All at sea in the Caspian

In a country where critical journalism is silenced, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan can be sure of his ‘re-election’
September 17, 2008

Preoccupied with the Georgia-Russia crisis and the old fears it has resurrected, the world risks missing another important story unfolding in the Caucasus – that of Azerbaijan. The oil-rich Caspian Sea nation is going to the polls a month from now to vote for its president, but calling the process “an election” would be a stretch.

The incumbent Ilham Aliyev – the authoritarian leader who practically inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003 – is expected to win the ballot in a landslide and remain in office for another five years. The opposition – fragmented, embattled, and disillusioned – announced it would boycott the vote after parliament passed restrictive amendments to Azerbaijan’s election law that eliminated even the appearance of a fair process. The amendments cut the campaign period to 75 days before the vote, eliminated state television free air-time for candidates, and denied the opposition equal representation on election commissions – a key prerequisite to prevent or at least minimise the possibility of fraud. 

Several opposition politicians later reconsidered and enlisted to run but the key prospective candidates did not. As a result, on October 15, Aliyev will face six virtual unknowns and win without a doubt. Azerbaijanis’ “choice” will only be a nominal one.

In his five years in office, Aliyev Jr has consolidated his position as a supreme executive – maintaining authority over the cabinet, legislature, the military, and the judiciary. Externally, his centralised regime has been bolstered by the global demand for oil and the west’s need for a partner in anti-terrorism. Azerbaijan has strategic importance for both the United States and Europe – oil in the Caspian Sea provides an alternative to Russian and Persian Gulf supplies, and the west needs a stable partner along Iran’s border. These interests have muted international reaction to Azerbaijani authorities’ human rights abuses at home. Domestically, critics have been silenced through imprisonment, violence, and intimidation.

In a new report titled “Finding Elmar’s Killers”, the Committee to Protect Journalists finds that Aliyev’s success is built to a large extent on his administration’s crackdown on the independent media. Television – the most influential news medium in the country – is under the administration’s control either directly or through pro-Aliyev owners. Low-circulation print media have more editorial freedom, but their impact on public opinion is small. And with the authorities clamping down on critical journalists, fewer reporters are willing to cover sensitive topics, the most dangerous of which is reporting on the president and his family. Disgruntled officials use criminal defamation charges agaisnt journalists frequently, demanding imprisonment and high damages. Compliant courts usually rubberstamp those demands. The government has resisted persistent calls by international organisations, including the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to decriminalise libel. 

When Azerbaijan jailed 10 reporters for their work in 2007, it became Europe and Central Asia’s leading jailer of journalists, according to CPJ research. Several were later released through a pardon but the most critical ones remained in jail. Those include Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the now closed independent weekly Realny Azerbaijan, and the brothers Sakit and Genimet Zakhidov with the pro-opposition Azadlyg newspaper. The journalists are serving jail terms on trumped-up charges such as hooliganism, drug possession, and terrorism. CPJ has found those charges to be fabricated and politically motivated.

The imprisonment of Eynulla Fatullayev is emblematic of the lengths to which Azerbaijani authorities have gone to stifle independent reporting on sensitive topics. Following his own dogged investigation into the contract-style murder in 2005 of his former boss and mentor, Elmar Huseynov, Fatullayev was slammed with a series of spurious charges – the heaviest of all being terrorism – and imprisoned for eight-and-a-half years. Fatullayev had angered the authorities by questioning their will to solve the murder, and reportedly finding and interviewing one of Huseynov’s alleged killers.

With Fatullayev behind bars, there is no current scrutiny of the official investigation into Huseynov’s assassination. The crime remains unsolved and Huseynov’s killers are still at large.

Following Huseynov’s murder, the authorities in Azerbaijan have also failed to investigate severe attacks on at least eight journalists. CPJ interviewed the victims during a week-long trip to Baku in May, recording their disturbing accounts of government indifference, neglect, and, in at least one case, perceived complicity in the attacks. 

Huseynov’s family members spoke to CPJ of their own disappointment with the official conduct, calling the investigation confusing and secretive at best. Indeed, Azerbaijani authorities have been opaque about their progress towards finding Huseynov’s killers. Lately, they have publicly ascribed primary responsibility for arresting the two alleged suspects – ethnic Azeri Georgian citizens Tair Hubavov and Teymuraz Aliyev – to Interpol. But the public record does not support that claim, CPJ research found. An official with Aliyev’s administration assured CPJ that Azerbaijan remains “fully committed” to solving Huseynov’s murder. But the public record does not support that assertion either. 

The international community is busy – and rightly so – moderating the Georgia-Russia crisis and the east-west diplomatic rift it has caused. But we should not forget about Azerbaijan and we should call its government to account on its human rights record. Azer Akhmedov, the acting editor of Azadlyg newspaper told CPJ: “You know, in a perfect world, it is logical for people to be happy when they have an energy resource. But in Azerbaijan, we say the opposite – we would be better off if we didn’t have oil.”

Akhmedov, whose editor, Genimet Zakhidov, is in jail for “hooliganism”, told CPJ Azerbaijan is “cursed” with by its oil resources and geographic position close to Iran. “We’re stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea,” he told CPJ. “We are faced with the reality that human rights are low down on the West’s agenda.” The international community should work to prove Akhmedov wrong – by demanding the release of all imprisoned journalists, the decriminalisation of libel, the timely and thorough investigation of violence against reporters, and calling on the Azerbaijani government to allow the press to do its job without fear of reprisal.

Nina Ognianova is Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.