CPJ calls on European Olympic Committees to engage with Azerbaijan on press freedom

April 30, 2015 9:31 AM ET

April 30, 2015

Patrick Hickey
President of the European Olympic Committees
Olympic Council of Ireland
Olympic House
Harbour Road, Howth, Co.
Dublin, Ireland

Hand-delivered

Dear President Hickey,

I am writing on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent international press freedom organization, to call your attention to the dismal climate for press freedom in Azerbaijan, which is scheduled to host the first-ever European Games on June 12.

The European Olympic Committees are governed by the Olympic Charter, whose fundamental principles include the promotion of "a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity" through sport. In addition, in its section "Media Coverage of the Olympic Games," the charter states that Games' organizers are obligated to ensure "the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience."

An unprecedented number of local and international journalists--more than 1,300--have applied for accreditation to cover the European Games in June, according to news reports. But high numbers of journalist applicants will not guarantee full, unobstructed coverage. Recently, while describing the media accreditation process for the Games, Hikmat Hajiyev, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, said that accreditation could be canceled if journalists carried out actions against the "territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Azerbaijan," news reports said. Given Azerbaijan's record of interpreting criticism of authorities and their policies as anti-state actions, Hajiyev's statement casts a shadow on the prospect of the media's ability to cover the Games freely.

Full coverage of the Games--as provisioned in the Olympic Charter--should be understood as more than reporting on scores and medals. Full coverage implies the media's ability to cover the backdrop against which this sports mega-event takes place, including the social, political, economic, and environmental context in which it is set and, above all, the conditions for human rights and press freedom. If we define coverage of the Games in accordance with the Olympic Charter, then the journalists most suited to cover them fully, freely, and independently are languishing in prison on trumped-up criminal charges.

At least eight journalists are in jail in Azerbaijan, according to CPJ research. (We are enclosing with this letter an appendix that details the case of each imprisoned journalist.) One of them, Parviz Hashimli, editor of the independent news website Moderator, has been imprisoned since September 2013 on charges of smuggling and illegal weapons possession in retaliation for his coverage of corruption and human rights.

Authorities in Azerbaijan repeatedly target not only individual critics but also the organizations they represent, CPJ research shows. Khadija Ismayilova, host of a program on the Azeri service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was jailed in early December on charges that CPJ believes are in retaliation for her coverage of corruption in the highest echelons of power. She is also on CPJ's enclosed prison list. The same month she was arrested, authorities raided the Baku bureau of RFE/RL, detained and questioned its staff, and shut it down. RFE/RL has been accused of "spreading false information" and "working for a foreign secret service."

Azerbaijan has a restrictive legal framework that stifles the functions of free media and civil society. In February 2013, Azerbaijan's parliament approved legislation requiring nongovernmental organizations to inform the government about receiving funds of more than 200 manat (about US$250) from abroad, and to sign a formal contract with donors. Many organizations that did not comply have been forced to shut down or move out of the country. In February 2015, President Ilham Aliyev signed amendments to the mass media law that give the Ministry of Justice power to request the closure of media outlets that receive funding from abroad or have been convicted of defamation twice within one year, RFE/RL and others reported.

The courts in Azerbaijan have a record of rubber-stamping state prosecutors' demands against media and civil society plaintiffs, leaving the latter with little hope for redress. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has a backlog of cases--1,404, according to its own statistics--pending against Azerbaijan by its citizens, including at least eight journalists. Last week, a coalition of press freedom and human rights organizations including CPJ, called Sport for Rights, urged the court to prioritize the review of some of the emblematic press cases.

Azerbaijan is ranked as one of the world's 10 Most Censored Countries, in the same company as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea, according to CPJ research. Authorities have persecuted journalists, as well as press freedom advocates and media lawyers, and forced them to censor themselves or go into exile or hiding to avoid politically motivated prosecutions or imprisonment. For the past eight months, Emin Huseynov, director of the now-defunct Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, has been living at the Swiss Embassy in Baku, where he sought refuge after authorities prevented him from traveling abroad. In August, a court sentenced him in absentia to pre-trial detention on accusations of tax evasion and engaging in "illegal business," news reports said citing the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. Since then, Huseynov has not left the Swiss Embassy for fear of imprisonment.

Dear President Hickey, you have the unique opportunity to influence the Azerbaijani government and help improve press freedom conditions in the country. By doing so, you will ensure that the legacy of the first-ever European Games--and that of your EOC presidency--is one of reform. This will be a chance to make a difference and truly use the Olympic movement as a force for good.

In order for the European Games to proceed in an environment that adheres to the principles of the Olympic Charter, journalists should be released from prison, charges against Emin Huseynov dropped, restrictive laws scrapped, and all journalists and media outlets in the country allowed to continue their work free of reprisal and censorship. These are important measures that should be taken before the Games' opening ceremony on June 12.

We ask that you use your office to speak up in defense of press freedom and engage with Azerbaijani authorities, calling on them to create a more tolerant atmosphere for the press.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Nina Ognianova
Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator
Committee to Protect Journalists

Incl.: Appendix of cases of eight journalists jailed in Azerbaijan in relation to their work

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