As the Eurovision Song Contest fades from memory, Azerbaijan has stepped up its attacks on journalists. Blogger Emil Baghirov reports on the dire state of press freedom in the Caucasus nation
Azerbaijan‘s post-Eurovision assault on free speech is under way. Journalists have been arrested and persecuted, new fabricated court proceedings started against independent media outlets and last month the government passed amendments to the country’s freedom of information law that will go some way to block investigative journalism.
Only days after the 29 May song contest was over, an investigative reporter with the newspaper Azadliq, Ramin Deko, was arrested. Deko, who covers the regions outside Baku, was sued by MP Novruzali Aslanov, who claimed that he had been slandered, following Deko’s reporting on corruption. Deko was given a fine of 3,000 AZN (2,400 GBP). Neither Deko nor his lawyer were present at the hearing.
On 11 June, Anar Bayramli, who works for Iranian television channel Sahar TV, was given a prison sentence of two years, charged with the illegal purchase and possession of drugs. Though Bayramli was arrested in February, the sentence was not handed down until after Eurovision, after international media attention had moved on.
The next day, police arrested photojournalist Mehman Huseynov on charges of hooliganism. He was detained for several hours and not allowed to eat. In court on 13 June, Huseynov, who also worked as media coordinator for the Sing for Democracy initiative around Eurovision, denied all charges. He was released that day, but criminal proceedings are still ongoing. International pressure certainly played a major role in his release.
Dissenting media suffered another blow on 13 June. The director of the Baku Metro system, Taghi Ahmadov, sued Azadliq and as a result of fabricated allegations the newspaper was fined for 30,000 AZN (24,500 GBP). Similar to the case of Ramin Deko, Taghi Ahmadov was also claiming that he was slandered.
On 21 June, Hilal Mammadov, editor-in-chief of Tolishi Sado newspaper, was detained on charges of drug possession. If found guilty, he will be sentenced to five to 12 years’ imprisonment. The court has sentenced him to 3 months’ remand. In an interview, his lawyer, Anar Gasimili, said that Mammadov considered his arrest to be politically motivated and ‘a plot against him’ in retaliation for his human rights work.
Charging journalists for offences unrelated to their professional work is a common tactic employed by the Azerbaijani authorities, and it is an effective one in silencing them. They are charged with bribery, hooliganism, illegal possession and purchase of firearms, public order offences and drug possession.
This is not a new tactic. In 2006, Azadliq newspaper journalist Mirza Sakit was deprived of his freedom for three years, accused of possession of 10 grams of heroin. In 2010, similar charges were brought against Eynulla Fatullayev, editor-in-chief of Gundalik Azerbaijan and Realniy Azerbaijan newspapers, while he was in prison, adding considerable time to his time in prison. And, in early 2011, social media activist Jabbar Savalanli was arrested on drugs charges.
As well as passing amendments to the freedom of information act, MPs also adopted an amendment specifically pertaining to commercial secrets and corporate ownership. According to the amendment, information about founders of commercial companies and their company shares can remain private. This means the work of investigative journalists will be severely hampered and information about company practices will not be reported. The amendment is widely thought to be directly connected with the investigative work of Khadija Ismailiyov, who looked specifically at the business interests of the president and his family and revealed that a number of the country’s major companies are owned by the president’s family. But since the new amendment has been passed, dissemination of this kind of information will be a crime.
It is clear that, as Eurovision fades in people’s minds, authorities have stepped up their efforts to stifle critical media. According to Freedom House, Azerbaijan is among the world’s “not free” countries. Independent media is feeling this lack of freedom now. Like other authoritarian regimes, the Aliyev regime regards human rights organisations as “biased”, so calls for authorities to honour commitments to international standards of free expression fall on deaf ears.
Emil Baghirov is a freelance journalist and blogger from Azerbaijan. He tweets at @sakitoglu