Attacks on the Press 2009: Azerbaijan

Top Developments
• Critical reporters jailed for defamation, “hooliganism.”
• CPJ honors imprisoned editor Eynulla Fatullayev.

Key Statistic
68: Novruzali Mamedov’s age when he died in prison after being denied medical care.

Using imprisonment as a crude form of censorship, the authoritarian government of President Ilham Aliyev remained one of the region’s worst jailers of journalists. Authorities allowed one editor to die in state custody after failing to provide adequate medical care and ignoring domestic and international pleas for treatment.


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Country Summaries
Other developments

Political dissent and independent voices, already in short supply, came under assault again as Aliyev tightened his grip on the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation. In March, his government brought before voters a constitutional amendment to remove presidential term limits, effectively allowing Aliyev to remain in office for life. The measure, which passed by a wide margin, was criticized by opposition politicians and the international community. Aliyev was elected to a second term in 2008 after electoral laws were changed to restrict participation by opposition politicians. Aliyev effectively inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar, himself leader of Azerbaijan for more than 30 years.

In January, the BBC and the U.S. government-funded broadcasters Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America were forced to halt FM transmissions in response to a National Television and Radio Council decision to ban international stations from domestic frequencies. Radio Azadlyg, the popular Azerbaijani service of RFE/RL, had become a particularly important alternative news source for citizens. “Although many listeners call us and ask how to listen to the radio via Internet and satellite … 90 percent of the regular listeners we had before lost access to our information,” Radio Azadlyg Bureau Chief Khadija Ismayilova told the news Web site EurasiaNet.

The loss of Radio Azadlyg was significant. Most residents get news from television, which is largely under the administration’s control, either directly or through pro-Aliyev owners, CPJ research shows. The only independent Azerbaijani channel with national reach, ANS, toned down its criticism of the government since regulators suspended its license for five months beginning in November 2006. Low-circulation print media had more editorial freedom, but their impact on public opinion was small. And with authorities cracking down on critical journalists—using criminal defamation charges to demand jail time and high monetary damages—few reporters were willing to cover sensitive topics, the most dangerous of which was reporting on Aliyev and his family.

The state’s intolerance of critical voices reached its lowest, and cruelest, point in August when Novruzali Mamedov, editor of a now-defunct minority newspaper, died in prison, two years into a 10-year sentence on a trumped-up treason charge. A Penitentiary Service spokesman said the 68-year-old Mamedov had suffered a stroke—and the journalist’s lawyer, family, colleagues, and supporters charged that authorities bore responsibility. Mamedov’s health had severely deteriorated in the months before his death, they said, and the editor had repeatedly complained of inadequate medical care. Defense lawyer Ramiz Mamedov (no relation to the journalist) said his client had suffered from hypertension, bronchitis, neuritis, and a prostate tumor, among other ailments.

Authorities refused to release Mamedov on humanitarian grounds or allow independent medical care. The Council of Europe’s representative to Azerbaijan, Veronika Kotek, unsuccessfully appealed for Mamedov’s transfer to a civilian hospital just days before the death, according to the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS). Emin Huseynov, IRFS director, said authorities had also refused to allow medical treatment offered by a European Union delegation that visited Mamedov in June. Mamedov’s family filed a lawsuit against the Azerbaijani Penitentiary Service and officials at Prison No. 15, where the editor had been held. The case was pending in late year.

Arrested in February 2007, Mamedov was convicted the following year after a closed-door trial before Judge Shakir Aleskerov of the Court for Grave Crimes. Authorities never publicly disclosed the evidence against Mamedov, despite protests from domestic and international press freedom groups, including CPJ. News reports said the case against the editor was based on an allegation that he had received money from Iran to publish his newspaper, Talyshi Sado, a tiny, twice-weekly publication, whose target audience was Azerbaijan’s ethnic Talysh minority. The Talysh community spans northern Iran and southern Azerbaijan. The paper folded after Mamedov’s arrest.

Mamedov’s death in state custody threw into sharp relief the plight of six  other members of the news media who were being held in jail for their work when CPJ conducted its annual worldwide census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.

Three journalists—Sakit Zakhidov of the pro-opposition daily Azadlyg, Asif Marzili of the independent weekly Tezadlar, and Ali Hasanov of the pro-government daily Ideal—were granted early release from prison in April under a pardon act passed by parliament the month before. Seeing the amnesty, some analysts expressed hope that the government might ease its heavy-handed repression of the Azerbaijani press corps. Those hopes were soon dashed as the government opened its revolving prison door to four more journalists.

Two were being held on defamation charges, CPJ research showed. In October, Editor-in-Chief Sardar Alibeili and reporter Faramaz Novruzoglu of the weekly newspaper Nota were given three-month prison terms after they said in several articles that a civic group and its leader were little more than government mouthpieces.

International monitors—including those with the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—have frequently criticized the government for its refusal to decriminalize defamation. But while defamation has been a favorite tool in silencing the press, IRFS director Huseynov noted that officials have been inventive in using laws as far-ranging as treason and hooliganism.

Take the case of two video bloggers—30-year-old Emin Milli and 26-year-old Adnan Hajizade—who were arrested in July after posting a series of sketches criticizing government policies. A satirical video the bloggers produced and posted
on YouTube in June may have been a particular trigger for reprisal. The video criticized the country’s importation of donkeys, supposedly at high prices. The sketch depicted a fictional press conference at which Hajizade, wearing a donkey suit, talked to a group of Azerbaijani “journalists.”

In an Orwellian scenario, Milli and Hajizade were taken into custody after they went to a police station to report an assault. The pair had been debating politics with friends at a Baku restaurant when two unidentified men interrupted the conversation and started a brawl, local press reports said. By the time the bloggers arrived at the police station, the two assailants had supposedly filed a complaint and officers had already decided what to do. Without investigating, police charged Milli and Hajizade with “hooliganism” and “inflicting minor bodily harm,” the Azerbaijani press reported. On November 11, a Sabail District Court judge pronounced the bloggers guilty, sentencing Milli to two and a half years in jail and Hajizade to two years.

CPJ decried the case as entrapment and noted that the circumstances were strikingly similar to the 2007 jailing of Genimet Zakhidov, editor of Azadlyg. Zakhidov was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for “hooliganism” and “inflicting minor bodily harm” after a pair of strangers accosted him on a Baku street, then supposedly filed a police complaint claiming they had been the victims. In September, a Baku judge denied an appeal for a lighter sentence because Zakhidov had been reprimanded in prison for not joining a volleyball game, IRFS reported.

In November, CPJ honored one imprisoned journalist whose case was emblematic of the government’s efforts to silence its critics. Eynulla Fatullayev, a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, was imprisoned in April 2007 on a series of fabricated charges, including terrorism and defamation. Fatullayev, editor of the now-closed independent Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan, was jailed in retaliation for his investigation into the 2005 murder of his former boss and mentor, Elmar Huseynov. Fatullayev had alleged an official cover-up in the case.

Reporting from or about the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic—a western exclave that borders Armenia, Iran, and Turkey—remained Azerbaijan’s most dangerous assignment. Only a handful of reporters worked in the territory, and they faced intimidation and harassment from local security agents. In February 2009, Idrak Abbasov, a reporter with the Baku-based independent newspaper Zerkalo and a researcher with IRFS, traveled to Nakhchivan to study local press freedom conditions. Agents with the Nakhchivan Ministry of National Security (MNB) blindfolded him, took his identity papers, camera, notebook, and cell phone, and interrogated him for hours about his trip. An unidentified agent demanded that Abbasov reveal the names of his colleagues in the region, cursed at him, and accused him of being a spy for Armenia, the journalist told CPJ after his detention. Before releasing him, officers deleted images from his camera and ordered him to leave Nakhchivan immediately.

Abbasov told CPJ that agents had lured him to an MNB station on the pretext that they would answer questions. He said the mistreatment left him with stress-induced heart problems that required several days of hospitalization.