In Azerbaijan, It's Press Unfreedom Year
Azerbaijan heads towards World Press Freedom Day with a fast-deteriorating record on media rights and free speech.
Over the last year, journalists have been arrested and jailed, and the space for independent media has been squeezed to almost nothing.
“I fear that if I get asked about free media in Azerbaijan next year, I’ll have nothing to say. That’s how fast independent media are being destroyed,” newspaper editor Elchin Shikhli told IWPR.
Shikhli is editor-in-chief of the Ayna-Zerkalo paper, which was forced to stop publishing in May 2014.
“In Soviet times… no one could stick their neck out and get out of line. If they did, they’d get the chop. The same thing is happening now,” he said.
Ahead of the May 3 date, the Washington-based watchdog group Freedom House issued its annual report, Press Freedom in 2014 , which ranked Azerbaijan’s media as “not free” and awarded it 188th place on a downward scale that ends with North Korea at 199.
Last year, the report said, “the government unleashed a major crackdown on independent media, employing threats, raids, restrictive laws, and prosecutions. Journalists and bloggers faced fabricated charges and arbitrary detention, and at least eight remained in prison at year’s end, making Azerbaijan the worst jailer of journalists in Eurasia.”
(See also IWPR’s report on 2014: Grim Year for Press Freedom.)
SILENCING INDEPENDENT REPORTERS
Around 12 journalists and bloggers have been arrested in as many months. Among them are leading investigative reporter Khadija Ismayil, arrested in early December and now facing new charges including embezzlement and tax evasion, after prosecutors found it difficult to stand up the original allegation of “pressuring someone to commit suicide”.
Ismayil reports for the Prague-based radio station RFE/RL and has conducted in-depth probes into financial wrongdoing by top Azerbaijan leaders. She could face up to 12 years in jail.
Independent journalists, human rights defenders and opposition members are commonly accused of financial misdemeanours or disorderly behaviour, both to deflect attention from their criticism of government and to smear their reputations.
In April 2014, Rauf Mirqadirov was detained in Turkey and sent to Azerbaijan, where he was accused of passing secret information to Armenia. His lawyer said Mirqadirov regarded the charges as absurd.
In January 2015, a court sentenced journalist Seymur Hezi to five years in prison. Hezi writes for the Azadliq newspaper and presented Azerbaijan Hour, carried on a Turkish TV channel.
He was arrested last August and charged with disorderly conduct. His legal team said he was attacked by a man and hit back in self-defence.
“My grandfathers were purged in 1937. Now we are being purged by a system created by KGB general Heydar Aliyev [late president, succeeded by son Ilham Aliyev],” Hezi said in court.”
Social media activist Faraj Karimov was detained in July last year and charged with possession of drugs, as was his brother Siraj.
“They are both members of the [opposition] Musavat party, which is why their family has always had problems from the government,” their lawyer Nemat Karimli said.
Faraj Karimov ran ISTEFA (“Resign”), the largest Azeri-language page on Facebook with had 300,000 subscribers before it was closed down in July 2013. He then created a page called BASTA, which had 155,000 subscribers, and was also administrator of the Musavat party’s website.
SHUTTING DOWN MEDIA
Ayna-Zerkalo is only one of several important media outlets forced to shut down their operations over the last years, including the Media Forum website, the web-based Obyektiv TV, and the Baku office of RFE/RL radio (on which see Azerbaijan Turns on US-Funded Broadcaster.)
A criminal investigation against RFE/RL is ongoing, and its staff are either out of work or abroad.
In an attempt to obscure the real reasons for such actions, prosecutors commonly bring allegations of financial wrongdoing. The Media Forum, for instance, was a project run by media development organisation Internews, which has had its accounts frozen as part of a drive to stop foreign donors funding organisations in Azerbaijan.
In the case of Ayna-Zerkalo, Shikhli says the newspaper was undermined by even more indirect means – “the advertising market became monopolised” by powerful interests.
“The majority of independent print outlets have either closed down or have been co-opted by the authorities. There are no independent television channels left, either,” reporter Aynur Imranova told IWPR.
Imranova herself is under investigation and is barred from leaving the country.
“Every time I go in for questioning, I take a packed bag in case they arrest me,” she said in a recent appeal for help.
A handful of independent media are fighting a rearguard battle for survival, among them the Azadlik newspaper. Its editor Rahim Hajiev says the government is using various ploys to drive it into the ground, from court action to banning retail sales and blocking off advertising revenues.
“In recent months, the newspaper has carried on solely thanks to the selflessness of our staff, since we haven’t been able to pay them since January. Lawsuits against the newspaper continue, and we haven’t been able to pay previous fines yet,” Hajiyev told IWPR. “The hardest thing for me to say right now is how long the newspaper will hold out. I don’t have an answer to that.”
The Turan news agency is in a similar position. Chief editor Mehman Aliyev says the few remaining staff are struggling on as its income dwindles.
Azadliq used to receive grants from foreign donors, but a recent law has cut off that kind of funding. Amendments passed by Azerbaijan’s parliament in December allow courts to shut down a media outlet if it is found to be receiving funding from abroad, as well as if it has had two guilty verdicts for defamation in the space of one year. (Azerbaijan Law Makes it Easier to Stifle Media .)
Although the independent Meydan TV has been forced to close its Baku office, its staff in Azerbaijan say they are carrying on as best they can.
“Of course it’s hard to do professional journalism in a country where freedom of expression is being strangled,” one staff member said. “Danger awaits us at every step.”
Samira Ahmedbeyli reports from Azerbaijan.