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Azerbaijan: Censorship Persists

Washington, 19 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Former journalist Nicholas Daniloff says that while Armenia and Azerbaijan have declared their desire for free-market economies and democratic governments, their passage from communism to a new social order has been "difficult and paradoxical."

Daniloff, who is now director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, spent a few months in the two nations last spring to examine freedom of the news media, under sponsorship of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

"Censorship continues to plague journalists in Azerbaijan, where it is practiced outright, as well as in Armenia, where strict government controls are tantamount to censorship," said Daniloff.

He discussed his report at a seminar at the Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington last week.

The Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, William Orme, said his group supported the project because of persistent reports of political and military censorship, restrictive media laws and violence attacks against journalists in the two Caucasus nations.

"If Armenia and Azerbaijan wish to be accepted into the community of European democracies, as they say they do, then both governments must end these censorship practices and provide solid legal safeguards for an aggressive, independent news media," Orme said.

By constitution and law, said Daniloff, Azerbaijan has banned censorship, yet continues to practice extensive Soviet-style censorship over the print media.

"The fact is that there is quite severe censorship of the press in Azerbaijan, but it is not a totally complete or monolithic censorship," he said. Newspapers must receive Soviet-style stamps on each page before they can be printed in the government-controlled single printing house, but he said, Azerbaijan does permit one independent television company, the Azerbaijan News Service (ANS) to broadcast news with very little direct control.

He said the government of President Heidar Aliyev apparently allows the one tv channel to operate because it does not go far beyond Baku, where a number of other channels, including Russian and Turkish, are available.

As importantly, said Daniloff, Azerbaijan brings a broad range of pressures on journalists, such as interrogation by authorities over allegations of law violations. "What you find in the journalistic community is the sense that the government is fully capable of pressuring the press through a variety of different means -- through violence, through censorship, through control of the printing press themselves and also through control of the premises on which newspaper live and work," he said.

In Armenia, said Daniloff, censorship was abolished from the very start of independence, yet the attitude of officials is that the press "really should be the hand-maiden of the officials and the policies they're trying to implement.

He said the sorts of pressures that are put on Armenian journalists, despite the fact that censorship does not exist, are largely those of "threat, intimidations, and occasionally, (in the past) cases of violent actions against journalists."

While Armenia formally abandoned press censorship, the government in Yerevan maintains "strict controls over television that amount to formal censorship."

He said that as in Azerbaijan, Armenian officials have resorted to "extra-judicial harassment," but that such attacks have lessened since 1996.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says Daniloff's report shows that Armenia and Azerbaijan should take a number of steps to push the transition along more quickly. Those include repealing criminal codes limiting criticism of government officials, removal by the Azerbaijan government of all political and military censorship of the media, and investigation by the two governments of all cases of violent attacks against journalists and media organizations.

Daniloff said he would have liked to include Georgia in the study, but that there was not sufficient money to fund its inclusion.