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 countries’ political leaders to stall democratic development and harness the media in the name of “stability.” 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.

Azerbaijan’s Media Navigate a Legal Maze

Editors of Baku’s leading newspapers were thrown into turmoil in early November 1996. The Milli Medjlis had just amended the law on mass media to require licensing in addition to registration with the Ministry of Justice before newspapers could begin, or continue, operating. Fourteen chief editors of newspapers and news agencies gathered in December to demand clarification.

“We hoped for some positive changes when we heard that parliament would consider amendments and modifications,” the editors said in a statement to the Milli Medjlis. “But we got confused when we read the text…” The editors asked: What agency would issue the newly required licenses? What would be the criteria? Could the licenses be revoked?

An Azeri weeps over the coffin of his brother, killed in 1992 in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno – Karabakh. The fighting has stopped, but the lingering hostilities have allowed both countries’ leaders to harness the media in the name of “stability.”


The amendment, the editors complained, would “increase the control of the executive bodies over mass media, and it will certainly limit freedom of speech, press and expression and will not be in the interests of society, democratic principles, and the international obligations of Azerbaijan.”

A response was slow in coming. Two months later, Alexander Goldman, a lawyer for the Justice Ministry, gave an interview published in the January 18, 1997, issue of the newspaper Ayna – Zerkalo in which he evaded direct answers. “No unfavorable changes are foreseen for the mass media,” he declared. Six months later, the situation was as muddy as ever. Editors finally swallowed their protests and applied for the licenses.

Building a democratic society in which independent media can flourish has proved a challenging task for Azerbaijan and for Armenia. Both claim they want to follow the European model, with market economies and democratic government. Yet both are finding the transition from communism to a new social order difficult and paradoxical.

The media in both republics must contend with the legacy of the Soviet era‹laws and institutions that impede the free flow of ideas characteristic of a democracy, ingrained traditions of government censorship and control of the news, and officials’ reflexive hostility and suspicion toward the press. And the prolonged state of war between the two republics over Nagorno – Karabakh, the Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, has added a dimension of secrecy and physicial danger to the already difficult emergence into independence of the Armenian and Azeri media in the post – Soviet era.

The conflict over Nagorno – Karabakh, like others in the Caucasus, has its roots in the Russian Empire and Stalin’s brutal rearrangement of territorial jurisdictions as part of the Communists’ divide – and – conquer policy toward the non – Russian nationalities. The coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1985 and his glasnost policy unleashed suppressed ethnic tensions from the Baltic republics to Central Asia. Freed from Soviet oppression, ethnic minorities began to clamor for more autonomy.

Nagorno – Karabakh, a fertile mountain territory of 4,400 square kilometers, is populated principally by Armenians, but situated entirely within the borders of Azerbaijan. In the Gorbachev era, Armenians in Nagorno – Karabakh‹who had no television broadcasting available in their own language‹began to seek more cultural freedom.

By 1988, relations between Armenians and Azeris had deteriorated sharply. In February of that year, demonstrators in Nagorno – Karabakh and Yerevan called for union with Armenia and began expelling Azeris from the enclave. That sparked anti – Armenian demonstrations in Azerbaijan. When central authorities failed to stop the Azeri massacre of Armenians in Sumgait and other Azeri cities, Armenians inside and outside Nagorno – Karabakh began to demand political autonomy. A cycle of violence erupted, accompanied by bloody reprisals and counter – reprisals in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Attempts by Moscow to intervene and restore the status quo ante failed, and on January 6, 1992, local Karabakh activists led by Robert Kocharian (now prime minister of Armenia) proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Nagorno – Karabakh. So far, no government has recognized it, including Armenia.

During the hot war over Nagorno – Karabakh, which dragged on until May 12, 1994, when a cease – fire was concluded, between 500,000 and 1 million Azeri refugees (Armenian and Azerbaijani officials dispute the figures) fled Nagorno – Karabakh and surrounding regions to Baku and other parts of Azerbaijan, while Armenian and Karabakh Armenian forces occupied 15 – 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory.

War and political crises at home have inclined President Heidar Aliyev, former head of the secret police and first secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party in the Soviet era as well as a leading member of Leonid Brezhnev’s Politburo, toward authoritarian rule. He has maintained stern controls over broadcast and print media, with some exceptions.

By contrast, the government of Armenia has dismantled its inherited Soviet censorship apparatus. But President Levon Ter – Petrossian and his ministers, politically embattled, exert tight control over television and subject the print media to financial and extra – judicial pressures.

A continuing problem for both countries is the residue of mutual distrust and old attitudes. Azerbaijan is worried about large military shipments from Moscow to Armenia, Russia’s main strategic ally in the Caucasus, including rockets capable of striking Baku, T – 72 tanks, and armored personnel carriers. Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of violating agreed – upon force levels under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) accord. In both Azerbaijan and Armenia, officials have difficulty abandoning the conviction that media should be tools of the executive. The dictum of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that press freedom means “expression of ideas that we loathe and believe fraught with death” has yet to be embraced by Baku and Yerevan.

The primary rule regulating the Azerbaijani press since independence in 1991 and up to the present day is the Law on Mass Media, derived from the Soviet Union’s press law, and adopted by Azerbaijan on July 21, 1992. Article 3 takes the high road of democracy by explicitly prohibiting prior censorship. When Azerbaijan went to war with Armenia over Nagorno – Karabakh, however, the government declared a state of emergency and reimposed censorship in violation of the constitution. Parliament subsequently modified the law on December 6, 1993, to allow military censorship.

Furthermore, the law’s formal ban on censorship is qualified from the start by Article 4, which forbids “abuse of media freedom.” This “takeaway” article, adopted directly from Article 4 of the Soviet law, lists subjects that may not be publicized: state secrets; classified materials; calls for the forcible overthrow of government and constitution; war propaganda; violence and cruelty; hatred and intolerance of ethnic, social, or class groups; pornography; invasions of personal privacy; and assaults on the honor and dignity of citizens. These subjects are vaguely defined, and open to interpretation.

The Azerbaijani law contains several other restrictions, such as the requirement to register with the authorities (Article 8), and not to disclose developments in criminal investigations without written permission from the prosecutor (Article 34). Article 14 provides procedures for closing down mass media in cases of violation of Article 4. Finally, the law contains a list of dos and don’ts for journalists, which are listed in a separate section titled “Rights and Obligations of the Journalist” (Articles 35 – 37).

The criminal code, virtually unchanged from Soviet times, limits the criticism of government officials through several articles. Article 121, on libel, punishes “false and dishonoring” comments; Article 122 punishes insults; Article 188.6 specifically prohibits “critical comments on the activity” of the president of the republic. Under Article 188.6, four young journalists from the newspaper Chesme were arrested March 3, 1995, and tried and convicted on October 19, 1995. They were pardoned by President Aliyev on November 11, the eve of parliamentary elections, and released.

Other criminal restrictions penalize the following acts: Article 63 (calls to overthrow the government by force); Article 64 (distribution of war propaganda); Article 68 (unauthorized release of state secrets); Article 228 (preparation or sale of pornography); Article 228.1 (materials glorifying cruelty and violence). The civil code, also a holdover from the Soviet era, considers libel a civil offense under Article 7.1.

The new Azerbaijani constitution, drafted under President Aliyev, was adopted by referendum on November 12, 1995, four years after independence, and imposed upon Soviet – era legislation, which has yet to be revised. This 154 – article constitution contains all the standard freedoms in a fundamental law on democracy, including popular elections of president and parliament, separation of powers, rights of the individual, an independent judiciary, and judicial review by a constitutional court.

Individual articles of the constitution cover the freedom of expression associated with the U.S. First Amendment: Article 50, reflecting the spirit of the Law on Mass Media, explicitly bans state censorship; Article 47 guarantees freedom of speech; Article 48, freedom of religion; Article 49, freedom of assembly; Article 57, the right to petition for redress of grievance.

But the constitution also pays particular attention in Article 46 to protecting the honor and dignity of citizens‹a traditional issue in the Caucasus. Article 106 protects the honor and dignity of the president; Article 75 guarantees respect for state symbols. These articles effectively ban criticism of the chief executive.

On January 25, 1997, Azerbaijan enacted a comprehensive law on official secrets, which holds journalists, as well as officials, responsible for leaks of classified materials. While it was under debate in parliament, critics assailed the bill for ushering in such a wide range of forbidden topics that journalists would be unable to write anything. The statute, inspired by the Russian law on official secrets, groups sensitive subjects under four headings: military, economic, foreign policy, and intelligence. Nevertheless, it officially places some issues that were secret during Soviet times‹such as the health of high officials, accidents, and the state of the environment‹within the public domain.

The Azerbaijani parliament is slated to consider further legislation affecting the press. Draft bills on freedom of information and on financial support of the press have been forwarded to the parliament by the New Generation group of the Union of Journalists, known by its Azeri name, Yeni Nesil. Parliamentary sources report that the legislature is drafting its own versions of these bills.

No law currently regulates television or radio, although the spirit of the Law on Mass Media prevails in broadcasting. Television journalists are drafting a model law which would deal specifically with broadcasting, allocation of frequencies, and the status of independent stations.

Cut It Out: Notes from An Azerbaijani Censor

A 1993 censor’s log book, revealing the interplay between censors and the cuts they made, has been circulating among Baku editors. Some extracts from the purloined document:
“An article cut from Azadliq. It said that S. Husseinov demanded the resignation of President Aliyev at his press conference at Ganja. If you see such information in other newspapers, cut it out immediately. “Anything concerning H. Aliyev should be reported and presented to Ildrimzade, the chief.
Signed: R. Imanov

“3/IX/93 To all! To all! To all!
“All newspapers, regardless of the way they are typeset, must be presented in two copies with all sketches and cartoons. Demand presentation of all photos, and approve them by stamping on reverse side.
“10/XII/93 From a call by Rafik Imanov:
“1. Articles in which A. Mutalibov [ed. note: Mutalibov abandoned the presidency and fled to Moscow in 1992] is described as legal president must be approved by the chief.
“2. Get approval for any anti – Aliyev article.
“3. Get approval for any writing which cast doubts about the legitimacy of power.
“4. Articles describing the arrested as political prisoners have got to be approved.
“Signed: Pashayeva…”

Oil Flows More Freely than Ideas in Azerbaijan

The smell of oil, profits, and risk hang heavily over Baku. To the Western visitor, this port city looks like a boom town. Azerbaijan has discovered new oil reserves in the Caspian Sea which may be nearly as great as those of Kuwait. And outsiders are rushing to town to pump oil and get rich quick, or to service “the oilies” who are doing the pumping. Because of oil, Baku is now the most prosperous city in the Caucasus. Flush with cash, foreign oil companies, and Azeri nouveaux riches are restoring mansions that once belonged to such turn – of – the – century oil barons as Robert and Ludwig Nobel. American and European supermarkets are springing up. An overabundance of yellow Star taxis ply the streets looking for clients. Vendors at open stalls offer a cornucopia of products imported from Istanbul and Dubai. On almost every street, money changers turn U.S. currency into Azerbaijani manats. Foreign restaurants with names like The Ragin’ Cajun, Lord Nelson, Dragon Baku, Mullerbrau, and La Dolce Vita are doing a roaring business, profiting from the low level of nighttime crime.

The atmosphere has changed dramatically from a few years ago, when Baku was still an impoverished post – Soviet city, marked by poorly stocked stores and a population weary of war with Armenia. The hot war began in 1992 when the government of President Ayaz Mutalibov mounted a military offensive to reclaim the secessionist Nagorno – Karabakh. A small but determined Karabakh army suceeded in repelling the Azerbaijani soldiers, with help from Russia, Armenia, and diaspora commanders like the California – born Monte Melkonian, who was killed in the Karabakh fighting.

A series of Azerbaijani military defeats in the spring of 1992, particularly the massacre of the Azeri population in the village of Khodzhali by Karabakh Armenian forces, hastened the downfall of President Mutalibov and contributed to the ascent to the presidency in June of that year of Abulfaz Elchibey, a former dissident who headed the Popular Front democratic movement.

In the face of mass demonstrations by Popular Front supporters in Baku, Mutalibov resigned in March 1992 and fled to Moscow. In May, in an uneasy compromise between Mutalibov and the opposition, the old Supreme Soviet ceded its powers to the Milli Medjlis, the Azerbaijani national assembly. A new coalition government was formed, and in early June, Elchibey was elected president of Azerbaijan.

As president, Elchibey eliminated the censorship apparatus, allowing a period of free expression, which journalists look back on as “a golden era.” But Elchibey’s administration was troubled from the start by domestic lawlessness, government corruption, and ongoing trouble on the Karabakh front.

Military defeats forced him to proclaim a state of emergency and to reinstitute “temporary” military censorship. His presidency lasted only a year.

“In June 1993, Col. Suret Husseinov, a disgruntled Azeri hero, led an armed rebellion, causing President Elchibey to flee. This crisis brought Heidar Aliyev, an experienced Soviet – era politician, back from his provincial base in Nakhchivan to become speaker of parliament and eventually president, a post confirmed by popular vote later in the year. Aliyev, who is expected to be the leading candidate in the presidential elections of 1998, is using the power of incumbency to suppress the campaigns of opponents like Elchibey.

As president, Aliyev has consolidated his power through strong – arm rule. He has weathered conspiracies to unseat him in 1994 and 1995; arrested his principal opponents; dismissed former allies from high posts; prevented the army from gaining excessive power by sacking generals; and involved himself directly in promotions. By manipulating the parliamentary elections of November 12, 1995‹criticized by observers as seriously flawed‹Aliyev’s cohorts succeeded in stacking the 125 – member Milli Medjlis with supporters. Aliyev also packed the judiciary and the bureaucracy with his own people, many of them cronies from Nakhchivan.

Aliyev has exercised tight control over the media, which includes opposition and independent newspapers, as well as government organs. Censorship is routine, and opposition newspapers‹the censors’ primary targets – often lose several articles an issue. Aliyev has toughened or relaxed controls on the press at critical moments to provide a semblance of free expression and democracy – building. His tools have included the Main Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in the Media, the Soviet – era censorship organization popularly known as “Glavlit”; financial pressures; legal harassment; and extra – judicial measures. At the same time, Aliyev has allowed non – governmental and human rights organizations to operate in Baku and has lessened the intrusive nature of the political police in day – to – day life.

Despite repressive domestic policies, Azerbaijan enjoys an atmosphere of political stability and economic hope, which attracts foreign oil companies. The World Bank estimates that at least 25 percent of the economy has been privatized, possibly more. Inflation has dropped to about 6 percent a year, and growth in GDP is anticipated at 3 – 4 percent this year. Average wages are approximately $40 a month, and a family of four needs $120 – $250 a month to live, forcing families to have more than one breadwinner.

Offshore oil rigs east of Baku, Azerbaijan. The open climate for foreign investment in Azerbaijan’s vast oil reserves has not brought with it a loosening of the Aliyev government’s tight grip on the media. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)