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Azerbaijan: Censorship Illegal But Still Restricting The Press

Prague, 12 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Censorship is barred by law in Azerbaijan. However, in a rundown office in the center of Baku a staff of censors comb the country's press for perceived leaks of government, military and political secrecy.

The office is in the building which once housed the Soviet censors' office, then known by its acronym Glavlit. Now, there is no name at the entrance, but there are iron bars across the glass doors.

Azerbaijan's constitution forbids censorship. Yet many of the same people who censored publications in the Soviet era, continue to work for what is now known as the Main Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press of the Council of Ministers.

One of those old hands is the main administration's deputy director, Rafik Imanov. He refers to his colleagues as comrades. His office book case contains the complete collected works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Asked about those books, Imanov asks a visiting foreign reporter to turn off his tape recorder. When the reporter refuses, Imanov smiles and explains that the books are "just inventory".

When asked about the difference is between the old Glavlit and the current Main Administration of the Protection Of State Secrets in the Press, Imanov says:

"The difference is that Glavlit existed in the Soviet times and its activities then were very broad and dealt with other issues, but now Glavlit no longer exists and there is no longer censorship in Azerbaijan, just an administration which protects state secrets."

Imanov goes on to say that the military situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh requires protecting the press from any sort of, what he terms, "anti-state intelligence." Imanov denies this constitutes censorship.

"Many domestic and foreign newspapers claim that there is censorship in Azerbaijan -- I ask you how is this possible, if it is censorship, opposition newspapers would be shut down -- "Opposition papers do publish and no one is interfering with them." He then adds that if some sort of anti-state information appears in an article, in his words, "of course, we remove it."

"There are forces here which want to interfere. They do not leave us in peace, they do not let us live freely." Q: Who are "they"? A: There are such forces. Q: What sort? A: There are of course, forces which, I'll repeat again, so that let's say things here won't be as they ought to be, calm. There are various articles and so on which present certain political views, that contain certain anti-state intelligence which we of course remove -- there are more than 30 opposition papers that are being published freely and if they are complaining, we do not know why."

But not all the censoring involves state secrets, Imanov concedes.

"Of course, there is a difference between criticism and insults -- Of course we do not let anyone in the press insult our president but if it is a matter of criticism, then fine, the opposition press does criticize. Sometimes it is not criticism but an insult and we do not allow that, we take it out."

Asked how many people work at the Main Administration for the Protection of state Secrets in the press, Imanov says, "not so many, we strive, we control, we look, but our 'apparat' is not big."

Asked how they determine whether an article contains state secrets, Imanov says "we know how to determine whether something is a state secret or not".

The editor of the Baku opposition daily, Azadliq, Gunduz Tairli says he faces censorship every day.

"All materials have to be shown to the censor every evening at eight prior to publication and all materials, all photographs are handed in to the censors and they send them to the printing presses."

Tairli adds that the censors are mainly concerned with materials of a political character. He says that while previously the censors eliminated up to two whole pages of stories from a given issue, currently they rarely take out more than half a page.

"It is now much easier than it was two years ago. There is more freedom now, we can write more, but basically the censors do not like materials in one way or another that deal with the president," Heydar Aliyev.

But Tairli goes on to say that mere information on Aliyev or his family members, particularly his son Ilham, or that "reflecting corruption at a very high level, including at the Defense Ministry" would be subject to censorship. He says that reporters frequently refrain from writing on such issues.

Azadliq has by Azerbaijan standards a high circulation, 10,000 to 15,000. But distribution outside the capital is almost entirely controlled by the government.

A leading Azerbaijani opposition politician, Musavat Party chairman Isa Gambar, who was parliamentary speaker in 1992-93, says freedom of speech in Azerbaijan is currently only halfway to its goal amid the ongoing struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. He says that another form of censorship exists for the electronic media -- control of the airwaves.

"First of all, there are independent newspapers affiliated with opposition circles and there is an independent TV company, but there is censorship in Azerbaijan. Secondly, the opposition does not trust state TV which is the only television to cover the entire territory of Azerbaijan while private TV only covers Baku and its environs."

Gambar says also that "opposition politicians face very serious difficulties in maintaining contacts with the masses, with society." He argues that the authorities have lost authority and popularity, and society wants a change.

The head of "Yeni Nesil", the Journalists' Union of Azerbaijan, Arif Aliyev says censorship remains one of the biggest problems facing Azeri journalists.

"It is a very strange that although the constitution bans censorship as does the law on mass media, censorship exists; that means it does not have a legal basis." But he also says that prior censorship affects only the printed media but not the electronic media.

Aliyev says the journalists' union has repeatedly raised the issue in various fora, arguing that censorship is detrimental to journalists as well as to the government and society, and constitutes a blemish on Azerbaijan's image. He goes on to say that "it shows that in Europe, we are the only state where prior censorship in such a coarse form exists."