The head of Azerbaijan's Turan news agency says the authorities have frozen all of the outlet's bank accounts amid a criminal tax probe that rights groups call part of a broader crackdown on independent media and critical voices.
Mehman Aliyev told RFE/RL on August 18 that the news agency's accounts were frozen two days earlier, the same day that tax officials raided its office in Baku, confiscating financial documents and checking the personal belongings of its employees.
"All of Turan's accounts were frozen on the day of the raid," Aliyev said. "Technically, it means that whatever money Turan receives for its services will be confiscated."
He added that the move puts the agency at risk of closing down. Turan publishes reports in Azeri, English, and Russian, and cooperates with leading international news agencies.
Officials launched a tax-evasion investigation into Turan on August 7. Investigators allege that the agency owes 37,000 manats ($21,500) in taxes for 2014-16.
The editors of Turan, which was established in 1990, deny the allegation and say the probe is politically motivated.
Western governments and international rights watchdogs have criticized Baku for clamping down on independent media outlets, journalists, and opposition politicians and activists.
President Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled the oil-producing South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before his father's death in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.
Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the investigation into Turan "the latest in a vicious crackdown on critical media in the country."
"Using bogus tax-related charges to jail critical journalists is nothing new for Azerbaijan," Gogia wrote on August 17.
The New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) the same day said Baku "has repeatedly used politically motivated criminal charges as a weapon to silence independent and opposition media."
"We call on Azerbaijani authorities to drop the politically motivated investigation into Turan news agency and to stop trying to intimidate independent journalists with legal harassment," Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.
Last week, the Paris-based media-rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned "the Azerbaijani government's use of tax-evasion allegations to harass" Turan, which it said was "the last independent media outlet still operating within the country."
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.