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Azerbaijan: Authorities Intensify Pressure On Independent Media

(RFE/RL) Moves by Azerbaijani authorities on November 24 to curtail broadcasting by sister stations ANS TV and ANS Ch.M radio have highlighted the precarious future of independent media in the country. The most recent action, along with others, has exposed a vague legal framework and the ineffectiveness of a council established to help shield independent media from the state.

PRAGUE, November 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In Azerbaijan, as in many other CIS states, the electronic media are incomparably more influential than the print media.

Due primarily to financial constraints -- the limited purchasing power of the 8.3 million population and the relatively undeveloped advertising market -- most newspapers that do not benefit from state subsidies appear in print runs of only a few thousand.

Limited Alternatives

Baku Today on July 18 cited an opinion poll that established that a mere 2.8 percent of respondents read newspapers regularly, while 70.8 percent read them only rarely or not at all.

For those Azerbaijanis who do not read newspapers, there are three alternative sources of information: state-controlled Azerbaijani TV and radio, which provide only minimal, and generally biased information about opposition political parties; several private television channels that provide primarily entertainment but little in the way of "hard" domestic or international news; and foreign television and radio broadcasts.

The belated creation, in line with commitments Azerbaijan made when it joined the Council of Europe in 2001, of a public broadcaster on the basis of one of the two existing channels of state television has done little to expand that choice.

Azerbaijani Public Television finally began broadcasting in summer 2005 in the run-up to the November parliamentary elections, and its coverage of the November elections was deemed less tendentious than that of the state-controlled media, although by no means wholly objective.

But an assessment of its first six months of broadcasting faulted programs for monotony, lack of timeliness, and permitting only "a limited dose of political pluralism," according to the independent daily on March 26. And in early October, the National Council for Television and Radio ordered a halt to the rebroadcasting by local stations of BBC and Voice of America (VOA) programs on the grounds that local media outlets "do not have the right to broadcast the programs of foreign radio stations."

Risky Business

Most independent media outlets -- whether print or electronic -- that have struggled over the past 10-15 years to fill the "information gap" by reporting on issues ignored by the state-run media have been repeatedly subjected to arbitrary official harassment and reprisals and, in some cases, to libel suits that have resulted in the imposition of huge fines.

In early October, satirical journalist Mirza Sakit Zahidov, who had criticized President Ilham Aliyev in columns published in the independent newspaper "Azadliq," was jailed for three years on drug charges that his colleagues and international media watchdogs denounced as fabricated. Individual journalists have been beaten up, and Elmar Huseynov, editor of the hard-hitting "Monitor," was shot dead outside his apartment last year.

An Alternative Emerges

In that environment, ANS TV swiftly emerged as the sole reliable alternative source of unbiased information. Established in late 1991, the various components of the ANS media empire, which also comprises a news agency, employ up to 1,000 people.

ANS TV had an audience of 2.5 million people in Baku and the surrounding areas, according to the website.As the OSCE Office in Baku noted in a statement on November 24, international election monitors have long considered it the most objective Azerbaijani television station.

In July 2006, ANS Radio began rebroadcasting programs by the Azerbaijani Services of RFE/RL and VOA. The daily on November 25 implicitly paid tribute to the unique role of ANS by titling its report on the suspension of ANS broadcasting "The People Have Been Deprived Of ANS."

Nushiravan Magerramli, chairman of the National Council on Television and Radio that on November 24 adopted that decision, told journalists that the ruling was prompted by 11 separate warnings issued to ANS in connection with infringements of the law on broadcasting. The most recent was the opening of a bureau of ANS Radio in the provincial town of Sheki on the eve of the November 2005 parliamentary ballot without obtaining the required license.

Magerramli said a tender would be held within the next week for the frequencies on which ANS TV broadcast, but that in the event that ANS makes a bid for those frequencies, his council is empowered to award them to a rival channel, reported on November 24.

In fact, as ANS President Vaxid Mustafayev told journalists five months ago, the channel's legal situation has been unclear since 2003, when its previous broadcasting license expired, reported on June 20.

Mustafayev said he was informed, first, that the license would be renewed after the creation of the National Council on TV and Radio; then after the November 2005 elections; then in the spring of 2006.

Promises Unfulfilled
Not only was the license not renewed, however, but in mid-June the Azerbaijani tax police began checking the company's records and discovered what Mustafayev described as "insignificant errors" for which ANS was required to pay a small fine, reported on June 23. Mustafayev told journalists on October 11 that ANS was the sole broadcaster whose license has not been renewed, reported.

The suspension of ANS broadcasts is, however, only part of a broader emerging pattern of adducing quasi-legal arguments in a bid to silence media outlets not controlled by the government.

The independent newspapers "Azadliq" and "Bizim yol" were evicted last week from the premises in central Baku they have occupied for over a decade, ostensibly because they owed $26,000 in rent arrears. The State Property Committee has offered alternative premises that the editorial staff of "Azadliq" has rejected as unsuitable.

Azerbaijani officials, in turn, have sought to portray that rejection as an attempt to "politicize" a purely commercial dispute and to depict the paper as the victim of unjust persecution. For example, Aydin Mirzazade, a parliament deputy from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, argued on November 27 that ANS should take measures to ensure its activities comply with the law rather than "politicize" its closure. Similarly, presidential administration official Ali Gasanov was quoted on November 29 by as saying that President Aliyev is not empowered to intervene in the workings of, or to overrule decisions by, the National Council on Television and Radio.

Challenging Authority?

Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) of which "Azadliq" was once the formal mouthpiece, told journalists on November 27 that the Azerbaijani authorities' rationale for the eviction was that they consider him a dangerous challenger to incumbent President Aliyev in the 2008 presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported.

Mehman Aliyev (no relation to the president), head of the information agency Turan that had offices in the same building as "Azadliq" and the AHCP and was also evicted, told last week that it is rapidly becoming impossible for independent newspapers to continue publishing. Mehman Aliyev said he fears that very soon only pro-government media outlets will be left.

Elchin Shikhli, editor of the independent daily "Ayna/Zerkalo" and chairman of the Union of Journalists of Azerbaijan, concurred on November 24 that Mehman Aliyev's prediction might prove accurate.

The heads of independent media outlets joined forces last week to form a Coordinating Council in Defense of Freedom of Speech, reported on November 22, a move that implicitly calls into question the future of the Press Council established in 2003 with the same proclaimed objectives. The Press Council has reportedly declined to intercede with the authorities on behalf of media outlets under pressure, including both "Azadliq" and ANS.

Strange Timing

Meanwhile, experts both in Azerbaijan and abroad continue to puzzle over the rationale for the authorities' crackdown on the independent media. (The timing of that decision seems particularly inept in light of the agreement Azerbaijan recently signed with the EU.)

The online daily on November 28 quoted police who participated in the forced eviction of "Azadliq" and Turan from their editorial offices as saying they were acting on orders from the country's top leadership.

But if true, that admission does not necessarily preclude the possibility that one faction within the leadership may be out to discredit a rival faction, or even President Aliyev personally.

On November 29, ombudsman Elmira Suleymanova publicly called on President Aliyev to allow ANS to resume broadcasting, reported. She argued that the channel's closure reflects badly on the country's image.

Whether her statement is corroboration of a split within the leadership, or is part of a broader campaign intended to create the impression that the threat to freedom of speech is not as draconian as some independent journalists fear, remains unclear, however.

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