Despite proclaiming a commitment to democracy and offering some financial aid to the beleaguered press, President Heydar Aliyev’s relationship with the media remained tense in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for October 2003. During 2002, independent and opposition outlets struggled to overcome official harassment and economic hardship, while the government passed flawed media legislation.
Amendments to the Media Law abolishing registration and licensing restrictions for the print media, approved by the Parliament in December 2001, came into effect in March, making publications less vulnerable to government harassment. But the proposed Law on Television and Radio Broadcasting caused a commotion in the spring over provisions creating a National Broadcasting Council, whose nine members are appointed by the president. The council has the authority to license and regulate private broadcasters and can also petition courts to suspend an outlet’s license for up to two months if it violates broadcasting laws. Despite strong international and domestic objections, the law took effect in early October.
Also in October, Parliament passed the Law on Public Television and Radio Broadcasting, which creates a public broadcaster. Under the law, the National Broadcasting Council and the broadcaster’s general director, who is also appointed by the president, will administer the new state outlet. The government will fund the broadcaster until 2010, when it will begin collecting fees from subscribers.
A far more direct effort to control the media came in August, when the government introduced the Rules for Preventing the Disclosure of State Secrets in Media, which requires all media to submit information to the Interdepartmental Commission for the Protection of State Secrets before publication. Under the policy, the commission had seven days to determine if the information contains state secrets, rendering media outlets unable to publish information quickly. The regulations do not define what constitutes a state secret, and journalists say that that almost any information could be censored. The commission was also granted the authority to impel journalists to reveal their sources. These rules were highly criticized for violating press freedom and access to information. As a result, they were redrafted, shortening the commission’s review period to 48 hours and guaranteeing the protection of sources.
Aliyev’s December 2001 decree providing financial assistance to independent and opposition media outlets triggered a drawn-out process. In March 2002, the state allocated US$3.5 million for low-interest loans to these media outlets, which were required
to submit business plans and collateral to acquire the funds. Despite repeated pledges to distribute the credits and ease collateral requirements, government efforts to approve applications and establish an allocation scheme moved slowly throughout 2002. Moreover, many journalists were concerned about possible discrimination and the stiff penalties imposed for failing to repay the state loans–three to 15 years in prison.
Meanwhile, the government continued its efforts to reassert the Azeri language. In late September, Parliament passed the Law on Use and Protection of the Azeri Language, which requires Azeri to be used in official work and on television broadcasts. Although the law’s effect on the media was unclear at year’s end, some journalists were concerned about losing viewers because most middle-aged and senior Azerbaijanis are educated in Russian and not Azeri.
Azerbaijan’s journalists continue to participate in regional efforts to promote cooperation with their colleagues in neighboring Armenia. The two countries have failed to reach an agreement on the status of the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region of ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan supported by the Armenian government. Nagorno-Karabakh continues to function independent of Azerbaijani authorities. In June, the region’s self-declared Parliament passed a draft law on television and radio broadcasting that abolishes local authorities’ monopoly on broadcasters and creates a public station.
Mubariz Djafarli, Yeni Musavat
Two unknown assailants attacked Djafarli, a correspondent with the well-known opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, near his apartment in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, according to Azerbaijani and foreign sources. While beating the journalist, the attackers made references to his recently published articles that contained unfavorable comments about Ilham Aliyev, President Heydar Aliyev’s son. However, the journalist told Azerbaijani media that he wrote his last article about the president’s son more than a month prior to the beating.
Elhan Kerimov, Azerbaijani News Agency
Kerimov, a photo correspondent at the Azerbaijani News Agency, was hit on the back of the head by a district police chief while the journalist was filming soccer fans at the Azadlyg Square in the capital,
Baku, who were celebrating the Turkish team’s victory over Senegal. According to Azerbaijani news reports, although the incident took place in front of other working reporters, the police chief offered no explanation or apologies and insulted members of the press.
The Sabail District Court found the opposition daily Yeni Musavat guilty of defamation and fined the newspaper 3 million manats (US$600). The head of the Saatli District executive body, Hulhuseyn Ahmedov, had sued Yeni Musavat for defamation and sought 20 million manats (US$4,100) in damages after the newspaper published an article by Mahir Mammadov titled “In Saatly the Opposition is Beaten with Sticks.”
Earlier in December, the Sabail District Court began hearing another defamation case against Yeni Musavat. Azerbaijan’s deputy minister Mammad Beytullayev had sued the newspaper for defamation and sought 300 million manats (US$61,220) in damages after it published articles that criticized Azerbaijan’s military. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
Various government officials have recently filed at least 10 other libel cases against Yeni Musavat. The newspaper’s staff and many colleagues believe that the suits are politically motivated, and that they are part of a campaign to bankrupt and silence the critical publication.
Tirgran Nagdalian, Armenia Public Television
For full details on this case, see page 367.