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Sound Bites Aside, Baku Has Little To Celebrate This Press Freedom Day

Men read Azerbaijani newspapers in the town of Sheki. (file photo)
Men read Azerbaijani newspapers in the town of Sheki. (file photo)
"Half the truth is often a great lie."
-- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac"

The Azerbaijani presidential administration's Ali Hasanov had a saucy sound bite ready as World Press Freedom Day rolled around.

Speaking at an event devoted to the annual global effort to highlight the importance of the so-called fourth estate, Hasanov asserted that "no media outlet [in Azerbaijan] can claim its activity is restricted," according to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.

If by "no media outlet" Hasanov meant "virtually no media outlet still standing," he might have a point.

Authorities in Baku have presided over a period that has been particularly harsh on free media, even by the Aliyev dynasty's miserable standards.

Traditional media outlets have repeatedly been shuttered; their journalists jailed, beaten, or otherwise persecuted; and their coverage hampered of even the most seemingly innocuous of demonstrations. Digital media have generally operated with slightly fewer constraints, but not for lack of trying by authorities who are quick to engage in mass roundups or to target individuals brazen enough to speak out.

Azerbaijan placed 156th this year on Reporters Without Borders' touchstone Press Freedom Index.

The same group warned in November of precisely the kind of media spotlight that Hasanov was unwittingly shining, referencing the newspaper "Azadliq," one of the last major bastions of domestic dissent in Azerbaijan. That paper and its website have been targeted extensively:

“Most of the opposition newspapers in Azerbaijan have been closed, one after another. Broadcast outlets are totally controlled by the authorities. In these circumstances, the closure of ['Azadliq'] would be a fatal blow for media pluralism in Azerbaijan. Such a prospect is unimaginable.”

Hasanov didn't bother to ask anyone at "Azadliq" whether or not they are being "restricted." Editor Ganimat Zahid's comments to Reporters Without Borders suggest it might be quicker to ask how that paper's journalists (and readers) have not been harassed:

"I don’t think a single one of our colleagues has escaped pressure of one sort or another from the authorities. They have been kidnapped, assaulted, arrested, threatened and blackmailed.... They can expect all the weapons of a classic authoritarian regime to be used against them.

On a less extreme level, you even see police officers insulting readers who buy [Azadliq]. This is a symptom of the hostile attitude towards our journalists and freedom of expression in general. Our website is regularly hacked, and we are in no doubt that the secret services are behind it. The attacks always occur after the publication of items that are particularly sensitive for the government, such as cases of corruption, or examples showing there is no rule of law in the country. However, we carry on working, come what may."

Just recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the "Azerbaijani judicial system's determination to bankrupt the country's main opposition daily, ['Azadliq,'] by ordering it to pay exorbitant damages in libel cases."

The watchdog said a roughly 30,000-euro libel award was among the recent judicial decisions targeting "Azadliq" that threatened the paper's existence.

"Azadliq" and RSF suggested authorities were negligent at best -- and complicit at worst, given that the paper alleged an attack came via an IP address within the Communications and IT Ministry -- amid continuing attacks on the "Azadliq" website.

It's not just RSF or RFE/RL's award-winning investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova highlighting strictures on free media in Azerbaijan, of course.

Amnesty International has faulted Baku's government for its disregard of recommendations on free expression and assembly, among other things:

Journalists have been beaten, ill-treated and abducted, while a range of independent media outlets has been curbed through laws banning foreign broadcasters from national airwaves. Additionally, the government has begun cracking down on dissent on the Internet and in social media forums. Bloggers and youth activists have been harassed and imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

And on May 2, the OSCE's media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, criticized Baku for its failure to abide by its commitments to decriminalize defamation.

And with a presidential election slated for October, it's tempting to believe that things will get worse before they get better.

So it's easy to see what President Ilham Aliyev and his administration were celebrating. But it probably wasn't the same thing that the founders of World Press Freedom Day had in mind.

-- Andy Heil

About This Blog

"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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