Although President Heydar Aliyev claimed to be the “guarantor of freedom of speech and the press in Azerbaijan,” his government continued to crack down on independent and opposition media while suppressing public criticism. Journalists who dared to criticize officials suffered harassment, defamation lawsuits, imprisonment, and physical assaults. Publications faced financial pressure and closures, as well as more indirect forms of censorship.
Meanwhile, the pan-European intergovernmental human rights organization Council of Europe, which admitted Azerbaijan last year, vocally criticized the country’s sluggish democratization and restrictive media policies.
In June, President Aliyev issued a decree requiring the press to print exclusively in the Latin script by August 1, a move intended to reduce the dominance of the Russian language in Azerbaijan. (Josef Stalin imposed the Russian-derived Cyrillic script on Azerbaijan in 1939. Since then, most Azeri-language newspapers in the country have been printed in Cyrillic.)
The circulation of some newspapers and magazines dropped after the decree because many older readers are not accustomed to the Latin script. That reduction hurt independent publications, which rely heavily on newsstand sales.
In August, when the independent weekly Impuls defied the decree and continued to publish in Cyrillic, the government pressured the paper’s printer to block the issue, and the Baku prosecutor’s office issued a warning to Impuls‘ owner. The newspaper has since ceased publication.
In August, Baku’s Narimanov District Court closed two independent weeklies for allegedly defaming government officials. The court then found several editors and reporters guilty of defamation, and jailed two of them. CPJ protested the imprisonment of Milletin Sesi editor-in-chief Shahbaz Khuduoglu and Bakinsky Bulvar founder Elmar Huseynov in an October 16 letter to President Aliyev. On October 17, Aliyev signed a pardon releasing the two in honor of the 10th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence. The pardon did not reverse the guilty verdicts against the journalists, however, and both Bakinsky Bulvar and Milletin Sesi remain closed.
In November, officials accused the opposition dailies Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, and Hurriyyet of “undermining Azerbaijan’s statehood.” Subsequently, a number of printing houses refused to print those publications.
On December 12, picketers gathered in the center of Baku to protest state harassment of the three newspapers, according to Azer Hasret, chairman of the Journalists’ Trade Union. More than 20 journalists were injured when police violently dispersed the rally.
A domestic and internatinal uproar ensued. A few days later, President Aliyev met with journalists and pledged government support for independent and opposition media outlets. Aliyev subsequently ordered the state publishing house to institute a one-year moratorium on collecting debts owed by independent publications.
On December 27, Aliyev instructed the Cabinet of Ministers and his executive staff to implement assistance measures for independent and opposition media outlets. The measures include financial subsidies, support for the development of private publishing companies, and assurances that the state publishing house will print non-state publications. The president also asked the prosecutor general to investigate cases of journalists allegedly persecuted because of their work and to punish the offenders. However, the order did not specify implementation deadlines.
Throughout the year, officials tried to close the independent distribution company Gaya. Authorities claimed that Gaya lacked proper documentation and that its kiosks did not meet the government’s aesthetic standards. In reality, authorities were trying to monopolize printed press distribution. At the end of the year, the company’s representatives appealed to Baku officials to allow Gaya to distribute without further harassment.
In January and February, authorities closed the regional television stations DMR TV, Mingechevir TV, Khayal TV, and Gutb TV, which had been operating unlicensed for years because the government had repeatedly denied their applications for no reason. On February 6, officials announced that the stations would be allowed to reopen, and they resumed broadcasting by the end of February.
Extensive international pressure finally prompted President Aliyev to order that broadcast licenses be awarded to regional television stations. On December 21, accordingly, the Cabinet of Ministers Frequencies Committee finally awarded licenses to five regional stations: Khayal TV, Gutb TV, Aygun TV, Mingechevir TV, and Dunya TV.
In December, parliament considered a draft Law on Mass Media that drew fierce international and domestic criticism. Articles 19, 27, and 50 would have allowed officials to close media outlets if the courts order publications to retract stories three times in one year. The articles also empowered authorities to ban media outlets that “undermine Azerbaijan’s statehood” and to annul the accreditation of journalists who distribute “inaccurate information.”
After strong objections from the Council of Europe, the contentious sections of the law were removed, according to local press reports. At the end of December, parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Mass Media that excluded articles 19, 27, and 50. In part, the amended law lifted restrictions on the sources of a media outlet’s funding and abolished current registration procedures. In addition, journalists can only be forced to disclose their sources to protect public health, prevent grave crimes, or exonerate persons charged with grave crimes.
Despite this small legislative victory, the government demonstrates a visceral hatred of the press. In a December speech, President Aliyev’s brother, Jalal Aliyev, railed that the media “are enemies. Nowhere can you find such enemies to a nation as in this nation…”
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Acting on the orders of a Baku court, tax police conducted a 12-hour search of the independent station ABA TV’s offices to gather evidence for a criminal case that could result in a five-year ban on the station and a three-year jail term for its director.
The raid was the latest chapter in a financial dispute between ABA TV and the government. In October 2000, the station was shut down for two weeks after the Ministry of Communications claimed the station owed money to the state.
ABA president Fariq Zulfuqarov denied charges that his company owed billions of manats and claimed the police found no evidence of wrongdoing in ABA TV’s account books. He said that by revealing information about an ongoing investigation to the media, the authorities had violated the Criminal Procedural Code and slandered his company.
The investigation was ongoing at year’s end. Meanwhile, ABA TV remained closed.
Authorities closed DMR TV, the only independent source of local news in the town of Balakan, northwest Azerbaijan, for nearly six weeks under the pretext that the station was not properly licensed.
On the morning of January 8, police and a tax official detained DMR TV president Mustafa Dibirov and took him to a police station. Dibirov was forced to write a letter promising to keep his station off the air until he received an official government license. The letter also specified that failure to keep his promise would lead to criminal charges.
Like most regional stations in Azerbaijan, DMR TV’s license applications have been repeatedly denied. As a result, the station has been operating without a license for 10 years.
On February 6, Azeri officials announced that DMR TV and three other regional television stations closed in the previous month would be allowed to reopen immediately. DMR TV resumed broadcasting on February 18.
Vahid Mamedov, president of Mingechevir TV, an independent station based in the town of Mingechevir, shut down the station after the local police chief threatened to prosecute him for broadcasting without a license.
Major Tahir Badalov allegedly acted on orders from the State Radio Frequencies Commission and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Like many other regional independent broadcasters, Mingechevir TV had repeatedly applied for a broadcast license but was refused by authorities.
On February 6, Azeri officials announced that Mingechevir TV and three other regional stations that had been closed in the previous month would be allowed to reopen immediately. The station resumed broadcasting on February 15.
The provincial stations Gutb TV and Khayal TV were closed for about two weeks by a local governor, who said he was acting on orders from officials in the capital, Baku.
Governor Mehman Ibrahimov later justified his action by claiming that neither station was properly licensed, Internews Azerbaijan reported.
Gutb TV president Mahir Orujiev later announced that Governor Ibrahimov had told him on February 14 that the station was being shut down because authorities in Baku did not want more than one television station broadcasting per region.
Like many other regional independent stations in Azerbaijan, Gutb TV and Khayal TV had applied repeatedly for broadcast licenses. In each case, local authorities cited a lack of available frequencies as an excuse to reject the application, even though all the stations operate in rural areas where they compete only with state television.
Khayal TV resumed broadcasting on February 19. Gubt TV was back on the air by February 21.
Namik Ibrahimov, Ekho
Ibrahimov, a reporter for the independent daily Ekho, was attacked by a half-dozen police officers while covering a police raid on an unauthorized street market in Baku.
When Ibrahimov started taking pictures of the raid, the officers kicked him and beat him with their police batons, damaging his camera in the process. Ibrahimov was taken to a police car and then released soon afterwards on the orders of a senior police officer.
Idrak Abbasov, Impuls
Police attacked and beat Abbasov, a reporter with the newspaper Impuls, when he attempted to photograph them closing down a newspaper kiosk owned by Gaya, the company that distributes the publication. He was detained at a police station for several hours, and then released.
The police also assaulted Gaya’s deputy director, who, along with other employees, was trying to stop them from closing the kiosk.
Heydar Oguz, Hurriyyet
Jasur Mammedov, Hurriyyet
Suleyman Mammedli, Hurriyyet
Police attacked and arrested Oguz and Mammedov, reporters with the thrice-weekly Baku newspaper Hurriyyet, while the journalists were covering an illegal protest rally by the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the deputy chief of the Baku Senior Police Department assaulted Mammedli, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, according to local sources.
A group of police officers attacked and beat Oguz and Mammedov before they had a chance to show their press credentials. The reporters were then taken to a police station, where Oguz was sentenced to seven days in prison and Mammedov was sentenced to 12 days. Both were released on April 28.
Idrak Abbasov, Impuls
Suleyman Mammedli, Hurriyyet
Seymur Verdizade, Bu Gun
Aybeniz Velikhanli, Milletin Sesi
Parvin Sadai, Milletin Sesi
Rahim Qadimov, 525-ci Qezet
Rasim Mustafaoglu, Hurriyyet
Seven journalists were beaten by uniformed police and individuals in civilian clothing while covering an opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) rally in the capital, Baku.
A DPA report on the incident alleged that the plainclothes attackers were members of the police, the national security service, and a private security firm called Amay.
Abbasov, a reporter with the newspaper Impuls, was assaulted when he tried to photograph the police beating women DPA members. His camera was confiscated and broken. Later that day, the journalist was hospitalized with head injuries.
Mammedli, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Hurriyyet; Verdizade, a reporter with the newspaper Bu Gun; Velikhanli and Sadai, reporters with the newspaper Milletin Sesi; Qadimov, a reporter with the newspaper 525-ci Qezet; and Mustafaoglu, editor of the newspaper Hurriyyet, were also assaulted during the demonstration.
According to CPJ sources in Baku, police detained Mammedli after attacking him. Verdizade and Sadai’s tape recorders were confiscated, as was Mustafaoglus’ press card.
Yaqub Abbasov, Ulus
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Surkhay Qojayev, Ulus
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Abbasov and Qojayev, founder and deputy editor, respectively, of the independent newspaper Ulus, were detained and charged with hooliganism, according to local reports.
The charges came after former Ulus contributor Aybeniz Ilqar filed a complaint claiming that Abbasov, Qojayev, and and a member of the opposition Democratic Party, with which the paper is allied, physically assaulted her when she came to the Ulus offices on July 5 to have Abbasov stamp her work documents, local sources reported.
The journalists claim they were framed in order to suppress their independent publication, which often criticized the government, and because of their affiliation with the Democratic Party.
On July 15, the Sabayil District Court ordered the two journalists jailed for three months pending trial. However, they were detained until December 6, when the Sabayil District Court in Baku found them guilty but ordered them released. Abbasov was given a suspended prison term of 14 months, while Qojayev was given a suspended sentence of one year.
The independent Baku station ABA Television closed its doors, apparently under government pressure. Tax Ministry officials then confiscated some of the station’s equipment.
For several months, ABA had been the subject of intense scrutiny by tax officials. Shamil Safiyev, the head of the station’s finance department, has been in jail since his May 22 arrest on charges of tax evasion and the intentional use of false documents.
ABA president Fariq Zulfuqarov announced the station’s closure in a videotaped message sent to his employees on July 16 from the United States, where he had been living for more than two months.
In a July 18 interview published in the Baku newspaper Ekho, Zulfuqarov said he closed the station to protest the Tax Ministry’s investigation, which he viewed as a government-orchestrated attempt to take control of ABA.
At approximately 1:00 a.m. on the night of July 16-17, Tax Ministry officials seized two trucks containing ABA Television equipment. The equipment, which ABA staff members were apparently moving out of the station in an attempt to save it from confiscation, was said to be worth 1.5 billion manats (US$320,000).
Sources in Baku told CPJ that the Tax Ministry will hold the equipment until officials finish investigating alleged financial improprieties at the station. At year’s end, the station remained closed, and the investigation was ongoing.
CPJ send a letter of inquiry about this case to President Heydar Aliyev on August 27.
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
The Narimanov District Court in Baku ordered the independent weekly Milletin Sesi to cease publication after finding the paper guilty of defaming Nadir Nasibov, the former chairman of the State Property Committee, and his deputy, Barat Nuriyev.
The defamation charge came in reprisal for an article in the July 22-28 edition of Milletin Sesi titled, “Who Testified Against Heydar Aliyev?” The article accused Nasibov and Nuriyev of financial misconduct in a privatization deal, the Turan news agency reported.
These allegations had already appeared in numerous international publications, including Forbes, The New York Times, and the Russian magazine Kommersant-Dengi, the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) reported. According to Azerbaijan’s Law on Mass Media, media outlets are not responsible for information republished from other media sources.
The court ignored 126 pages of articles that were submitted to support Milletin Sesi‘s allegations against Nasibov and Nuriyev. Milletin Sesi editor Shahbaz Khuduoglu told CJES that he planned to appeal the ruling, to the Supreme Court if necessary. He added that Milletin Sesi would continue publishing until all legal recourses have been exhausted.
The paper ceased publication soon after September 17, when the District Court ruled for the plaintiff in a separate case of alleged defamation against President Heydar Aliyev’s chief of staff (see September 17 case).
On October 22, the former editors of Milletin Sesi released a statement noting that the Court of Appeals had upheld the earlier conviction.
Azerbaijani authorities blocked distribution of the August 9 edition of the newspaper Impuls because it was printed in Cyrillic script.
A June presidential decree required local publications to print exclusively in the Latin script (by August 1, 2001).
The government ordered the paper’s printing house to block the issue, and officials summoned Impuls‘ owner, Khan Husseyn Aliyev, to the Baku prosecutor’s office and gave him an official warning for violating the regulation. The newspaper subsequently ceased publication.
The decree was intended to reduce the dominance of the Russian language in Azerbaijan. Josef Stalin imposed the Russian Cyrillic script, which is derived from Russian, on Azerbaijan in 1939. Since then, most Azeri-language newspapers in the country have been printed in Cyrillic.
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
The Yasamalsky District Court in the capital, Baku, shut down the newspaper Etimad for allegedly insulting Azerbaijan’s senior Muslim cleric, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakhshukur Pashazade.
The charge came in response to an article titled, “Isa Gambar and the Two Armenians,” which appeared in the July 28-August 3 edition of Etimad. The article contained critical comments about Pashazade, according to local and international press sources.
In an August 13 television address, President Heydar Aliyev condemned the article and called for sanctions against the newspaper.
“In connection with this article, we have received hundreds of letters…. In all these letters, people express their outrage at such an incident and ask me, the president of Azerbaijan, to punish the newspaper that insulted Azerbaijan’s religious leader, Sheikh ul-Islam. I agree with all these thoughts,” the president declared. Etimad subsequently ceased publishing.
Elmar Huseynov, Bakinsky Bulvar
Irada Huseynova, Bakinsky Bulvar
Bella Zakirova, Bakinsky Bulvar
Huseynov, founder of the independent Russian-language weekly Bakinsky Bulvar; Huseynova, a reporter for the paper; and Zakirova, the editor-in-chief, were found guilty of defamation and fined 80 million manats (US$17,400) by Baku’s Nizaminsky District Court.
Baku mayor Hajibala Abutalibov sued Bakinsky Bulvar for defamation and sought to close the paper after it published an article by Irada Huseynova criticizing the mayor for demolishing commercial kiosks, a move that left many unemployed.
According to CPJ sources, the court ordered Bakinsky Bulvar to issue a written apology to the mayor, but shut it down before it could publish such a statement. On September 6, the court forbade publishing houses and distributors from printing and circulating copies of Bakinsky Bulvar.
Following the paper’s closure, the court launched criminal prosecutions against Huseynov, Huseynova, and Zakirova. All three were charged with defaming the mayor, an offense punishable by one to three years in prison
On September 20, Huseynova requested political asylum in Germany after attending a conference in Warsaw, according to local press reports. She was still abroad at year’s end.
On September 21, both Huseynov and Zakirova were found guilty of criminal defamation. The court sentenced Huseynov to six months in prison and gave Zakirova a six-month suspended sentence. CPJ protested these actions in an October 16 letter to President Heydar Aliyev.
On October 17, Aliyev signed a pardon authorizing Huseynov’s release in honor of the 10th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence. The pardon came in response to numerous appeals received by his office, according to Leyla Yunus, chairperson of an Azerbaijani organization called the Committee to Protect IMPRISONED Journalists and Freedom of Expression.
The pardon did not reverse the guilty verdict against Huseynov, and Bakinsky Bulvar remained closed at year’s end, according to local CPJ sources.
The Azerbaijani news agency Turan reported that on November 13, the Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of Huseynov and Zakirova.
Shahbaz Khuduoglu, Milletin Sesi
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Gulnaz Qamberli, Milletin Sesi
Eynulla Fetullayev, Milletin Sesi
Ramiz Mehdiyev, President Heydar Aliyev’s chief of staff, filed defamation charges against three journalists from the independent weekly Milletin Sesi.
The group included editor-in-chief Khuduoglu, correspondent Qamberli, and deputy editor Fetullayev.
The charges arose from an article in the paper that criticized Mehdiyev and other officials for restricting public access to a popular resort area where they were vacationing with unidentified women.
Local and international sources reported that during the trial, the court denied Khuduoglu access to a defense attorney. On September 17, Khuduoglu was sentenced to six months in prison, while Qamberli received a three-month suspended sentence.
Fetullayev’s trial began on January 8, 2002, the Azerbaijani news agency Turan reported. On January 11, Fetullayev was summoned to the Narimanov Court, where Judge Babayev informed him that Ramiz Mehdiyev had officially withdrawn his lawsuit against the deputy editor, Turan news agency reported.
At another September 17 hearing, the Narimanov Court ordered Milletin Sesi to cease publication, according to local reports. Soon after, the paper ceased publication.
CPJ protested these actions in an October 16 letter to President Aliyev.
On October 17, Aliyev signed a pardon authorizing Khuduoglu’s release in honor of the 10th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence. The pardon came in response to numerous appeals received by his office, according to Leyla Yunus, chairperson of a local organization called the Committee to Protect IMPRISONED Journalists and Freedom of Expression.
The pardon did not reverse the guilty verdict against Khuduoglu. On October 22, the former editors of Milletin Sesi released a statement noting that the Court of Appeals had upheld the earlier conviction.
Shahbaz Khuduoglu, Milletin Sesi
Elmar Huseynov, Bakinsky Bulvar
Khuduoglu, editor-in-chief of the banned independent weekly Milletin Sesi, and Huseynov, founder of the banned independent weekly Bakinsky Bulvar, were arrested and detained when they and their staff attempted to stage a protest in front of the monument to the founder of the first Azerbaijani newspaper, according to local press reports. The two journalists were released later that day with a warning, CPJ sources said.
Shahnaz Metlebqizi, Yeni Musavat
Metlebqizi, a correspondent with the Baku-based independent dailyYeni Musavat, was attacked outside her home by an unknown assailant, according to local press reports.
As the journalist approached her house, the attacker grabbed a fresh edition of Yeni Musavat out of Metlebqizi’s hand and cut it into small bits with a knife. He then hit the journalist repeatedly over the head and threatened to harm other journalists at the newspaper.
The police launched a criminal investigation into the attack, but no progress had been made by year’s end, the chairman of the local Journalists’ Trade Union told CPJ.
Rauf Arifoglu, Yeni Musavat
Azer Hasret, Chairman of the Journalists’ Trade Union
Elman Maliyev, Express
Ramiz Najafli, Azadliq
Ali Rza, Azadliq
Idrak Abbasov, Impuls
Khatire Askerova, Hurriyyet
Jesaret Aliyev, Hurriyyet
Elchin Yusifoglu, Hurriyyet
Vasif Mammedoglu, Hurriyyet
Salim Mammedov, Ulus
Namiq Mayilov, Turan Information Agency
Salim Azizoglu, Yeni Musavat
Konul Shamilqizi, Yeni Musavat
Tale Seyfeddinoglu, Yeni Musavat
Shahin Jeferli, Yeni Musavat
Elshad Pashasoy, Yeni Musavat
Shahnaz Metlebqizi, Yeni Musavat
Suheyle Yasharqizi, Yeni Musavat
Mubariz Jeferli, Yeni Musavat
Mahir Rufatoglu, Yeni Musavat
Ilhame Namiqqizi, Yeni Musavat
Javid Jabbaroglu, Yeni Musavat
Rena Jamaqizi, Yeni Musavat
Anar Natiqoglu, Yeni Musavat
Sebine Avazqizi, Yeni Musavat
More than 20 journalists were injured when police violently dispersed a rally in front of President Heydar Aliyev’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party (NAP) headquarters.
Fifty picketers and 100 supporters had gathered to protest recent NAP calls to destroy the independent, opposition dailies Yeni Musavat, Azadliq, and Hurriyyet, according to Azer Hasret, chairman of the Journalists’ Trade Union. Police also took protesters’ signs and ripped them apart.
The Baku mayor’s office had refused the organizers’ petition to hold a demonstration.
Following the NAP statements, several printing houses refused to print the three publications, according to local sources. Hasret told CPJ that all three newspapers filed lawsuits against the New Azerbaijan Party in response.
Najafli, a correspondent with the independent daily Azadliq, was badly injured by the police and taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion. At year’s end he was recovering at home but remained unable to work, according to CPJ sources.
Meanwhile, Arifoglu, editor of the independent daily Yeni Musavat; Maliyev, correspondent with the daily Express; and Hasret were arrested. Baku’s chief of police Nagiyev personally beat up Hasret and Maliyev in the back seat of a police vehicle while two police officers restrained them, the newspaper 525ci Qezet reported.
The arrested journalists were released half an hour later after parliamentarian Aqbal Agazade, a member of the Civic Unity Party, intervened on their behalf, Hasret told CPJ.
Following the violent events of December 12, the entire staff of Azadliq asked U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson to grant them political asylum in the United States, according to the Azerbaijani news agency Turan. Their application was pending at year’s end.