Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caucasian republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia have declared their desire to model themselves after Western European societies, with free-market economies and democratic government. But their passage from communism to a new social order has been rife with contradictions. In the current transition period, leaders of both countries display authoritarian tendencies, resulting in an ambiguous and sometimes surreal climate for the media:

By constitution and law, Azerbaijan has banned censorship, yet it continues to practice extensive Soviet-style censorship over the print media.

Despite censorship of state television, Azerbaijan does permit one independent television company, the Azerbaijan News Service (ANS), to broadcast news with very little direct control. The ANS, located in Baku, is the most powerful independent broadcaster in the Caucasus.

Although Armenia has abandoned formal press censorship, the Armenian government maintains such strict controls over television that they amount to formal censorship. Occasionally, officials have resorted to extra-judicial harassment, but such attacks have lessened since 1996.

Armenian officials stress their commitment to freedom of the press, but this freedom has engendered new forms of pressure on the media and has failed to produce a vigorous free press.

The hardships of journalists and the media in the volatile and complex Caucasus region have posed a great challenge for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) since the Soviet Union dissolved earlier this decade. The persistence of political and military censorship, restrictive media legislation and violent attacks against journalists and media organizations in Azerbaijan and Armenia prompted CPJ to undertake a research project in 1997 focused on the media climate in the two neighboring but hostile states. With the support of the Open Society Institute, CPJ commissioned Nicholas Daniloff, a veteran foreign correspondent and specialist on the media in the Caucasus, to conduct a three-month fact-finding mission to the two countries beginning in April 1997. Daniloff, who serves as director of the journalism school at Boston’s Northeastern University, conducted extensive interviews with local editors, reporters, media and human rights groups, professional associations, and government officials in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The long shadow of the 1992-94 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within the borders of Azerbaijan, has continued to allow both countries¹ political leaders to stall democratic development and harness the media in the name of ³stability.² Despite the repressive political climate, new, privately owned media outlets have proliferated. In light of our findings on the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan, CPJ recommends that:

The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan respect freedom of the press and provide guarantees so that journalists may work freely and safely, without fear of reprisal. The notion that free media are in any way a destabilizing factor or harmful to national or public interests contradicts all universally recognized principles of democracy.

The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan must ensure that all cases of violence and crimes against journalists and media organizations be thoroughly investigated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. The lack of due justice on behalf of victimized journalists fosters a climate of fear and intimidation that inhibits freedom of expression.

Despite constitutional guarantees against censorship, the criminal codes in both countries limit criticism of government officials through various statutes penalizing “false and dishonoring” comments, insults, and criticism of the president. CPJ opposes the use of criminal statutes to address libel suits and condemns the misuse of libel statutes by public officials to suppress journalistic investigation.

CPJ also strongly urges the government of Azerbaijan to immediately and unconditionally lift all political and military censorship of the media. Despite a 1996 presidential decree removing military censorship, journalists and media-watch groups report that the practice persists along with political censorship in violation of all international norms of press freedom and free speech.

As a matter of foreign policy, CPJ calls on the U.S. government to stress the importance of free media in its dealings with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is the view of independent journalists in the region that greater support for professional training could contribute greatly to the development of an independent press community. CPJ would like to encourage the U.S. government to establish regular opportunities for journalists in Armenia and Azerbaijan to travel to the United States and participate in media conferences and training programs. We note the effectiveness of the United States Information Agency exchange program for journalists from Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular, where Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats jointly participated in meetings in the United States. Similar efforts must be made to engage Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists in such joint programs, whereby the U.S. host organizations would provide a neutral ground for discussion and debate on relevant issues in the Caucasus.

Currently, Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act prevents the direct granting of U.S. aid to government organizations in Azerbaijan. In the view of informed foreign observers and local journalists, Section 907 has had a deleterious effect because it impedes the provision of U.S. government-sponsored English-language instruction to most Azerbaijani universities and prevents the United States from inviting Azerbaijani journalists who work for state media to participate in professional training programs.