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Azerbaijan: Hundreds Rally To Defend Free Press

Baku, 20 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An estimated 700 people today rallied in the Azerbaijani capital to protest alleged state pressure on opposition journalists. Rauf Arifogly, editor of the opposition "Eni Musavat" newspaper, said at the rally that the pressure exercised by the authorities on journalists "presents a threat to the free press."

The protesters demanded that the ruling party revoke its censure of opposition newspapers and that authorities permit the reopening of six independent newspapers that had been shut down by the courts, AP reported.

The government gave permission for today's rally in Baku, and no disturbances were reported. Azerbaijani police broke up a demonstration on 12 December by about 50 opposition journalists protesting alleged government intimidation of opposition media, injuring some.

A number of opposition newspapers have recently been closed down or are facing lawsuits by the government. Delegates to a November congress of Aliev's Eni Azerbaijan party called for three newspapers to be punished for alleged anti-state actions, and the state publishing house obliged by refusing to publish them.

Yesterday, President Heidar Aliyev met with editors of leading Azeri newspapers and television stations, expressing regret over the restrictions and promising to improve the situation.

But Azer Hasret, head of the country's independent union of journalists, today said that Aliev's words were, as yet, just promises.