The massive protests that erupted in October 2003 over the election of President Ilham Aliyev continued to have repercussions in 2004. Following the lead of his father, Heydar, who died in December 2003, Aliyev intensified pressure on independent and opposition media and used the country’s harsh criminal and civil codes to stifle criticism.
Ilham Aliyev succeeded his ailing father as president after winning 80 percent of the vote. International observers alleged fraud, and protests followed the marred election.
At least 170 opposition members were arrested. Some 70 journalists were assaulted and detained during and after clashes between demonstrators and police, according to the Azerbaijani Committee to Protect Journalists, known as RUH, a press freedom group based in the capital, Baku. (The group is not affiliated with CPJ.) No police officers have been arrested or prosecuted for attacking journalists.
In one of the most blatant cases of government repression following the election, Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the largest opposition newspaper in Azerbaijan, Yeni Musavat (New Equality), was sentenced to five years in prison in October 2004 for allegedly masterminding the previous year’s antigovernment riots.
Arifoglu, who is primarily a journalist but is also deputy director of the Musavat (Equality) opposition party, was arrested in October 2003 and kept in custody for the year preceding his trial. A presidential adviser told local media in December 2003 that the editor was kept in detention to prevent him from returning to his journalistic activities.
The Serious Crimes Court in Baku imprisoned six opposition leaders along with Arifoglu on October 22, 2004, but Arifoglu’s sentence was the most severe, according to local sources and the U.S.-based Web site Eurasianet.org, which focuses on Central Asia and the Caucasus. Many journalists told CPJ that Arifoglu was prosecuted for Yeni Musavat‘s strong criticism of Aliyev and his Cabinet. Yeni Musavat also faced several civil defamation lawsuits from senior government officials that have brought the newspaper to the edge of bankruptcy, according to RUH.
Yeni Musavat and other opposition newspapers practice self-censorship in the face of harsh criminal laws. The Criminal Code allows authorities to imprison journalists for defamation, insult, and disclosing state secrets.
Legislation was passed in November to transform Azerbaijan State Television, the country’s largest broadcaster, into an independent public station. However, some local media experts are concerned about how independent it will be. In addition, Azerbaijan’s broadcasting regulatory body, the National Broadcasting Council, remains under strict government control, with its nine members appointed by the president.
Azerbaijani journalists faced threats and attacks in 2004 for reporting on politically sensitive issues. In the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (NAR)—a mountainous region in southwest Azerbaijan—local authorities pressured Melakhet Nasibova, a correspondent for the Baku-based news agency Turan and the Azerbaijani Service of the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Mohhamed Rzayev, a correspondent for the opposition daily Azadliq (Freedom), to stop reporting on sensitive issues such as drug addiction and local government corruption. In the spring, Nasibova received anonymous phone calls and e-mail messages saying that if she did not stop her critical reporting, she and her family would be in danger. Rzayev told CPJ that he receives threatening phone calls from local police every time he criticizes local authorities. He told CPJ that in April, Nakhchivan City police kidnapped him from his home, took him out of the city, beat him, and warned him to stop writing about social problems in NAR.
In July, four masked men kidnapped and beat Aydin Guliyev, editor of the opposition daily Baki Khabar (Baku News). The attackers put a bag over Guliyev’s head, tied his hands with a rope, and threatened to kill him if he did not stop criticizing Islam. Guliyev, who is Muslim, said he believed that the government orchestrated the assault to intimidate him and punish his paper for criticizing authorities, The Associated Press reported.
Days after Guliyev’s abduction, two unidentified men attacked Eynulla Fatullayev, an investigative reporter with the opposition weekly magazine Monitor, in downtown Baku. Monitor has long angered officials with hard-hitting commentary. Fatullayev was investigating high-level corruption at the time, according to local press reports. Authorities had made no progress in the investigations into these attacks by year’s end.
In a rare positive development, a Baku district court dropped criminal defamation charges against Irada Huseynova, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist who had criticized Baku’s mayor, after CPJ and other local and international media organizations advocated on her behalf. Huseynova was convicted of criminally defaming Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov in a June 2001 article published in the independent weekly Bakinsky Bulvar (Baku Boulevard). Huseynova immigrated to Moscow to escape punishment.
CPJ highlighted Huseynova’s case at a June 2004 meeting in Baku of the Toronto-based International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), which comprises representatives
of dozens of freedom of expression groups from around the world. IFEX appealed to Azerbaijani authorities to drop the case against her. Later that month, Abutalibov officially withdrew his charges against Huseynova.