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Azerbaijan: Journalists Clash With Government Over New State-Secrets Decree

Journalists in Azerbaijan are threatening to take to the streets in protest against a new presidential decree on state secrets. Journalists say the decree, issued at the end of August, endangers free speech by requiring them to consult a presidential committee before publishing anything that might be considered a state secret. The president's office, on the other hand, says the media's fears are overstated and based on a misreading of the decree. But the government is working on a new state-secrets law following uproar from international organizations and the domestic press.

Baku, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The publication of a new presidential decree on state secrets at the end of August led to immediate protests from journalists in Azerbaijan. The decree, a supplement to the country's six-year-old state-secrets law, raised concern on three counts.

First, critics say, it required journalists to ask a presidential commission whether or not sensitive material is a state secret before publishing it. The commission has a week to respond, which journalists say is another problem, since articles could cease to be timely if the media has to wait seven days before publishing.

Perhaps the greatest worry is that the decree appeared to give the commission the right to demand that journalists reveal the sources of their information.

Following a meeting between government representatives and journalists last week, President Heidar Aliyev today issued a new decree that looks like a partial victory for the press. For starters, the decree shortens the committee's response time to 48 hours. Perhaps more importantly, it clarifies that the committee can only request, not demand, that journalists reveal their sources.

John Boit is director of the Baku office of Internews, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization working with the media. He said he is still concerned about the original decree, which he said could have a "chilling effect" on journalism in Azerbaijan. "It is a step toward self-censorship, at the very least, and full censorship, at the very worst. If a journalist has to come to the government to ask permission to print something, I think that that is already an affront to free media, and so that absolutely cannot be allowed," Boit said.

Arif Aliev, the head of the Yeni Nasil (New Generation) Journalists Union, said the decree will make it "very difficult for journalists to work." Aliyev said the government's official list of subjects that could be considered state secrets is too broad, and includes everything from military and security issues to communication, transport, and economic and trade matters.

The union leader said journalists understand that governments have a legitimate need to protect state secrets, but added that it is not the media's job to guard them. "We accept that there are state secrets, that governments should have their secrets. But the government itself must keep those secrets. That is their responsibility, and in this [decree], the responsibility was partially transferred to journalists," Arif Aliyev said.

The government's top legislative expert said the media's fears are overstated. Shahin Aliev, who directs the Department of Legislation and Legal Expertise in the Office of the President, said the decree may actually make journalists' jobs easier. The decree does not impose new restrictions on journalists, he said, but gives them new rights. "First of all, this new regulation [does] not create any obligation for the journalists. There are not any obligations. If [a] journalist [has] any doubt that this information may be [a] state secret or maybe not, he [has] the right to appeal to this special commission, the state-secrets commission. But if journalists are sure that this information [is] not [a] state secret, or if he knows that it is [a] state secret and he wants to publish it, nobody can stop it. And [in] this case, he will have full responsibility," Shahin Aliyev said.

Shahin Aliyev met leading journalists soon after the presidential decree was published to try to allay their fears. He said the edict does not give the state-secrets commission the legal power to demand that journalists reveal their sources. "I explained to the journalists that it is just [a] moral obligation, it is not [a] legal obligation. The mechanism which exists in the decree is a kind of goodwill from the journalists' side. Of course, journalists can refuse to [reveal] their sources, and in this case, the commission will appeal to the court," Shahin Aliyev said.

The new edict issued by President Aliyev turns that clarification into law. President Aliev's decree today also orders the cabinet to draft a new law on state secrets in order to comply with Azerbaijan's international obligations. The cabinet is also rewriting the list of subjects that can be considered state secrets, Shahin Aliyev said.

Both documents should be ready within a month.

Such promises do not reassure Boit of Internews. "I am still very wary of any list of state secrets, and I think it also depends on the wording of a document like that. If it's still very broad wording, then still that document could be used against journalists in cases where, for instance, information would not normally be considered a state secret. So I am still very, very concerned about the list of state secrets and how that could be used and applied against journalists."

Local journalists, too, are keeping a close eye on the progress of state-secrets legislation. One media union is planning to demonstrate outside the president's office on 16 September.

Arif Aliyev of the New Generation union, for his part, said complaints from journalists and international organizations have kept the decree from being implemented so far, but that if it does go into effect, the union will appeal for help from international organizations and join the protests, as well.