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Azerbaijan Report: October 15, 2002

15 October 2002
Media organizations attack new broadcasting law
On 8 October the law "On television and radio broadcasting" came into effect. The parliament adopted the law on 25 June. The document sets the legal, economic and organizational basis for private broadcasters. But since the law's ratification, local and international organizations have come out against it. They criticize the law for not defining clear licensing procedures for broadcasters, which they say opens the way for officials to use it to exert pressure on private TV and radio stations.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service Arif Aliev, chairman of the New Generation Journalists' Union, one of the organizations that introduced the draft law on broadcasting to the parliament, said that despite concerns, the law could successfully regulate private broadcasters. The main point of contention, he says, regards how members are appointed to the National Television and Radio Council--a state institution--which will regulate and monitor broadcasting operations.

According to the new law, the president appoints the members of the regulatory body. Aliyev suggested that this method could subordinate television and radio stations to the will of the president. Aliyev added that Azerbaijan still lacks a complete legislative structure for broadcasting. The rules determining how the regulatory body will operate must be still approved, and state television must be transformed into a true public television.

Only once this process is completed will it be possible to evaluate the democratic character of broadcasting laws in Azerbaijan, Aliyev said. But according to Reshid Hajili, a legal expert at the local office of Internews--a U.S.-funded organization that provides support to independent television stations--the fact that the membership of the regulatory body will be determined by the president gives grounds to assume that the organ will not be independent of state control.

(Natig Zeinalli)

Parliament Deputy's Comments Prompt Editors' Union To Go on Defensive
Leading newspapers and a number of journalists' organizations united under the Editors' Union have restored the meeting committee which was originally formed in 2001. This week the committee will discuss ways to protect the media from government pressure.

Journalists' Trade Union chairman Azer Hasret, in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service, said that some parliament deputies' threats directed against the media have prompted the committee to come up with defensive measures. In particular, Hasret points to the allegation of Siyavush Novruzov, a deputy from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP). At a recent parliament session, Novruzov accused the media and opposition of insulting President Heydar Aliyev and his son, Ilham Aliev. Novruzov said on that occasion that if law-enforcement bodies are not capable of preventing such negative remarks, YAP possesses sufficient strength to take the necessary measures. But Hasret in the interview called on the government to present concrete evidence of slander.

Seyyad Aran, another YAP deputy, told RFE/RL that such evidence of slander would be sent to the court in the near future. Aran added that the government intends to bring legal action against the media.

A YAP Congress held at the beginning of 2002 also criticized the media and even emphasized the need to fight against some media outlets. Immediately after the congress, a number of media organizations began to stage regular protests and managed to meet with President Heidar Aliev. During that meeting, the president acknowledged that YAP was not acting appropriately toward the media, and called on the government to drop its cases against media representatives. But Aran said in the interview that this time, no one would be forgiven.

Meanwhile, on 10 October the authorities of Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic banned the activity of Gaya, an independent privately owned newspaper distributor. Gaya director Khanhusein Aliyev said in an interview with RFE/RL that 18 newsstands of the company have been closed since March 2001. Aliyev said that someone within the government wants to take control of newspaper distribution and thus increase chances to pressure the free media. Under a presidential decree, the state press distribution firms "Gasid" and "Azermetbuatyayimi" are to be privatized. Therefore the authorities want to abolish Gaya which at present is the only organized newspaper distribution firm, Aliyev alleged.

(Natig Zeinalli)

Pro-government Parliament Deputy Alleges U.S. NGO Interfered In Azerbaijan's Internal Affairs
After the 5 October opposition protest the pro-governmental parties have intensified their criticism of the opposition. In a 10 October press conference Zahid Oruj, an MP from the pro-governmental Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party, accused the opposition of working for foreign forces. He says that the U.S.-funded NGO, the National Democratic Institute, proposed forming a special council of opposition parties, which would monitor voting during the 24 August referendum on amendments to the Constitution and coordinate mass protests. Oruj appealed to law-enforcement bodies to prevent what he called an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of Azerbaijan. The law "On political parties" must also provide for a mechanism to deal with political extremism, he added.

Parliament deputies from the ruling YAP on 8 October also accused the law-enforcement bodies of inaction toward the opposition. Ali Abbasov, former director of the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that the authorities' sharp reaction shows that the government is seriously concerned with the increasing number and size of protests. According to Mubariz Ahmedoglu, the head of the Center for Political Innovation and Technologies, the government is in chaos and therefore reacts inadequately to the opposition protests. The government must respond to the protests with protests, Ahmedoglu says. He also notes that the opposition parties are stronger and more significant than before. Therefore President Heydar Aliyev must get involved in the process and take the situation under control in order to avoid confrontation in the future.

(Natig Zeinalli)

State Department Report Critical of Religious Freedoms
On 7 October the U.S. State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom. While the Azerbaijani Constitution provides for people of all faiths to choose and practice their own religion without restrictions, the report found that there were some abuses, as well as a decline in religious freedom during the period the report covers. Local authorities continue to monitor religious services, and officials at times arrest and harass nontraditional religious groups. The State Committee for Work with Religious Associations refused to register a number of protestant Christian groups.

Some groups reported that committee employees tried to interfere in the internal workings of their organizations during the registration process. Moreover, there is an overall prejudice against Muslims who convert to other faiths, and hostility toward missionary groups, particularly Evangelical Christians.

Mais Seferli, the head of the opposition Yurtdash (Compatriot) Party and a member of the parliamentary commission on human rights, in interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service denied the allegations of discrimination against religious minorities in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani people have a profound respect for other religions and cultures, Seferli said. He added that he would propose a commission to discuss the State Department's report with the participation of representatives of registered and unregistered non-governmental organizations.

But Islamic scientist Nariman Gasimoglu, a translator of the "Koran," notes that it is not first time the State Department has released such a report, adding that the facts in the report reflect reality. Such a report is the result of the current government's attitude toward religious entities. But he also acknowledged that some religious organizations spread propaganda against the Islam, rather than trying to spread the word of their own religions. Gasimoglu also agreed that there is indeed some discrimination of Muslim people who convert to non-Muslim faiths.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

The pro-governmental newspapers "Khalg" and "Azerbaycan" ran the speech of President Heydar Aliyev at the Istanbul summit of the Organization of Economic Cooperation member states held on 14 October. The independent Russian-language newspaper "Ekho" writes, citing the Afghan embassy in Moscow, that President Aliyev and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, meeting at the Istanbul summit, most likely discussed the issue of Afghan refugees in Azerbaijan.

Regarding the Council of Europe's recent remarks that the government and opposition open a dialogue, Ali Ahmedov, executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) said in an interview with the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" that the opposition isn't really interested in dialogue with the government, but that it uses the issue for speculative purposes.

The newspaper "Khalg" in the article "Privatization serves development of entrepreneurship" notes that 26,000 small state enterprises have been placed under private ownership since the beginning of privatization. In a separate article, the newspaper comments on the prospects of dialogue between the government and opposition. According to the newspaper the opposition is not interested in such a dialogue.

The opposition newspaper "Azadlig" writes, citing Tax Minister Fazil Memmedov, that the institution will began an audit of the Azerbaijan Football Federations Association (AFFA) in the near future. The independent newspaper "Yeni Zaman" in an article entitled "The agriculture of Azerbaijan has remained ownerless" writes that high prices have reduced the agricultural sector to a sad state.

Political scientist Fikret Sadigov in the article "The last word about the Chisinau summit" published in the newspaper "Ekho" alleges that the Commonwealth of Independent States is not able to resolve the problems of its member states. But bilateral meetings within the framework of the commonwealth should be welcomed. Sadigov writes that it would be naive and unrealistic to expect the Chisinau summit to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The author also points out that relations between Azerbaijan and Russia have recently been normalized. President Heydar Aliev's visit to Moscow in September and the signature of some important documents on the Caspian status serve as evidence, Sadigov concludes.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliev in an interview with the independent newspaper "525" denied allegations that the OSCE Minsk Group has proposed to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by using Transnistria as a model. He said that such a model proposes federative relations between Moldova and Dnistr region. Guliev noted that during the latest visit to the region, the co-chairmen did not make new suggestions regarding a solution to the conflict. He noted that if the Azerbaijani government refused the "common state" principle in 1998, that means that Baku opposes any solution based on a federative or confederative state structure. Guliev exclude the possibility of changing mediator-states�Russia, France and the United States. But a substitution of Minsk Group co-chairmen is possible, he said.

Political scientist Khagani Huseinli in an interview with the opposition newspaper "Hurriyyet" said that meetings between the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents serve the preservation of peace in the region. But according to Huseinli, in order to obtain positive results for a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, the political "regimes" in the two countries must be changed.

Gerard Stoudmann, the director of the Human Rights and Democratic Institution Department of the OSCE, in an interview with "Ekho," said that he had no facts concerning restrictions on religious entities during their registration process in Azerbaijan or on the existence of Armenian terrorists in the occupied Karabakh region. Touching on the issue of human rights in Azerbaijan, Stoudmann said that in some countries the situation was more severe than in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also faces serious problems in this sphere, and the government is trying to solve them, he concluded.

Rahib Kazimli in the article "Toward civil war" in the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" says that confrontation between the government and opposition is increasing. Even the parliament of the Council of Europe is talking about the existence of such a danger. Kazimli writes the latest opposition protests have exasperated the authorities. According to him the possibility of nationwide protest is real, and the authorities now have no effective means to prevent it.

Penah Huseinov, the chairman of the opposition Azerbaijan People�s Party, in an interview with the newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" comments on the processes within the opposition. According to Huseinov, there are some ideological differences between the parties. But there are also some points that unite them. At present the points in common prevail over the others. The parties hold a common position against the government's political course. He also added that although some opposition leaders are discussing putting forth a common presidential candidate, it doesn't mean that other parties won't propose their own candidates. He stresses, however, that it is most important that the main parties agree on one candidate.

Ramiz Mehdiev, the chief of the Presidential Administration, in an interview with the Sharg news agency confirmed that the president will pardon a number of prisoners on the occasion of Independence Day on 18 October. The newspaper "525" writes, citing Sharg that there are 300 names in the pardon list. But according to Mehdiev, the exact list was still unknown. But the names of a number of "political prisoners," including the members of the former OMON (special militia detachments) will be among those the president will pardon. But Mehdiev added that former Defense Minister Rahim Gaziev, former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov and Alikram Humbatov, the separatist leader of the short-lived Talish Mugan Republic, will not be pardoned because their retrial processes have not still ended.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)