Media on strike to protest government crackdown

August 24, 2000

His Excellency Heidar Aliyev
President of Azerbaijan
19 Istiglaliyat Street
Baku, Azerbaijan 370066
VIA FAX: 011-994-12-920-625

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by the illegal arrests of Rauf Arifoglu and Etibar Djebrayiloglu, respectively editor-in-chief and special correspondent of the opposition daily Yeni Musavat, and by the illegal banning of the independent newspaper Uch Noqte. We fear that these and other incidents constitute an organized government campaign to stifle independent journalism in Azerbaijan during the run-up to the November 5 parliamentary elections.

On August 22, Arifoglu was summoned to the prosecutor’s office for questioning in connection with an attempted airplane hijacking four days earlier in Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave located between Armenia and Turkey. The hijacker, a member of the opposition party Musavat, called Arifoglu from the plane to dictate his demands, which he wanted the editor to publish in the party’s newspaper, Yeni Musavat.

Arifoglu immediately notified the police, offering to turn over his tape recording of the hijacker’s demands. The prosecutor’s office, however, has tried to make the unlikely case that Arifoglu helped plan the hijacking. Officials interrogated the editor for four hours, and then escorted him to his apartment, where they searched the premises. Arifoglu’s lawyer was not allowed to be present during the search.

Claiming to have found a gun in the apartment, the agents then arrested Arifoglu for illegal possession of arms. The editor maintains that the investigators planted the gun in order to frame him.

Several of Arifoglu’s colleagues gathered outside his apartment building while the search was going on. Plainclothes agents attacked journalists Elchin Hasanov and Ilyas Bahmangolu of the independent television station ANS, roughing them up and confiscating their equipment.

Arifoglu was taken away to detention at the Ministry for National Security, along with his personal aide and driver Elchin Kelenterli, who has since been released. While authorities soon dropped the accusation of illegal arms possession, the prosecutor’s office still claims that Arifoglu helped plan the hijacking. The editor remains in solitary confinement at the ministry. He is refusing to cooperate with investigators and has launched a hunger strike, according to his lawyer.

Two days before Arifoglu’s arrest, Yeni Musavat reporter Etibar Djebrayiloglu disappeared in Nakhchivan, where he had been sent to report on the attempted hijacking. The newspaper’s deputy editor, Shirzad Mamedli, told the ANS news agency that Djebrayiloglu was last in touch with the office at around one p.m. on August 20, after which his mobile phone was apparently shut down. The Nakhchivan police department claimed to have no knowledge of Djebrayiloglu’s whereabouts. But when Djebrayiloglu surfaced on August 23, he reported that he had been in police custody.

In a separate incident, on August 18, a Baku court granted Minister for Press and Information Siruz Tabrizli’s petition to ban printing and distribution of the independent tri-weekly newspaper Uch Noqte. The court’s decision was reportedly based on a new law, adopted on February 13 of this year, which stipulates that a media outlet that loses three lawsuits within twelve months can be shut down. However, local sources informed CPJ that this law should not have been applied to Uch Noqte, which has lost only one case since the new law came into effect.

On August 24, Azerbaijan’s main independent media organizations–including three news agencies, twenty-four newspapers, one magazine, and five press associations–went on a three-day strike to protest Arifoglu’s arrest and other recent attacks on press freedom. They are issuing a joint newspaper devoted to press-freedom issues, and have announced that they will launch a collective hunger strike if the authorities do not release Arifoglu forthwith and cease harassing the independent press.

As a nonpartisan organization of journalists devoted to defending the rights of our colleagues around the world, CPJ demands the immediate release of Arifoglu. We also urge you to ensure that the illegal ban on Uch Noqte is revoked and that the paper is allowed to resume publication without further harassment. Finally, we call on Your Excellency to create an atmosphere in which all journalists in Azerbaijan may cover the news without interference from the government.

Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We await your reply.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director