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EU Deputies Give Azerbaijan A 'Wake-Up Call' On Media Freedom

Journalist Eynulla Fatullayev
Journalist Eynulla Fatullayev
EU parliamentarians say they want a resolution critical of Azerbaijan to be seen as a warning message for authorities in Baku, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.

The parliament on December 17 adopted a resolution expressing concern over what it called the deterioration of media freedom in Azerbaijan.

The document criticized the jailing of opposition journalists, such as newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev, and called for their immediate release, and urged authorities to renew FM radio licenses of international broadcasters, including RFE/RL.

Speaking to RFE/RL, Tunne Kelam, one of the resolution's co-authors, recalled that the European Union had made a critical statement on the media climate in Azerbaijan earlier this year.

European deputies later met their Azerbaijani counterparts and informed them about their concerns regarding civil liberties, but to no avail, Kelam said.

Bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were jailed last month for up to 2 1/2 years on charges of hooliganism.
"It was up to the Azerbaijani government to produce feedback, to react to these concerns, but nothing happened," Kelam said. "Now, it is the end of the year and it has actually become worse. There was no information, no reaction. That's why we decided to come forward with an urgent resolution."

The Estonian Christian Democratic MEP welcomed Azerbaijan's efforts to integrate with the Western community but added that European partners also have their expectations regarding Baku.

"The current resolution is a strong signal that these relations have a price. They include media freedom and other democratic freedoms," Kelam said.

James Nixey, Russia and Eurasia program manager at the British think tank Chatham House, said the resolution was a positive development in the attitude Brussels is shaping toward Baku.

"Azerbaijan seems to be sleeping. The direction of travel in terms of its democratic credentials is not positive. The West must engage in this crucial, pivotal, strategic energy-rich state, but not only on Azerbaijan's terms," he said. "One must also look at the issues Azerbaijan is less comfortable with."

The researcher stressed that the internal domestic question of democratic backsliding must not be left out and should be addressed alongside the issues of energy cooperation and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Bernd Posselt, another Christian Democratic MEP and co-author of the resolution, echoed that the European Parliament simply wants to remind Azerbaijan that it should abide by its own commitments.

"Azerbaijan, as a member of the Council of Europe, committed to respect conventional human rights. This was not dictated by us. This was decided by Azerbaijan," he said. "We want to inform the Azerbaijani people that the government should fulfill its obligations."

Italian MEP Fiorello Provera, representing the nationalist Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, delivered the only critical voice during the December 17 debate, arguing against the adoption of the document.

He said that the resolution might be counterproductive and trigger a firmer Azerbaijani stance in relations with the EU, which eventually could become an obstacle in mutual contacts.

Posselt was outraged by his colleague's comments.

"Mr. Provera is not representative of the European Parliament. We have always this type of people speaking on behalf of dictators. We don't speak on behalf of dictators. We speak on behalf of democracy," the German MEP said.

"I remember the Soviet times. If you did something against the Soviet Union, it was [said to be] counterproductive. But it was not. It was the beginning of the process of freedom," Posselt said. "We supported the opposition movement, so we will go on."

But what will happen if Azerbaijani authorities simply decide to ignore the EU's call?

Kelam says Baku's refusal to acknowledge criticism and change things on the ground could eventually affect relations between Europe and Azerbaijan.

"We would need to come back to this issue on a higher level -- that is the relations between European Commission and Azerbaijan and also the European Council. The EU Parliament is going to have a much more important role beginning from next year," Kelam said. "It will be the co-speaker and co-decisive force, also in foreign relations. Therefore, parliamentary resolutions will become more influential and more important."

Nixey, the Chatham House researcher, said that while the resolution might not change things overnight, it is welcome nonetheless.

"Words can hurt and words should hurt sometimes if they are used properly. The EU often doesn't have sufficient backbone, spine, and strength. It has been a lot softer in the past and has not even spoken of such things. So there is some progress here," Nixey said.