The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about two libel lawsuits that have been filed by a senior government official against Elmar Huseynov, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Baku-based, independent magazine Monitor.
These lawsuits are the latest actions in a 7-year-old campaign of official harassment targeting Huseynov and the Monitor in retaliation for criticizing government policies and senior political officials, including Your Excellency.
Hasan Zeynalov, the head of the Baku-based Representative Office of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an Azerbaijani exclave located between Armenia and Iran, filed both civil and criminal libel lawsuits against Huseynov on January 25.
Zeynalov filed the lawsuits in response to a biting commentary written by Huseynov and published in the January 18 edition of Monitor that criticized the prevalence of corruption in Azerbaijan. In the article, Huseynov compared the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and its residents to Sicily and also compared Azerbaijan’s government to the Sicilian mafia.
Zeynalov is seeking 100 million manats (US$20,000) in damages from Huseynov in a civil case. Huseynov also faces up to 2.5 million manats (US$500) in fines and 6 months in jail on criminal charges. The Sabail District Court in Baku has scheduled a hearing for the case on March 4.
Zeynalov filed the lawsuit on behalf of the residents of Nakhchivan. But Rashid Hajili, director of the Baku-based Institute for Media Defense, Education, and Advocacy (IDEA), told CPJ that the case against Huseynov is flawed because the Azerbaijani legal system does not allow individuals to file lawsuits on behalf of others.
Huseynov has been targeted with legal harassment for several years. In July 2002 a Baku court found Huseynov and Eynulla Fetullayev, a reporter for Monitor, guilty of defamation for publishing a critical first-person account written by Fetullayev about his experience serving in the military. The court ordered the two men to pay a hefty fine and to publish a retraction of the article. Following the conviction, Monitor was unable to appear on newsstands because the state printing house and private printers refused to publish the magazine, “citing an order from above,” said Huseynov.
In September 2001, another one of Huseynov’s publications, the independent weekly Bakinsky Bulvar, was closed after the Baku mayor won a defamation lawsuit against the paper. Following the closure, the court launched criminal proceedings against Huseynov for defaming the mayor and sentenced him to six months in prison. Huseynov served almost a month of his term before he was released in October 2001 by a presidential pardon in honor of the 10th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence.
Government persecution of Huseynov continued after he created Monitor in 1996. The magazine was closed in 1998 after authorities confiscated copies of the magazine from Baku vendors and sued Huseynov for defaming the Azeri people in an article titled “The Azerbaijani Nation in the 21st Century.” Huseynov lost the lawsuit, and the publication was suspended.
The magazine resumed publishing in 2000 under the name Monitor Weekly, but Justice Ministry officials threatened to close it unless Huseynov published an apology for the 1998 Monitor article. In April 2000, tax inspectors closed the printing company where the magazine was produced and later allowed it to reopen after it promised to cease printing Monitor Weekly. In May 2000, tax inspectors sealed the magazine’s Baku offices for alleged tax violations. Later that month, in response to the complaint of a private company that accused the magazine of “propagating false information” about the business, Azerbaijan’s Economic Court suspended publication of Monitor Weekly. In June, Monitor Weekly journalists broke the seals on the office and returned to work.
In September 2000, Huseynov was informed that the court had revoked Monitor Weekly‘s license, and the magazine was forced to suspend publication. The court allegedly handed down the judgment at a July 17, 2000, hearing held at the request of the Prosecutor’s Office. Because Huseynov did not receive the ruling until almost two months later, he was unable to appeal the judgment within the required 10 days of the date of the ruling. No one from the magazine’s editorial office was advised of the July 17 hearing. (The magazine resumed publishing under its original name, Monitor, in April 2002.)
Based on this long-standing pattern of state-sponsored persecution and our research into the recent lawsuits filed against Huseynov, CPJ believes that Zeylanov is using Azerbaijan’s libel laws to silence Huseynov and Monitor for criticizing government policies and the prevalence of corruption in Azerbaijan. As the leaders of your country, you and other senior government officials are at the center of public debate and must tolerate public scrutiny.
Journalists should never be criminally prosecuted for reporting on matters of public interest. Moreover, independent and opposition journalists cannot fulfill their role of reporting and commenting on the news as long as criminal defamation statues remain on the books.
As an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues worldwide, CPJ calls on Your Excellency to do everything within your power to ensure that Zeylanov withdraws his lawsuits and that the politically motivated harassment of Elmar Huseynov and Monitor ceases immediately. We also urge you to work toward eliminating criminal defamation statutes from Azerbaijani law.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.