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Press freedom at low as Azerbaijan takes Council of Europe chairmanship

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On Wednesday, Azerbaijan will assume chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers. The chairmanship process is automatic; the position is rotated every six months among all of the council's members, in alphabetical order. But Azerbaijan's chairmanship has proven more problematic than most, as it comes at a time when the country's fulfillment of its Council of Europe obligations is at its worst.

Among the Council of Europe's core values are democracy and human rights, and its members are expected to promote and protect these values, including freedom of expression. But the climate for freedom of expression--along with human rights more broadly--has been steadily deteriorating for many years, as the Azerbaijani authorities have worked to silence all forms of criticism and dissent.

At present, there are a staggering 10 cases of journalists in detention or prison on politically motivated charges in Azerbaijan: Sardar Alibayli; Nijat Aliyev; Araz Guliyev; Parviz Hashimli; Fuad Huseynov; Hilal Mammadov; Rauf Mirkadirov; Faramaz Novruzoglu; Tofig Yagublu; and Avaz Zeynalli. [CPJ has confirmed that nine journalists are in jail in direct relation to their work].

In addition, there are currently five bloggers behind bars, and at least eight imprisoned youth activists seem to have been targeted in part for their online activities.

But politically motivated arrest and imprisonment is just one of many threats faced by independent journalists, media workers, and bloggers in Azerbaijan. Those who pursue stories related to risky topics such as corruption and human rights abuses, or publish articles perceived to be critical of the authorities, face a range of other pressures, including harassment, threats, intimidation, blackmail, and violent attacks.

Since the March 2005 murder of Monitor magazine editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov, there have been reports of hundreds of cases of violent attacks against journalists in Azerbaijan, including another murder, of journalist and writer Rafig Tagi in November 2011. As recently as April 25, opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper reporter Farahim Ilgaroglu was attacked outside his apartment building in Baku by an unknown assailant. Virtually none of these cases has been adequately investigated, and the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.

Despite the government's pledge to decriminalize defamation by the end of 2012 in its National Human Rights Action Plan, defamation remains a criminal offense in Azerbaijan. In May 2013, parliament adopted legislation extending criminal defamation provisions to online content, which was signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev and took effect in July 2013. As a result, Azerbaijanis now face potential jail time of up to three years for things they post online.

The state controls the country's broadcast media, through either direct ownership or other means of influence. Since 2009, foreign broadcasters have been barred from accessing national frequencies, a move which took the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Voice of America off the air, eliminating the only independent news sources for many Azerbaijanis. In 2013, there were reports that the satellite broadcasts of RFE/RL, Meydan TV, and Azerbaycan Saati ("Azerbaijan hour") into Azerbaijan were jammed--a practice prohibited by the International Telecommunications Union.

Although a handful of independent voices remain among Azerbaijan's print media, they are struggling for survival. The state controls many of the country's printing and distribution facilities, and many companies decline to advertise in critical newspapers. Civil defamation lawsuits are used excessively against critical newspapers, with many cases being filed by public officials and their supporters. These lawsuits serve to hamstring the operations of the targeted publications, not least of all because of the excessively high fines imposed in the court rulings. Azadliq newspaper has been a particular target, and as a result has been teetering on the brink of closure since last year.

The combined result of all of these practices is a climate of fear for the media community and impunity for those who wish to silence critical voices. Self-censorship is pervasive, with increasingly few journalists and bloggers willing to explore risky topics and report critically.

The Council of Europe has voiced concern over these serious problems, in numerous resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, decisions of the Committee of Ministers, and reports and statements by the Commissioner for Human Rights. Most recently, on April 23, the Commissioner issued observations calling for urgent attention by the Azerbaijani authorities to violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, as well as property rights.

But this concern has gone unheeded, and the many sets of recommendations have been ignored. For its part, the Council of Europe has systematically failed to ensure Azerbaijan's implementation of its obligations as a member state. Now, with Azerbaijan at its helm, it is more critical than ever for the Council of Europe to take action to hold the country accountable, or risk facing a bigger blow to its legitimacy than perhaps ever before.

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