New York, August 17, 2017–Azerbaijani authorities should stop harassing Turan, the country’s only independent news agency, and should allow it to work without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
According to media reports, tax officials raided Turan’s newsroom in the capital Baku yesterday, confiscated the agency’s financial documents, and searched reporters’ computers and personal belongings, as part of an investigation into alleged tax evasion. Authorities allege that Turan owes 37,000 manats (US$21,500) in back taxes for the period 2014-2016.
Mehman Aliyev, Turan’s editor-in-chief, told the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that the outlet’s financial documents prove it has paid all its taxes. Azerbaijani human rights defender Ogtai Gyulalyyev told the regional news website Kavzkasky Uzel that “Turan remains practically the last bastion of free press in Azerbaijan” and that the criminal tax evasion investigation “is a blow to press freedom.”
“The Azerbaijani government has repeatedly used politically motivated criminal charges as a weapon to silence independent and opposition media,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on Azerbaijani authorities to drop the politically motivated investigation into Turan news agency and to stop trying to intimidate independent journalists with legal harassment.”
Few independent news outlets remain in Azerbaijan. In May, a Baku court ordered access to five websites that regularly criticize the government to be blocked. The five–the independent newspaper Azadliq, the Berlin-based, online news agency Meydan TV, the Azerbaijani service of RFE/RL, and online video channels Azerbaycan Saati and Turan TV–were blocked in response to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technology’s assertion that they threatened the country’s national security, CPJ documented at the time.