While the government is working hard to promote a positive international image of Azerbaijan ahead of next week’s Eurovision Song Contest, the most watched non-sporting event in the world, authorities continue to engage in a crackdown on free expression and other fundamental freedoms at home.
In its report, “Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices“, the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan, a coalition of international rights groups coordinated by ARTICLE 19, categorises the current freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan as “alarming”. Here are five main reasons why:
1. Attacks on journalists
Since the March 2005 murder of “Monitor” magazine editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov, dozens of journalists have been the victims of violent attacks in Azerbaijan. In virtually none have the perpetrators been identified and brought to justice.
According to local press freedom group the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), in 2011 there were 11 violent attacks against journalists, including the murder of journalist and writer Rafig Tagi, and another 16 cases of journalists being assaulted or injured on the job.
Last month, security officials from Azerbaijan’s state oil company attacked Idrak Abbasov, a journalist filming forced evictions and house demolitions by the oil company. The officials kicked and beat him unconscious, leaving him with a concussion and broken ribs.
Khadija Ismayilova, one of the country’s leading investigative journalists, revealed earlier this year that she had been the target of a blackmail attempt. Ismayilova, who has published stories exposing corruption among the ruling elite in the oil-rich republic, has been called an “enemy of the state” by Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev.
Among the most devastating impact of this vicious cycle has been widespread self-censorship. Few journalists remain willing to undertake the serious risks associated with pursuing critical investigative journalism in Azerbaijan.
2. Jailing of journalists
Despite the authorities’ apparent inability to properly investigate cases of violence against journalists, they continue to use politically motivated charges and unfair trials to imprison government critics. Journalists, media workers, and bloggers risk jail time if they are not careful what stories they pursue in Azerbaijan – or even what they write on Facebook.
Blogger Bakhtiyar Hajiyev used the popular social networking site to call for pro-democracy protests inspired by uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, and was given a jail sentence of two years on trumped-up charges of evading military service. He’s still in jail.
Seven journalists, a media worker and two bloggers are currently in detention or imprisoned in Azerbaijan on spurious charges, including drug possession and hooliganism.
3. Ban on protests
Opposition rallies have been largely prohibited in central Baku since the November 2005 parliamentary elections. The authorities respond aggressively to unsanctioned demonstrations, arresting and using excessive force against activists who take to the streets.
In March, police arrested Jamal Ali and Natig Kamilov, members of a popular music band, after they performed at a protest against government corruption and expressed solidarity with demonstrators. Police allegedly beat Ali and sentenced the musicians and one of the protest organisers to administrative detention for “hooliganism”.
Currently, 10 political activists and a human rights defender remain in prison following their arrests during Arab Spring-inspired protests in March and April 2011.
4. Criminal defamation
Defamation remains a criminal offence in Azerbaijan, carrying a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment. Although criminal defamation provisions no longer lead to prison sentences as frequently as in previous years, they are still in use. According to local press freedom group the Media Rights Institute, eight journalists were subject to criminal prosecution in defamation cases in 2011.
5. Lack of independent broadcasting
Broadcasting in Azerbaijan is completely dominated by the state through regulations, direct ownership, or indirect economic control. The regulatory authority, the National Television and Radio Council, lacks independence, with funding fully provided by the state and all nine members directly appointed by the president.
A ban imposed in 2009 took the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America off the air, eliminating the only independent news sources for many Azerbaijanis.
The public service broadcaster and local host of Eurovision, Ictimai, is failing to cover significant newsworthy events that are critical of the authorities, instead providing coverage that is disproportionately favourable to the government.
For these reasons, the International Partnership is calling on the organiser of the contest, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which has so far stayed silent on Azerbaijan’s free expression record, to hold the authorities accountable for their actions.
Because if the free expression situation is this dire now, what will happen when the cameras have gone?
By Rebecca Vincent, a freelance human rights consultant and expert on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. She is currently working for ARTICLE 19 where she coordinates the work of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan.
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Photograph (c) Zeljko Joksimovic.