The murder of a prominent editor, detentions of other journalists, police abuses, and bureaucratic obstruction curtailed independent reporting in the run-up to a November 6 parliamentary election that saw President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party and its allies sweep to victory. International observers said the vote was neither fair nor free, citing improper vote counting and unfair campaign restrictions, but Aliyev and his backers nonetheless maintained their grip on the country’s enormous oil wealth. The completion in May of an oil pipeline linking the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea opened billions of dollars in new oil revenue for Aliyev’s secretive and highly centralized government.
Authorities considered independent and opposition journalists to be traitors, and pressured private companies not to advertise in media that did not support Aliyev. The government used tactics large and small. It controlled the two main press distribution agencies—Qasid and Azermetbuatyayimi—and obstructed the work of other private distributors, such as Gaya, that were not seen as loyal to the state. In August, police arrested a subway vendor for selling the opposition daily Azadlyg and confiscated copies of the newspaper, according to local press reports.
The Justice Ministry blocked a group of prominent media and political figures from launching the independent Yeni TV and Radio, which would have challenged the dominance of state-run AZTV1 during election season. The ministry denied Yeni a broadcasting license in April, forcing the channel to broadcast to a limited audience by satellite starting in October.
Journalists faced a number of politicized civil libel cases brought in retaliation for criticizing politicians and questioning government policies. The country’s largest opposition newspaper, Yeni Musavat, stopped publication for several months in early 2005 after a court in the capital, Baku, ordered it to pay 800 million manats (US$160,000) in libel damages to several government officials. The court froze the paper’s assets and bank account as part of the order. Yeni Musavat and other opposition newspapers resorted to self-censorship in the face of harsh laws that allow authorities to imprison journalists for up to seven years in defamation and insult cases.
Some journalists faced reprisals from police for reporting on government abuses. In February, Akrep Hasanov, an Azerbaijani journalist with the independent weekly Monitor, was abducted by military officers and held in detention for five hours in retaliation for writing an article about military mismanagement. Monitor has long angered officials with its hard-hitting news and commentary.
The decade-long Armenian occupation of the western province of Nagorno-Karabakh remained a politically explosive issue in both Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. Eynulla Fatullayev, an investigative reporter with Monitor, traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh in February to interview leaders of the region’s unrecognized “government.” He received threats from Azerbaijani nationalists who opposed his trip.
Fear and self-censorship escalated dramatically when Elmar Huseynov, founder and editor of Monitor, was gunned down on the evening of March 2 in his apartment building in Baku. The attack appeared to be well-planned; a streetlight at the entrance of the apartment building and several telephones in the area were disconnected at the time of the shooting. Huseynov’s family said the editor had received several work-related threats and had been concerned for his safety.
The murder sparked antigovernment protests in Baku; journalists and opposition politicians believed that Huseynov was murdered in retaliation for his work. In April, the National Security Ministry identified several ethnic Azerbaijanis in neighboring Georgia as suspects in the case, but the ministry did not describe any motive or evidence linking them to the crime. Georgian authorities refused to extradite the suspects due to the lack of evidence, and no other developments were reported. Huseynov’s family and colleagues criticized authorities for not looking into work-related motives for the murder.
On the defensive about the Huseynov murder, Aliyev issued a March 20 presidential decree releasing 115 political prisoners. Among them was Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of Yeni Musavat. Arifoglu, who is primarily a journalist, is also deputy director of the Musavat opposition party. He was arrested in October 2003 and eventually sentenced to five years in prison on charges of organizing antigovernment riots.
The release of Arifoglu and six other opposition activists failed to meet Western demands that they be exonerated of the criminal charges, which were widely seen as politically motivated. Many journalists told CPJ that Arifoglu was prosecuted for Yeni Musavat‘s strong criticism of Aliyev and his cabinet. Arifoglu filed an appeal with the Supreme Court seeking to have the conviction overturned, but the court rejected the bid.
International organizations and Western governments, fearing a repeat of the fraud-marred 2003 presidential election, called on Aliyev to institute reforms that would make the November parliamentary election more transparent. Facing international pressure, the parliament approved last-minute election reforms in October that allowed foreign-funded organizations to monitor voting. But the measure did not address another key change sought by international observers, namely, ensuring that election commissions were not stacked with pro-government appointees.
The state-run television channel AZTV1 and a handful of private, pro-government television stations dominated the country’s airwaves, remaining the prime source of news for most citizens. The government failed to make good on its commitment to the Council of Europe, a pan-European human rights monitoring organization, to transform AZTV1 into a publicly funded, independent broadcasting service. Instead, authorities changed the state-run AZTV2, a regional channel with a fraction of the staff, into a public broadcaster named ITV. ITV went on the air in August, but it continued the pro-government editorial line of the former AZTV2.
Azerbaijan’s broadcasting regulator, the National Broadcasting Council, remained under strict government control, with its nine members appointed by the president. Politicized regulation of the broadcast media meant that local television news coverage faced growing government scrutiny as the elections approached. The New York–based Eurasianet news Web site reported that officers from the National Security Ministry in the southern city of Lankaran threatened Baloglan Mirzoyev, director of the local independent Lankaran TV, in August after the channel aired a report on the activities of opposition parties.
Police violence against opposition supporters and journalists reporting on opposition rallies escalated steadily as parliamentary elections approached. On October 9, police severely beat 10 journalists covering an unsanctioned opposition rally, including Idrak Abbasov of the Russian-language daily Zerkalo, according to local press reports. Abbasov was beaten unconscious by a plainclothes police officer and hospitalized in Baku; police posted guards at the door to his hospital room and prevented journalists from visiting him. Local press freedom groups such as the Media Rights Institute, Yeni Nesil, and RUH regularly documented, publicized, and protested these and other abuses against journalists.
Authorities prohibited foreign television crews from broadcasting live during the election campaign, according to local and international press reports. “The National Television and Radio Council cannot authorize live TV broadcasts…[because] there are no appropriate legislative norms for this,” the Turan news agency quoted council Director Nusiravan Maharramli as saying.
In mid-October, Azerbaijani authorities expelled from the country a truck with satellite broadcasting equipment owned by the Turkish news agency Ilhas, according to press reports. Shortly afterward, on November 4, guards on the Russian-Azerbaijani border confiscated satellite dishes from the Russian state television channels RTR and NTV, those reports said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an election and security monitoring organization based in Vienna, announced on November 7 that the parliamentary vote was not free or fair because of police abuses, campaign restrictions, voting irregularities, improper ballot counting, and a pro-government bias on state television channels AZTV1 and ITV. Azerbaijani authorities threatened to shutter ANS, the only independent television station to feature more balanced campaign reporting.
Regional journalists continued to face harassment from local authorities, particularly in the repressive southwestern enclave of Nakhichevan. Malahat Nasibova, a reporter for the Turan news agency and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was repeatedly harassed and detained by Nakhichevan authorities angered by her reporting on politically sensitive topics such as drug addiction. Elman Abbasov, a journalist for the opposition newspaper Bizim Yol, received threats from anonymous callers and a National Security Ministry officer in October after he complained to the government in Baku that local authorities were obstructing his journalistic work, Turan reported.