Government to pull frequencies for foreign broadcasters

New York, November 3, 2008–CPJ is deeply troubled by a top regulator’s announcement on Friday that the Azerbaijani government plans next year to discontinue local radio transmissions of three international broadcasters–the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America (VOA).

Nushirevan Meherremli, chairman of the National Television and Radio Council (NSTR), disclosed the plan in an interview Friday with the independent news agency Turan. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees VOA and RFE/RL, said in a statement that it had not received advance notice of the NSTR plans. The other broadcasters also said they had received no warning.

RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service–which is known as Radio Azadliq and airs 10 hours of Azeri-language programming daily–is one of the very few radio stations in the country that provides live airtime to opposition voices, CPJ research shows. In May, an Azerbaijani press freedom group named Radio Azadliq the “most successful media organization of the year,” in recognition of its popular call-in shows, political and social coverage, and programs fostering public debate on corruption, health care and unemployment, the Broadcasting Board of Governors said in a statement Friday.

In the Turan interview, Meherremli said Azerbaijan would be following the practices of European countries in reserving national frequencies for local broadcasters. “Only national television and radio stations should broadcast on national frequencies. This is our policy. … In Europe there are no foreign channels that broadcast on local frequencies.” Meherremli did not explain the timing of the decision; all three of the international broadcasters have aired programming in Azerbaijan for at least 15 years.

The international broadcasters fill an important role in Azerbaijan, where the state either owns or controls domestic radio outlets aired nationally, CPJ research shows. The international broadcasters are seen as an important alternative to news programming that is largely dominated by government-approved viewpoints.

The disappearance of these foreign broadcasters from local airwaves robs Azerbaijanis of an important forum for independent news, views and debate,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “The government should not withdraw the national frequencies of RFE/RL, VOA, and the BBC. Its argument that the frequencies are needed for Azerbaijani broadcasters would be credible only if it allowed diverse programming and reporting on the air. But the state has shown repeatedly it will not tolerate independent voices.”

An RFE/RL official told CPJ that it had filed documents to renew its license with the NSTR in September, and that Meherremli had personally assured the broadcaster that its license would be renewed after the October 15 presidential vote. Radio Azadliq broadcasts on FM in the capital, Baku, and nationwide on AM.

VOA broadcasts daily from Baku on FM. The BBC, which broadcasts on FM and AM frequencies, said in a statement on Friday that it had recently negotiated the construction of three radio stations in Azerbaijan that would strengthen its transmissions.

Meherremli said on Friday that RFE/RL, BBC, and VOA could maintain their presence in Azerbaijan through satellite, cable, and Internet connection, the independent Baku-based Russian-language newspaper Zerkalo (Mirror) reported today. Radio Azadliq Director Kenan Aliyev told CPJ that most listeners do not have access to such transmissions. “The accessibility of national frequencies–which we would be losing–could not in any way compare to the much smaller audiences with satellite and Internet access.”