As Azerbaijan gears up for next month's presidential poll, rights groups and media watchdogs at home and abroad are voicing concerns at reports of violence against journalists. They say the rights of reporters covering the election campaign are being increasingly violated, while those suspected of physically assaulting reporters go unpunished.
Prague, 25 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With just a few weeks left before the 15 October presidential election, political violence is gaining momentum in Azerbaijan.
Invigorated by incumbent President Heidar Aliev's prolonged absence from the country, opposition leaders are drawing larger and larger crowds of supporters at their election rallies. Azerbaijani authorities are responding with increasing brutality.
Law enforcement forces disrupted joint rallies held on 21 September in the southern towns of Masalli and Lankaran in support of Etibar Mammadov, the chairman of the National Independence Party, and Ali Kerimli, the leader of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan's reformist branch. In Baku that same day, police assaulted opposition activists outside a theater where Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar was making a speech. All three men have blamed Aliev's government for the attacks, accusing it of seeking confrontation to disrupt the electoral process.
The country's leadership has issued conflicting statements regarding the weekend clashes. The state-dominated Central Election Commission cleared the government of all accusations, saying organizers had failed to notify local authorities about the rallies. As for the presidential administration, it blamed opposition parties for allegedly provoking the clashes.
Journalists were not spared by the weekend violence. News reports say at least five reporters were assaulted by police and two others arrested while covering the Masalli and Lankaran rallies.
The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called for an investigation into the attacks on reporters. Caroline Giraud monitors media freedom in all former Soviet republics for RSF. She said authorities have stepped up pressure on journalists in recent weeks.
"Since late July, approximately, we have noticed an increase in attacks against independent journalists. [We] believe the fact that most victims are independent reporters, not journalists working for state-controlled media, is not a coincidence. This leads us to believe that what we are witnessing are, unfortunately, attempts at intimidating independent media ahead of the elections," Giraud said.
In a statement issued on 22 September, RSF urged Azerbaijani authorities "to ensure that independent media coverage of pre-election activities and election-day voting is not obstructed."
The Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have expressed similar concerns in recent weeks, saying harassment and intimidation of journalists are unacceptable practices in a member country.
Arif Ariev chairs New Generation, one of Azerbaijan's three professional associations of journalists. He told RFE/RL that violence against reporters is growing as the 15 October deadline approaches.
"As we are getting nearer to the elections, journalists are working under increased physical pressure and experiencing growing difficulties in collecting and circulating information. Since the beginning of the [month], journalists have been beaten in Nakhichevan [Autonomous Republic]'s Sadarak District, in Baku, in Masalli, in Lankaran. Photojournalists and television cameramen have had their equipment confiscated or destroyed. People have been arrested under various fallacious pretexts, as it happened in Nakhichevan when journalists were detained for three days. Of great concern to us is also the fact that while all this is taking place, no one is being punished," Ariev said.
The Prosecutor-General's Office has opened criminal investigations into some of the recent violence involving police officers and reporters, but its conclusions have not been made public yet.
One of the most serious incidents occurred on 8 September, when law enforcement forces assaulted reporters in front of the Baku police headquarters. The journalists were covering the arrival of a Popular Front activist, Fuad Mustafaev, for questioning when policemen suddenly punched them, threw them to the ground, and kicked them. Several reporters were detained and endured further mistreatment while in custody.
In a statement issued three days later, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the behavior of the police officers. Citing photographic evidence, Azerbaijan's media and human rights groups accused Baku police chief Yasar Aliyev (no relation to the president) of taking part in the attacks.
General Aliyev has denied any wrongdoing, claiming reporters were "accidentally hit" during a scuffle between police officers and Popular Front activists.
For some journalists, the 8 September events have had other unpleasant consequences. Azer Rasidoglu is a political analyst for Azerbaijan's Russian-language "Zerkalo" independent daily.
"People then started calling me over the phone, uttering threats and telling me that should I continue writing articles against General Yasar Aliyev I would not only lose my job but also my life. [Since then], the newspaper has taken steps to ensure my safety. I live under protection now. But there is something tragic in the fact that a journalist should have to find recourse in bodyguards. I take this as a personal offense. Since I have been under protection, those threats have stopped," Rasidoglu said.
Rasidoglu said the attitude of the authorities toward the press dramatically worsened shortly after President Heidar Aliev's son Ilham was appointed prime minister on 4 August, becoming Azerbaijan's de facto ruler.
Since his heart condition suddenly deteriorated last April, 80-year-old Heidar Aliyev has been undergoing medical treatment abroad, first in Turkey, then in the United States. He has not taken part in the election campaign, and it is still unclear whether he will be able to return to Baku in time for the poll.
Also unclear is which of the two Alievs -- the father or the son -- will run for president on behalf of the ruling elite. Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly said he will step down in favor of his father, but few in Baku believe that will happen. Some fear for the future of independent media in Azerbaijan should Ilham Aliyev come to power.
Journalist Rasidoglu said: "Since Ilham Aliyev became de facto head of state, harassment and physical violence exerted against journalists who are just trying to offer the public objective information have become common practice. It is no longer possible to work, collect information, and inform the public. [We] must choose in which direction we want Azerbaijan to move. Either we choose to develop along the lines of Turkmenistan, for example, or we tell the world we are part of Europe, part of the Western world and culture, a member of the Council of Europe and, [as such], respect freedom of speech, freedom of the press and human rights."
Azerbaijan has had a poor human rights record since Heidar Aliev, a former Soviet Politburo member and KGB chairman, returned to power in 1993.
In 2002, a few months after Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, the national parliament adopted legal reforms designed to bring the country's media law closer to international democracy standards. Yet, RSF last year concluded that Azerbaijan still ranked 101st among 139 countries where it had monitored press freedom.
The RSF's Giraud said the recent abuses of press freedom do not come as a surprise. "Azerbaijan is not a model of democracy and, for some years now, we have been frequently recording cases of physical violence exerted against media, notably from law enforcement agencies, which show an excessive tendency to detain reporters," she said. "Therefore, one can say that [what is happening today], unfortunately, fits in with a certain pattern linked to the problems of press freedom in Azerbaijan."
New Generation Chairman Ariev said that, although a few reporters working for government-controlled media outlets have suffered from police violence, recent developments reveal what he describes as "a deliberate policy aimed at intimidating independent and opposition journalists."
In addition, he said, abuses against nonstate media are not limited to physical violence. "There have been cases of blackmail or death threats against 'Zerkalo' reporters, for example. There have been cases when newspapers were seized. This notably happened to [a new daily], 'Baku Habar,' which had 200 of its copies confiscated in one of the Baku districts on 9 September. Some media outlets have had their video cameras or other equipment destroyed. These are the forms under which violence [against the press] generally expresses itself," he said.
Independent journalists say they often experience another form of pressure. Unlike physical assaults and arbitrary detentions, this particular form of coercion cannot be easily appreciated, however.
"In addition to violence exerted by the authorities, the campaign staffs of the different candidates sometimes also exert pressure on journalists," Ariev said. "This covert form of abuse aims at inducing reporters into writing in favor of one political group or another. But, thank God, this kind of pressure is being exerted without physical violence."