CPJ urges Azerbaijan to halt its crackdown on the press

March 12, 2013

Ilham Aliyev
President of Azerbaijan
The President Palace
Istiglaliyyat street, 19,
Baku, Azerbaijan
Sent via facsimile + 994 12 492 3543, 994 12 492 0625
E-mail: office@pa.gov.az

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to bring to your attention the deteriorating climate of press freedom in Azerbaijan, which undermines your government's commitments to press freedom and human rights, mars the country's international image, and obstructs the transparency of the upcoming October presidential vote in which you reportedly plan to seek re-election. We call on you to start reversing this trend and allow the press to report freely without fear of imprisonment, attacks, or politicized lawsuits.

You and officials in your administration have publicly said that Azerbaijan is a democratic country where citizens' rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the state. You have also frequently denounced attacks against the press and denied that journalists are being jailed. However, CPJ research shows exactly the opposite--that the climate of press freedom in your country is much worse than the one you and your officials have portrayed.

The government continues to jail critical reporters, prosecutors fail to investigate attacks against journalists, and courts order independent news outlets to pay exorbitant fines on defamation charges. Legislators are also seeking to restrict international funding of local NGOs and are working to curb free expression on the Internet. Our research shows that this crackdown began a year ago, when Baku was on the verge of hosting two high-profile international events: the Eurovision song contest, and the U.N.-sponsored Internet Governance Forum, in which media experts and government officials met to discuss policy issues concerning the flow of information on the Web.

Despite facing international pressure, authorities continue to imprison journalists who reported on government corruption and human rights abuses. The nine journalists languishing in jail include editors Avaz Zeynally, Hilal Mamedov, Araz Guliyev, and Nijat Aliyev; media directors Vugar Gonagov and Zaur Guliyev; and journalists Fuad Huseynov, Faramaz Novruzoglu (Allahverdiyev), and Tofiq Yaqublu. By jailing these journalists--most of whom face politicized charges varying from drug possession and hooliganism to extortion and treason--Azerbaijan became the second leading jailer of journalists in the region, according to CPJ's prison census conducted on December 1, 2012.

While an Azeri court sentenced Zeynally to nine years in prison today, another prominent editor faces a jail term at the hands of your government officials. Genimet Zakhidov, editor of the opposition daily Azadlyg, faces defamation charges filed by two officials in connection with an article published in Azadlyg earlier this month. The article alleged that the ministers supported two opposing factions within your administration and were in conflict with each other. Zakhidov has been targeted for his journalism in the past. In 2008, he was sentenced to four years in prison and served more than half the term before being issued a presidential pardon.

This attack against Zakhidov coincides with the harassment that his paper has faced. In recent months, several courts in Azerbaijan have ordered Azadlyg to pay a total of 62,000 manat (about US$79,000) in damages for defamation to local officials, the Baku-based Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) reported. Another prominent opposition daily, Yeni Musavat, faces a similar lawsuit, filed by a state-affiliated steel company that is suing for libel and demanding 1 million manat (about US$ 1,275,000) in damages, IRFS reported.

The lack of prosecution against attacks on journalists has also been an issue under your leadership. One investigative reporter was the victim of a smear campaign and at least seven journalists were attacked with impunity in 2012, which cast a chilling effect on all government critics. The violence against journalists continued this year: Rashad Rustamov, a reporter for the independent Zerkalo, told IRFS that he was attacked and beaten by city officials while reporting in the Dashkesan region on March 2.

New legislation is also being developed that CPJ believes will curb free expression on the Internet and obstruct and threaten the work of local press freedom groups. News accounts reported that last month parliament approved legislation requiring nongovernmental organizations, including IRFS, to inform authorities about receiving funds of above 200 manat (about US$250) and requiring the organizations to sign a formal contract with donors. IRFS reported that the failure of the NGOs to meet these requirements would lead to exorbitant fines and confiscation of property.

IRFS said that legislators in Azerbaijan are seeking to censor online content under the pretext of protecting children from harmful content, including pornography. The organization noted, however, that the government already has such legal instruments in place, and that there was no need for further restrictions that could limit online freedom of expression. IRFS also said that it is concerned that a commission under the state-run National Press Council will be used to blacklist and block critical independent news outlets instead of reviewing public complaints and probing hacking attacks.

President Aliyev, these violations taint your country's international image and put Azerbaijan among the world's worst offenders of press freedom, according to CPJ research. If left unaddressed, these restrictions will soon leave the citizens of Azerbaijan without access to uncensored news of domestic issues, including coverage of the upcoming presidential elections. We ask that you use the power of your office to release the nine journalists jailed in Azerbaijan and ensure all attacks on journalists are investigated. We also urge you to drop politicized lawsuits against critical news outlets and to veto any bills that impose further restrictions on the Internet or the local press.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director


CC:

Elin Suleymanov, Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the U.S.

Richard L. Morningstar, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan

Elmar Mammadyarov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan

Uzra Zeya, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Ramil Usubov, Minister of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan

Zakir Qaralov, Prosecutor General of Azerbaijan

Philip H. Gordon, Assistant Secretary, European and Eurasian Affairs

Christopher H. Smith, Co-Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Nils Mui┼żnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General

Navanethem Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

Baroness Catherine Ashton, EU External Relations Commissioner

Barbara Lochbihler, Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament

March 12, 2013 5:39 PM ET |

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