Attacks on the Press 2003: Azerbaijan

In January 2003, President Heydar Aliyev froze the print media’s debts to the state publishing house through 2005. But that was the only positive development for the Azerbaijani press in what turned out to be a dismal year.

With Aliyev’s health failing as 2003 wore on, he began grooming his son Ilham Aliyev to take his place, a move that drew the ire of opposition parties and newspapers. In August, the president appointed his son as prime minister, clearing the way for a transfer of power during presidential elections scheduled for October. Heydar Aliyev passed away in December.

Before he died, Heydar Aliyev managed to keep tight control of his oil-rich nation, including the press. Defamation suits remained a huge problem for the media in 2003. Dozens of defamation lawsuits were filed against independent newspapers throughout the year, according to IREX ProMedia, a U.S.-based media training organization. In February, libel suits against Yeni Musavat, a newspaper associated with the popular opposition party Musavat, resulted in fines of 100,000 euros (US$127,500)–an overwhelming sum for a paper with assets of one-fifth that amount. In a country where local and federal authorities can easily pressure the judicial system, cases against media outlets rarely end in their favor.

Typically, officials use defamation suits to respond to articles implicating them in corruption, which is rife in Azerbaijan. According to Transparency International, an international nonprofit dedicated to combating corruption, Azerbaijan ranked a dismal 95 out of 102 countries on the organization’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

In June, the Azerbaijani National Council for Television and Radio adopted new regulations on the use of the state language in the broadcast media, further restricting the use of Russian–the language most older Azerbaijani citizens use.

More blatant forms of harassment followed when the independent press began to focus on Aliyev’s failing health. With the government refusing to release any information, many newspapers questioned the president’s ability to run the country–a development that pro-government forces saw as a direct assault on Aliyev. These reports were followed by several attacks against journalists. Police officers also detained and beat reporters from opposition newspapers. Violence against the press only increased as the October 15 election neared.

The severity of the Azerbaijani government’s abuse of the press did not go unnoticed by Western observers. In a fairly unprecedented September 10 joint statement, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe criticized the government for its harassment and intimidation of journalists. The statement specifically expressed concern over “recent attacks against journalists,” demanded “a thorough investigation” into the attacks, and asked the authorities to “take all necessary steps to guarantee respect for freedom of the media.” The international community also called on Azerbaijan to conduct a free and fair election.

In the run-up to the poll, however, opposition candidates were given little airtime on government-controlled broadcast media–considerably less than Ilham Aliyev. During the election, international observers noted many irregularities, including multiple voting and the stuffing of ballot boxes, as well as omissions from voting lists of those known to support the opposition. In the end, officials declared Ilham Aliyev the victor with 80 percent of the vote.

Pressure from the international community, as well as the presence of international observers, had little effect on security forces during the demonstrations that erupted into violence after the election results were announced. Dozens of journalists were severely beaten and/or detained. The government crackdown was not contained to the capital, Baku, where the riots occurred, but spread throughout the country. Local election officials who refused to sign falsified voting tally sheets were threatened or arrested, and their families were also subject to reprisals.

In the weeks following the elections, attacks on Azerbaijan’s opposition press intensified. Libel suits resumed, resulting in enormous fines and, in some cases, frozen bank accounts. Arrests and intimidation continued. Rauf Arifoglu, the editor of Azerbaijan’s largest opposition newspaper, Yeni Musavat, was arrested in October and held in prison for the rest of the year while prosecutors investigated his role in the postelection violence. Many opposition newspapers were denied access to the state printing house and distribution system.

Despite these hardships, the opposition press continues to publish in Azerbaijan. Yeni Musavat, which already has the highest circulation among newspapers in the Southern Caucasus, increased its numbers even after it was banned from the state printing house and distribution system.