Imagine a national election where most TV and radio broadcasters don't report on the candidates, campaigns, or political issues.
A place where campaign events are only allowed at a limited number of preapproved venues that, in practice, require permission from ruling-party apparatchiks.
It's a scenario that favors incumbents and ruling-party candidates because it makes it more difficult for newly emerging politicians or opposition blocs to get their messages to voters.
This is the situation in Azerbaijan as it prepares for early parliamentary elections on February 9 -- a vote contested by a surge of new independent and opposition candidates, according to the Election Observation Mission (ODIHR EOM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Ironically, OSCE observers say media reports about the election in Azerbaijan are being stifled by a law that is supposed to ensure voters have access to information about all parties, policy platforms, and candidates.
Azerbaijan's Election Code requires broadcasters to provide "equal coverage" of all election campaigns.
On the surface, the law appears similar to the "equal time" rule created by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure U.S. broadcasters don't manipulate election outcomes by presenting one candidate's point of view and excluding others.
But in the United States, the "equal time" rule does not apply to talk shows, news events, scheduled newscasts, or documentaries.
OSCE observers noted on January 29 in their preelection Interim Report that Azerbaijan's "equal coverage" rule contains a stiflingly broad definition of political "campaigning."
"The Election Code defines campaigning in the media as speeches, interviews, press conferences, open discussions, debates, roundtable discussions, and political advertising, and TV and radio programs," the report says.
"Due to such a broad definition, most media outlets refrain from covering the campaigns of candidates in order to avoid accusations of unequal coverage," it adds.
Instead, OSCE observers say most media outlets in Azerbaijan have been focusing on the activities of the Central Election Commission (CEC) rather than candidates, campaigns, or contentious issues.
That is a disadvantage for the flood of new candidates running as independents or that have joined forces under a new political bloc called Movement.
Akif Gurbanli, head of the independent Institute for Democratic Initiatives and a former member of Azerbaijan's CEC, told RFE/RL that their efforts to reach voters have not been covered by public broadcasters or online media.
That is critical in a vote that, according to Istanbul-based Azerbaijani political analyst Arzu Geybullayeva, differs from past elections because of "the visibility of genuine candidates" who are "rights defenders, human rights lawyers, election observers, bloggers, feminists, youth activists, and politicians."
The OSCE report also says the cost of buying airtime for political advertising is prohibitive for many of the independent candidates and opposition parties trying to win seats in Azerbaijan's 125-seat unicameral parliament, the Milli Majilis.
Azerbaijan's Election Code does provide for free airtime to be allocated by public broadcasters and state-funded national newspapers during the January 17-February 8 election campaign period.
But the law stipulates that free airtime is only allocated to parties with candidates that are registered in more than 60 of the 125 election constituencies.
Only President Ilham Aliyev's ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) has qualified for free airtime, with 123 registered candidates.
On January 17, the YAP announced it would not use the free advertising -- claiming that it was trying to create equal conditions for all candidates.
But in practice, the YAP's move has meant even less information is being broadcast to voters about the elections.
'Relentless War' Against Critics
Since Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, its elections have repeatedly been deemed by OSCE observers as falling short of democratic standards.
That includes the first presidential election won by Aliyev in October 2003, as well as his reelection in 2008, 2013, and 2018 in votes the OSCE says were conducted "within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms."
In fact, none of the presidential or parliamentary elections held during Aliyev's rule have been deemed free and fair by a Western election-observation organization.
Meanwhile, the Paris-based, press rights group Reporters Without Borders says Aliyev has also waged "a relentless war" against his media critics.
It says independent media have been either stifled economically or closed by force, including RFE/RL's Baku bureau, while independent journalists and bloggers have been "jailed on absurd grounds if they do not first yield to harassment, beatings, blackmail, or bribes."
Some opposition parties in Azerbaijan have decided to boycott the February 9 vote to protest unfair limitations on access to media and freedom of assembly.
Among those boycotting the polls is the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (PFPA) and its allies in the National Council of Democratic Forces.
PFPA Deputy Chairman Seymur Hazi told RFE/RL that the criticism in the OSCE report is harsh but reflects reality for opponents of the ruling YAP, which holds a majority of 65 seats in the outgoing parliament.
Hazi said Azerbaijani voters have, for many years, been denied the opportunity to see the political platforms of different candidates and parties debated on television.
"We cannot speak about transparency and results coming from the competition in the elections," Hazi said.
But Hazi says an even bigger problem noted in the OSCE report is a discrepancy of 2 million voters between the CEC's data and district election commissions.
"The country has a population of 10 million and there are more than 5 million voters on the [official] voter list," Hazi said. "But how real is this figure? We don't know because we do not know the actual statistics. There is a difference of 2 million people between the Central Election Commission and the district election commissions."
Arif Hajili, the chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, says he also thinks the OSCE's interim report objectively reflects real difficulties that are being faced by opposition parties and candidates.
Hajili also says the most disturbing aspect of the February 9 vote is the discrepancy between the official voter list and the number of eligible Azerbaijani voters announced by the state statistics office.
Musavat is not boycotting the election. But the lack of television coverage means its candidates and activists must campaign door-to-door or turn to social media in order to reach voters.
OSCE observers say that, even though television is the most accessible media across Azerbaijan, "many interlocutors opined to the ODIHR EOM that it is mostly a source of entertainment, while social-media platforms are used for seeking alternative political information."
The opposition Republican Alternative Civic Movement (REAL) has decided to compete in the February 9 vote despite the refusal of election officials to register party leader Natiq Jafarli as a candidate.
Jafarli's candidacy was rejected by the CEC on the grounds that criminal charges had been filed against him in 2016 for alleged illegal business practices.
It made no difference to election officials that prosecutors in 2017 dropped the criminal charges against Jafarli or that the European Court of Human Rights ruled in November 2019 that that the charges against him were politically motivated.
In December, Jafarli told a forum of leading opposition parties that there was no alternative to participation.
"A boycott is unlikely to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections," Jafarli told the gathering at Musavat's Baku headquarters.
"The authorities don't want people to go to the polls so that they can comfortably falsify the results," Jafarli alleged. "Therefore, we need to massively attract people to the elections."
The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, an online platform launched by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), says such situations are a "contradiction."
"The media are essential to democracy, and a democratic election is impossible without media," ACE says.
"A free and fair election is not only about the freedom to vote and the knowledge of how to cast a vote," ACE says. It is "also about a participatory process" in which "voters engage in public debate and have adequate information about parties, policies, candidates, and the election process itself in order to make informed choices."
"A democratic election with no media freedom, or stifled media freedom, would be a contradiction," it says.