Attacks on the Press 2010: Azerbaijan

Top Developments
• European Court orders release of Eynulla Fatullayev; government still jails editor.
• News sites report periodic blocking, typically when sensitive stories are posted.

Key Statistic
4: Journalists interrogated by security agents after running a statement from the jailed Fatullayev

The authoritarian government of President Ilham Aliyev relied on imprisonments and an atmosphere of impunity to suppress independent journalism. Aliyev, who essentially inherited the presidency of the strategic Caspian Sea nation from his father, used the country’s vast oil and gas resources to play off the competing interests of traditional partners Russia and Turkey with those of newer allies such as the European Union and the United States.


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Throughout the year, U.S. and European leaders courted Aliyev in hopes of building a pipeline that would take Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea gas reserves through Turkey to the rest of the continent. The move would have broken Russian control of gas exports to Europe. But Russian leaders countered by signing contracts with Aliyev that essentially bought up most of the country’s oil and gas surplus. This diplomatic rivalry bolstered Azerbaijan’s economy during the global recession and allowed it to ignore Western criticism of its human rights and press freedom abuses.

Confident that it could withstand international pressure, the government continued to imprison Eynulla Fatullayev, a 2009 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient. The editor of two now-closed newspapers, Fatullayev was imprisoned in April 2007 on a series of fabricated charges, including terrorism and defamation, in retaliation for his investigation into the 2005 murder of his boss and mentor, Elmar Huseynov. He was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.

Fatullayev had alleged that Huseynov’s murder was ordered by high-ranking officials in Baku and that authorities had engaged in a cover-up in the aftermath. A 2008 CPJ investigation found that while authorities were publicly identifying Georgian citizens as suspects in the slaying, they were taking no evident steps to apprehend or extradite them. As in past years, authorities reported no progress in the Huseynov investigation.

By March 2010, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights had ordered Fatullayev’s immediate release because the government had violated his rights to freedom of expression, a fair trial, and presumption of innocence. As a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, Azerbaijan is bound to comply with the rulings of the European Court.

Although the European Court turned down an appeal by Azerbaijan in October, authorities continued to hold Fatullayev in late year. By then, Azerbaijani authorities had fabricated additional charges against the editor, CPJ research shows. In July, the Garadagh District Court in Baku sentenced Fatullayev to another two and a half years in prison after claiming to have found heroin in his cell. Fatullayev denied the charge, saying prison guards planted the drugs in his clothes while he was taking a shower. Based on Fatullayev’s account and authorities’ long-standing persecution of the editor, CPJ concluded that the drug charge was without basis. The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which oversees implementation of the Strasbourg court’s decisions, reprimanded Baku in December for failing to comply with orders to free Fatullayev.

Fatullayev’s supporters faced an aggressive campaign of harassment after the imprisoned editor issued a statement from prison in March in which he directly accused officials in the Ministry of National Security (MNB) of plotting the Huseynov murder. On March 17, an anonymous male caller telephoned Emin Fatullayev, the editor’s father, at his Baku home and said he and his son must “shut up once and for all” or “the entire family will be destroyed,” the elder Fatullayev told CPJ.

MNB officers began summoning journalists to their headquarters in Baku in retaliation for reporting Fatullayev’s allegations. News reports identified those summoned as Turan news agency Director Mehman Aliyev, Yeni Musavat Editor Rauf Arifoglu, Nota weekly reporter Faramaz Novruzoglu, and Khadija Ismayilova, Baku bureau chief of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Agents with the MNB also summoned Fatullayev’s lawyer, Elchin Sadygov, to question him about the statement. In the interviews, MNB agents made clear that they considered the reports to be harmful to the country’s image.

In May, authorities confiscated photographs, video footage, and documents from two Norwegian journalists working on a documentary about freedom of expression in Azerbaijan that focused on the Fatullayev case. Erling Borgen, a reporter and documentary producer, and cameraman Dag Inge Dahl were leaving the country after a week-long reporting trip when they were approached at Baku International Airport by seven men who did not identify themselves, Borgen said. The men seized the journalists’ carry-on bags, claiming they were overweight, and checked the luggage. When the journalists arrived in Oslo, Borgen said, the reporting material was gone from the bags. The journalists had backed up the files, however, and completed the documentary in late year.

CPJ research shows that Azerbaijani authorities have a record of using ruses to obstruct and jail journalists. Two independent video bloggers–Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade–were jailed throughout much of 2010 on fabricated charges brought in reprisal for satirical pieces that mocked government policies. The two were victims of a staged barroom brawl in July 2009, and were arrested themselves for “hooliganism.” The two were freed in November pending appeal. Milli faced a prison sentence of two and a half years, and Hajizade a term of two years.

The circumstances of their arrest were strikingly similar to those involving Genimet Zakhidov, editor of the Baku-based, pro-opposition daily Azadlyg. Zakhidov, released from prison in March after serving more than two years, was also jailed on “hooliganism” charges. Here, too, the journalist was ensnared in a staged assault and then charged in the aftermath, CPJ research showed.

With broadcast media the most popular source of news, the government retained tight control over the country’s eight national and 14 regional television stations. The president nominates all nine members of the National Television and Radio Council (NsTR), which has succeeded in keeping broadcast media largely in the hands of Aliyev’s allies. The NSTR continued to bar the BBC, and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and RFE/RL, from broadcasting on FM frequencies in Azerbaijan. In 2010, news reports said, the NsTR was developing new regulations requiring online radio and television outlets to obtain licenses.

The government continued using state-run AzTV and private pro-government radio and television stations to broadcast propaganda glorifying Aliyev and ensuring that his ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party would dominate parliamentary elections in November. In September, for instance, broad-cast media enthusiastically reported a government “celebration” of Aliyev’s leadership that included raising what officials called the world’s largest flag.

Few journalists dared to criticize the president or his family, and self-censorship remained widespread due to the country’s restrictive laws, politicized courts, and biased regulatory agencies. Libel remained a criminal offense, with journalists facing up to three years’ imprisonment upon conviction. Self-censorship was also spawned by 2009 media restrictions that banned photographers from shooting individuals without explicit consent, and that required news outlets to print rebuttals from individuals aggrieved by news coverage.

Widespread restrictions on traditional media drove increasing numbers of people–particularly the young, urban, and educated–to Internet news sources. Internet penetration rose significantly, to 44 percent, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union. In the absence of specific government restrictions on Internet news, websites such as Lenta were able to provide more aggressive coverage than traditional media. Young people increasingly uploaded photos and videos from their mobile phones to sharing sites such as YouTube, according to local and international press reports.

The government, growing anxious about independent news and commentary online, was suspected of periodically blocking domestic access to critical websites. Access to the Azeri-language website of RFE/RL was blocked for two days in March after it posted a translation of a Washington Post story about nine luxurious homes in Dubai, worth around US$75 million, that had been purchased in the names of the president’s three young children, according to RFE/RL and local press reports. RFE/RL said its technicians had determined the problem was occurring within Azerbaijan; the government and Internet service providers did not comment.

Journalists worked in an atmosphere of impunity as authorities consistently failed to investigate anti-press attacks. On July 28, a group of unidentified men assaulted Yeni Musavat reporter Elmin Badalov and Milli Yol Deputy Editor Anar Geraily as they were trying to photograph a luxurious villa in suburban Mardakan reportedly owned by Transportation Minister Ziya Mamedov, the Turan news agency reported. The men, who turned out to be Mamedov’s bodyguards, broke Badalov’s nose and destroyed his camera, but authorities did not prosecute them, news reports said. No explanation was given.

Reporting in the southwestern exclave of Nakhchivan–surrounded by Armenia, Iran, and Turkey–was particularly dangerous; a small group of independent journalists tried to report on government corruption and suppression of public dissent in the impoverished region. In January, police barred journalists from entering the village of Bananyar for a week following a massive crackdown on villagers protesting the closure of kiosks where local citizens bought and sold food, RFE/RL reported. Hundreds of police officers were dispatched to intimidate and arrest discontented villagers, RFE/RL said.

In September, Nakhchivan officials escalated a campaign of intimidation against Elman Abbasov and Hakimeldostu Mehdiyev, local correspondents for the Baku-based press freedom group Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS). They pressured the journalists’ relatives to stop communicating with them, questioned people who visited their homes after they left, and yelled at them on the street, IRFS reported. Authorities were apparently seeking to obstruct their reporting ahead of the November parliamentary elections. The two continued working nonetheless.

Facing international criticism for its press freedom abuses, the government often responded by increasing pressure on those who documented the problems. On July 21, police summoned Khalid Agaliyev of the Baku-based Media Rights Institute, questioning him about a recent press freedom report and warning him to be careful about harming Azerbaijan’s image, according to local press reports.