media? Free media must have some independence from all of the organizations which they cover, including the government," Qulu Maharramli, a media expert and professor at Baku State University's Journalism Department, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
"The main mission of journalism is to facilitate public oversight of the government. How can you criticize the government if you receive an apartment from them? This is why I think it is better to quit than to look for arguments to justify the receiving of apartments from the government."
More Transparency Urged
In addition, not all journalists were happy with the process by which the apartments were awarded.
Roya Rafiyeva, from the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that her editors were asked by the government's Press Council to provide a list of journalists who needed apartments.
Rafiyeva said she was told that because of her short employment history at the newspaper -- she has worked there for four years -- she wasn’t eligible. The newspaper only considered those who had worked for the publication for at least 10 years. She called for a more transparent process
in the future, noting that some people who were already owners of apartments were given an apartment anyway.
Written by Deana Kjuka, based on reporting by Arifa Kazimova and Turxan Karimov of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service