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Azerbaijan 'Has Free Media, Doesn't Need World Press Day'

Azerbaijan's UN Ambassador Agshin Mehdiyev
Azerbaijan's UN Ambassador Agshin Mehdiyev
A ritual press conference at the UN produced some unexpected hilarity as journalists grilling the Azerbaijani ambassador on press censorship found out he didn't know that it was World Press Freedom Day.

Ambassador and current Security Council President Agshin Mehdiyev quickly covered up the gaffe, claiming that Azerbaijan doesn't need to mark World Press Day on May 3, due to its unrestricted media coverage.

A journalist at the briefing, where Mehdiyev was laying out the Security Council agenda for the month, asked if Azerbaijan was celebrating World Press Freedom Day.

After a pause, Deputy Permanent Representative Tofig Musayev jumped in: "We don't have any public holiday or any specific date celebrating it, but we know that, if there is a, if I'm not mistaken, there is an international day of freedom of expression...."

Several journalists said in unison, "It's today."

Musayev faltered, then said, "Oh. It's today, by the way. Sorry."

Mehdiyev jumped in: "Congratulations! As we have a free press we don't need to specify a day," he said, before having a good belly laugh.

On May 2, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Azerbaijan as a "runner-up" to their list of the 10 most heavily censored countries in the world.

The CPJ report states that Azerbaijan earned this status because "there are no foreign or independent broadcasters on the airwaves, and the few journalists who work on independent newspapers or websites are subject to intimidation tactics, including imprisonment on fabricated charges."

Mehdiyev told journalists he did not deny that some journalists were imprisoned, but claimed their reporting was not the crime.

"Let us not mix the freedom of expression with freedom of responsibility," he said. "They're different things. I believe that we don't have people imprisoned for their profession or their political views."

Mehdiyev added: "In prison, you know, there's hundreds of people. You can find anyone; engineer, journalist, [or] mechanic."

He also offered to give journalists links to online opposition and independent news sites in the country that are not subject to censorship. Local radio stations in Azerbaijan, however, are prohibited from rebroadcasting RFE/RL's reporting.

On April 17, Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev won the prestigious UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize. Press-freedom advocate Fatullayev was jailed in 2007 on charges of libel and terrorism, and later drug-related offenses. He was released last year.

Media rights groups condemned his arrest and accused the authorities of targeting the journalist, who was the editor of two newspapers critical of the government.

-- Courtney Brooks