Azerbaijani newspapers evicted, editor threatened

New York, May 21, 2007—Local authorities evicted the independent Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan from their Baku offices on Sunday night, saying that the publications’ building violates safety regulations. The action comes amid a series of threats, attacks, and cases of harassment targeting the muckraking newspapers—including, most recently, an anonymous death threat against their imprisoned editor, Eynulla Fatullayev.

“We are alarmed by the threat made against Eynulla Fatullayev and call on Azerbaijani authorities to take every necessary step to protect our colleague and thoroughly investigate the threats against him,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Given Azerbaijani officials’ long record of harassing critical publications, we view the alleged building violations with great skepticism and urge authorities to allow the journalists to continue their work without further interruption.”

On May 17, an unidentified man called Fatullayev’s mother at home and threatened to kill her son in prison if the two newspapers continued to publish, Realny Azerbaijan reported. In April, Fatullayev was sentenced to 30 months in prison on charges of libeling and insulting Azerbaijanis. Fatullayev said the charges were fabricated, and an appeal is expected to be heard on June 6.

Realny Azerbaijan is known for its critical reporting of government activities. In March, Fatullayev reported that high-ranking Azerbaijani officials had ordered the 2005 slaying of newspaper editor Elmar Huseynov. Fatullayev received a death threat within days, but authorities did not investigate it or provide him with protection. In response to the most recent threat, Fatullayev’s colleagues filed a complaint with the Interior Ministry, according to the local media organization, the Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety (IRFS).
On Saturday, a fire official identified as Col. Rovshan Novruzov said an inspection found that the newly renovated building violated fire safety regulations and that the tenants must leave immediately, the independent the news agency Turan reported. The journalists refused to leave, but the building’s electricity was turned off, according to local press reports.

Late Sunday evening, a colonel from the Ministry of Emergency Situations and several soldiers returned to the building. The soldiers forcibly evicted the staff and sealed off the building, Gündalik Azarbaycan editor and reporter Uzeyir Jafarov told CPJ.

The fire violations were not specified. The Ministry of Emergency Situations said the floor of the newspaper offices was unsteady.

Jafarov, who was assaulted in April, attributed the building’s closure to the papers’ critical reporting of the government. “They were searching for reasons to shut us down and used this one,” Jafarov told CPJ. Among the tenants of the 13-story buildings, IRFS reported, only Realny Azerbaijan and Gündalik Azarbaycan were not given time to remove equipment.

Earlier this month, CPJ named Azerbaijan one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom. According to CPJ research, authorities have evicted other critical publications. In November, a Baku court ordered the eviction of opposition newspaper Azadlyg, The Turan news agency, Bizim Yol newspaper, and the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety. Eynulla Fatullayev is among seven journalists currently in prison in Azerbaijan.