August 18, 1999
To all who respect basic human rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression and the press, all who respect the rights of every person to due process, and all who are concerned about democratic development around the world:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in partnership with The Trade Union of Journalists of Azerbaijan (TUJO) and the International Press Institute (IPI) calls on the international community to support our campaign to overturn the unjust convictions of journalists and newspapers in Azerbaijan and to end the abuse of libel laws by Azerbaijani officials.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan became independent, and its people began to build a secular, democratic and open society, which included a multiparty political system and an independent press. However, the administration of President Heidar Aliyev has done much to reverse these trends.
Although the government caved in to domestic and international pressure by abolishing official censorship on August 6, 1998, Aliyev’s regime has found other ways to control and oppress independent media. Since the presidential elections in October 1998, close relatives of the President and high-ranking state officials have filed multiple lawsuits against leading newspapers and journalists. Consequently, many newspapers now face bankruptcy and closure while journalists face heavy fines and even imprisonment. This clampdown on the independent media is taking place in the run up to municipal elections on December 12.
The following is a list of newspaper and journalist trials:
- On October 1, 1998, Ramiz Mehdiyev, the head of the Presidential Administration, sued the daily Yeni Musavatfor allegedly insulting him by writing about his Armenian origin. He demanded 400 million manat (about US$102,000) in compensation. Without informing Yeni Musavat,the court found the newspaper guilty of insulting Mehdiyev and ordered it to pay him about 200 million manat (about US$51,000). On December 15, 1998, a Baku city court rejected an appeal by Yeni Musavatand upheld its decision that the paper should pay damages to Ramiz Mehdiyev and Nizami Qojayev.
- In early November, fourteen government officials filed a defamation suit against Azadliq, claiming the paper had insulted their honor and dignity by publishing details about their estates in foreign countries. They demanded that a criminal investigation be opened against Azadliqeditor Gunduz Tahirli, and demanded 1.8 billion manat (about US$460,000) in moral damages. On December 14, prosecutors agreed to indict Tahirli on criminal libel charges under Article 121 of the Criminal Code. At the same time, a Baku city court convicted him under civil insult statutes, ordering the newspaper to pay a fine of 500 million manat (about US$130,000).
- In an effort to protest the growing number of prosecutions and convictions of journalists, the editors of 20 leading newspaper went on hunger strike from November 18 to 28, 1998. Editors who took part included: Gunduz Tairli of Azadliq,Suleyman Osmanoglu of Mukhalifat,Yadigar Mamedli of Demokratik Azerbaycan,Aziz Rzabeyli of Bu Gün,Yashar Aliyev of 525-ci Gazet,Elchin Mirzabeyli of Vetendash Hemreyliyi, Zohrab Muxtarli of Millet,Shahveled Chobanoglu of Gunaydin,Mamed Afshan of Kendin Sesi,Azer Huseynbala of Khurriyet,Emin Eminbeyli of 7 Gün,Akif Ashirli of Sharq,Asif Marzili of Tezadlar,Shahbaz Khuduoglu of Ganun,Ibrahim Quliyev of Intibah,Mahir Samedov of Ulus,and Anar Ali Polad of Musteqil Gazet.On November 28, their deputy editors took over the hunger strike and continued it until December 4.
- On November 19, 1998, legislator Rza Ibadov filed a civil libel suit against the independent, pro-opposition newspaper Ulus,claiming the paper had damaged his honor by writing about his role in the violent breakup of an opposition rally held on November 8, 1998. He demanded compensation of 100 million manat (about US$26,000). The court awarded him half that amount.
- On December 15, 1998, the Sabayel District Court convicted the opposition newspapers Yeni Musavatand Azadliqof insulting the “honor and dignity” of President Heydar Aliyev, and fined each 150 million manat (about US$40,000) in moral damages. In addition, Sabina Avazqizi, a reporter for Yeni Musavat,and Boyukaga Agayev, a reporter for Azadliq,were fined 30 million manat (US$8,000) and 50 million manat (US$12,000), respectively.
- On December 15, 1998, an appeals court upheld a 20 million manat (US$5,000) fine against the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavatfor libeling Nizami Qojayev, head of the Investigative Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The articles in question, published on October 7 and 8, claimed that he was involved in plotting the assassination of Ziya Bunyadov, a member of parliament.
- That same month, three relatives of the President — Aqil, Jalal and Rasim Aliyev — pressed criminal charges against the Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Khurriyyetand Mukhalifatnewspapers for allegedly insulting the honor of their family by investigating the Armenian and Kurdish origins of President Aliyev. They demanded that, under Article 121 of the Criminal Code, state prosecutors indict the editors of the four newspapers and their reporters: Boyukaga Agayev and Zulfiyye Ahmedli of Azadliq, Qabil Abbasoglu of Yeni Musavat,and Sevda Rafiqqizi of Khurriyyet.On December 15, 1998, prosecutors complied with their request and launched a criminal investigation.
- condemning the criminal prosecution and abuse of civil libel statutes by government officials against newspapers and journalists in retaliation for practicing their profession.
- noting that these acts violate all the Azerbaijan government’s international obligations to guarantee press freedom.
- calling for the immediate revocation of Article 188-6/2 of the Criminal Code, which makes “insulting the honor of president” a criminal offense. This law flouts international legal norms which hold that public officials must tolerate higher levels of scrutiny and criticism than private individuals.
- calling for the immediate revocation of existing criminal defamation legislation (Article 121 of the Criminal Code). The Civil Code provides adequate recourse for anyone who feels wrongfully harmed by press coverage; jailing any journalist for his work violates all international norms of press freedom. Criminal defamation is an antiquated form of legislation that is now very rarely invoked in democratic countries. Using these laws against the press amounts to legal censorship by other means.
- stressing the need for proportionality in civil suits. If private individuals are able to prove in a court of law that they have been deliberately libeled and have suffered as a result, it is reasonable that they receive financial compensation proportionate to the harm done. It is clear that the exorbitant fines being handed out in Azerbaijan bear no relation to economic reality in that country. The massive sums awarded by Azerbaijani courts threaten the survival of local media and serve to stifle public debate by encouraging journalists to practice self-censorship as a form of survival.
- pointing out that some of this undue pressure is coming from the President’s close relatives, including his brothers Jalal and Aqil. All of the cases involve public officials or individuals close to the regime, suggesting their aim is to suppress journalistic investigation and silence criticism.
- strongly urging the President to condemn these unfair court decisions and use his authority to initiate much-needed legal reforms to eliminate criminal libel laws and end the abuse of civil libel legislation by government officials.
- further calling on the President to help ensure that journalists in Azerbaijan have the right to practice their profession freely and safely
SEND APPEALS TO:
His Excellency Heydar Aliyev
President of Azerbaijan
19 Istiglaliyat Street
Baku, Azerbaijan 370066
Fax: +-994 12 92 06 25
E-mail: [email protected]
Please copy appeals to the source if possible. For further information contact Azer H. Hasret at TUJO ([email protected]), Peter Goff at IPI ([email protected]), and Chrystyna Lapychak at CPJ ([email protected]).
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