In Baku, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper, Europe & Central Asia Program Coordinator Alex Lupis, and Senior Editor Amanda Watson-Boles met with local journalists, editors, and press freedom activists while attending the June 14-18 annual meeting of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a Toronto-based consortium of press freedom groups.
During meetings with CPJ, local journalists, most of whom spoke to CPJ on the condition that they not be identified for fear of government retaliation, described a variety of government efforts to obstruct and informally censor independent news reporting.
The most blatant tactic is the use of politicized courts to criminally prosecute journalists in retaliation for criticizing government officials.
In September 2001, journalist Irada Huseynova was charged with criminal defamation for criticizing Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov in a June 2001 edition of the independent weekly Monitor. Huseynova currently lives in exile in Moscow because she faces arrest upon her return to Azerbaijan.
Rauf Arifoglu, editor in chief of the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, was arrested in October 2003 and is currently being tried for allegedly organizing antigovernment protests. Many journalists believe that Arifoglu’s seven-month detention and trial came in retaliation for his strong criticism of President Aliyev and his government. Senior government officials have also filed numerous civil defamation lawsuits against Arifoglu in what appears to be an effort to financially bankrupt Yeni Musavat.
President Aliyev’s government also controls or strongly influences the country’s national broadcast media, according to several sources, including an official at the Media Rights Institute, a local press freedom group affiliated with the U.S.-based media training organization Internews. All private national television stations are owned by family or allies of President Aliyev, according to these sources, and the government has refused to issue new television broadcasting licenses to other outlets.
A journalist at the Azerbaijani Service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) told CPJ that for more than six years, the government has refused to issue them an FM frequency to broadcast RFE/RL’s news program.
Journalists also described a variety of informal ways the government stifles critical voices in the print media, including disrupting access to the state-run publishing house and distribution company, launching politicized tax inspections, offering financial bribes to encourage “objective” news coverage, tolerating police violence against media covering antigovernment protests, and pressuring advertisers to withdraw their business from publications that run afoul of authorities.
President Aliyev’s spokesman, Ali Hasanov, initially offered to meet with CPJ to discuss press freedom issues, but subsequent efforts to set up an appointment this week were unsuccessful.
“President Aliyev must stop persecuting journalists and media outlets in retaliation for criticizing government officials,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper at the Baku Press Club, where the press conference was held. “We urge him to do everything in his power to ensure that the conviction of Irada Huseynova is overturned, and that all criminal defamation laws are repealed.”