Azerbaijani press groups have proposed that August 6, 1998, the day that censorship was officially abolished, be declared Press Freedom Day. The move may be premature. While conditions have improved notably since then, journalists still must contend with lawsuits and threats of violence.
The 1998 presidential decree that abolished censorship also dismantled Glavlit, the Soviet-era agency that was responsible for censoring local media. But it failed to quell President Heidar Aliyev’s autocratic impulses toward the independent press. Although the government refrained from overt pressure on critical media during Aliyev’s reelection campaign in the fall of 1998, bureaucratic harassment and violent attacks against journalists resumed as soon as Aliyev’s victory was secure and the election results were deemed valid.
From November 1998 through mid-1999, prosecutors pursued dozens of criminal-libel suits against journalists, primarily those working for opposition news media. Officials also filed dozens of civil- defamation suits aimed at bankrupting opposition newspapers. The regime’s most effective tool against media critics is Article 188-6 of the penal code, which calls for up to six years’ imprisonment as a penalty for “insulting the honor and dignity of the president.” Although the provision was rarely enforced in the days of official state censorship, it was deployed in 1999 against opposition leader Ashraf Mehdiyev, who claimed that Aliyev was of Kurdish rather than Azeri descent. Mehdiyev’s trial has repeatedly been delayed, and no date had been set at year’s end. Journalists fear that the same article used to prosecute Mehdiyev will soon be used against them.
Journalists were also prosecuted under Articles 121 and 122 of the penal code, which impose jail terms for libel or “insulting the honor and dignity” of any individual. While no journalists were jailed for libel last year, several received suspended sentences for allegedly offending public officials or relatives of the president.
The lawsuits and criminal prosecutions were followed in the summer by a series of violent attacks against journalists investigating stories about the president, his family, or his close political and business associates. On June 30, Kamil Tagisoy, a correspondent for the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, was abducted, beaten, and threatened for a series of articles that he had published about the state of President Aliyev’s health. The attacks showed that while such stories are no longer quashed by state censors, they are still off-limits to the press.
In June, Parliament debated a draft media law whose multiple restrictions constituted a virtual return to the Glavlit censorship system. During the debate over the bill, government officials and lawmakers loyal to the regime displayed open hostility toward the press, condemning the work of independent and opposition journalists. Although legislators withdrew the bill’s most flagrant provisions, the version that they passed on December 9 institutionalizes the onerous broadcast licensing regulations that had been used throughout the year to hinder the work of independent television and radio stations. In October, the government used these regulations to shut down Sara TV, an independent station.
Elman Maliyev, Shans ATTACKED
Maliyev, at the time a reporter with the opposition newspaper Shans, was assaulted at his home by two unknown men who identified themselves as policemen. Although Maliyev was not hospitalized, he was severely beaten and suffered cuts and bruises. The assailants said they were punishing him for his work. Maliyev believes that the attack was prompted by a series of reports that he published about organized crime in Azerbaijan in the opposition newspaper Hurriyet.
According to the Turan news agency, the Narimanov district police department of Baku investigated the case but was unable to identify Maliyev’s assailants.
Kamil Tagisoy, Yeni Musavat ATTACKED
Three masked individuals abducted Tagisoy, a journalist with the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, and beat him severely. He was released an hour later. Tagisoy’s assailants said they worked for the National Security Ministry. They ordered the journalist to stop writing articles about President Heidar Aliyev’s failing health.
Mirjavid Rahim, Uch Noqte ATTACKED
Three unidentified men assaulted Rahim, a reporter with the Baku daily Uch Noqte, outside the Supreme Court in Baku, where he had gone to cover the high-profile trial of Baku banker Bashir Hajiyev, the former head of a local branch of the Russian Prominvestbank, who was accused of embezzling 100 billion manats (about US$40 million) from the bank.
When Rahim arrived at the courthouse at 10 a.m., he learned that the trial had been delayed. As he waited outside the courthouse, an unknown man approached him and asked whether he had agreed to meet “certain demands.” Rahim immediately recalled an incident from the previous week, when another unidentified man had approached him and demanded that he implicate a local government official as an accomplice in the Hajiyev case. This recollection prompted Rahim to attempt flight. But before he could make good his escape, two more men joined the first, and the trio assaulted him.
Rahim suffered minor cuts and abrasions but decided not seek medical attention. Instead, he returned to the offices of Uch Noqte, where he and his editor called a news conference to denounce the assault along with other recent attacks on journalists in Azerbaijan. CPJ echoed this denunciation in an August 6 protest letter to President Heidar Aliyev.
Irada Husseinova, Bakinsky Bulevar LEGAL ACTION
Husseinova, a journalist with the newspaper Bakinsky Bulevar, was convicted of libel and “insulting the honor and dignity” of President Heidar Aliyev’s brother, Jalal Aliyev. She was sentenced to a one-year suspended jail term under Articles 121 and 122 of the Azerbaijani criminal code.
Husseinova was charged because of a December 21, 1998, article in which she characterized Aliyev as the “king of the oil industry.”
Her trial began in the Nasimsky district court on July 22 but was delayed after Bakinsky Bulevar‘s editor Elmar Husseinov (no relation) petitioned the general prosecutor’s office to replace the presiding judge on the grounds that he did not know enough Russian to understand the article. The trial resumed on September 6, after a new judge was assigned.
Sara TV CENSORED
Sara TV staff ATTACKED
Joined by officials from the Baku city prosecutor’s office, the Baku and Yasamal district police departments, and the Interior Ministry, some 15 police officers raided the offices of Sara TV, a local broadcast outlet. The authorities shut down the station and ordered all staff to evacuate the office immediately.
The station was raided the morning after it broadcast an interview with Nizami Suleymanov, an opposition leader and chairman of the Independent Azerbaijan Party. During the interview, Suleymanov called on the public to take part in an anti-government demonstration.
Later that day, the Interior Ministry revoked Sara TV’s registration on the grounds that its foreign-ownership status violated Azerbaijani law. In addition, ministry officials claimed that Sara TV had violated its broadcast agreement by televising political programs rather than confining itself to cultural and entertainment broadcasts. A number of staff were injured during the subsequent forced eviction by the police, including one pregnant employee, who had to be hospitalized.
Sara TV chief Rasul Rauf told CPJ that according to Azerbaijani law, the decision to revoke a broadcasting license can be taken only by a court. He argued that there were no apparent legal grounds for revoking Sara TV’s license, as the station had legally registered with the Ministry of Press and Information in 1994 and is owned by Azerbaijani representatives of the Turkey-based network ICBC Television.
Even after closing the station, Azerbaijan authorities kept up the pressure. On October 19, a Baku city court fined Sara TV 250 million manats (US$58,000) for insulting the “honor and dignity” of Husein Huseynov, head of the Azerbaijani Motor Transport Agency and a close associate of President Heidar Aliyev’s family. Sara TV had implicated Huseynov in a corruption scandal during two broadcasts on October 1Ð2.
On October 19, a number of station employees went on a hunger strike to protest the government’s aggressive campaign against the station. Since then, an appeals court has twice postponed a review of the case. The most recent hearing was scheduled for December 24; it was postponed after Justice Ministry officials failed to appear. No date was given for the next hearing. Rauf believes that the government is deliberately delaying the process because its case is weak.
CPJ protested the station’s closure in an October 29 letter to President Heidar Aliyev.
All media LEGAL ACTION
Parliament adopted a new media law that severely restricts press freedom in Azerbaijan. The vote came just 16 months after President Heidar Aliyev formally abolished political censorship.
Although the new law forbids censorship, it outlines several provisions that limit the internationally recognized right of journalists to practice their profession. The legislation does the following:
- Orders all existing news media to register with the Ministry of Justice rather than the Ministry of Press and Information, while it offers no recourse for outlets denied registration on political grounds.
- Empowers a new, as yet unnamed executive-branch agency to distribute broadcast licenses, with authority to shut down broadcasters charged with violating broadcast regulations. The broadcasters, meanwhile, have been stripped of their right of appeal through the courts.
- Enables officials to file suits against journalists whose work they find “insults the honor and dignity of the state and the Azerbaijani people” or is “contrary to the national interest.”
- Gives government agencies broad leeway to decide which journalists will be allowed to cover official events, opening the accreditation process to politically motivated abuse and manipulation.
CPJ protested the new media law in a December 15 letter to President Aliyev.