Azerbaijan: a bleak landscape
Conditions for journalists are worsening in the run up to elections, reports Natasha Schmidt in Baku
15 Sep 10

Conditions for journalists are worsening in the run up to elections, reports Natasha Schmidt in Baku

In a statement released today, Index on Censorship and eight other free expression and media organisations call for the Azerbaijani government to immediately and unconditionally release imprisoned journalists, and appeal to authorities to put an end to the climate of impunity gripping the country.

The statement calls on the government to decriminalise defamation, a reform thought to be under consideration. Although a meeting with the president’s special advisor on social and political issues, Ali Hasanov, was confirmed prior to the Baku mission, his assistant cancelled at the last minute.

The nine free expression and media organisations, which also included ARTICLE 19, Reporters sans Frontieres and Freedom House travelled to the capital Baku to assess the health of the media in the run up to the parliamentary elections in November 2010. During their visit on 7-9 September, representatives held meetings and panel discussions with journalists, bloggers, editors, publishers and activists and organised meetings with government officials.

The organisations raised the case of Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, the bloggers who were arrested when they tried to complain to police about an attack against them.

Last week saw free expression advocates turned away from a planned visit to journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who has been detained since 2007. This followed his appeal hearing in Baku, which was postponed for a third time. Addressing those who had come to observe his trial, Eynulla Fatullayev held up the request lodged by free expression advocates to visit him in prison, thanking his supporters. Head of Media Rights Institute, Rashid Hajili, said the judge had decided to grant legal teams more time to review the complicated court protocols. Eynulla Fatullayev’s father said he and his wife had been able to visit his son on a regular basis, adding that the journalist was in good spirits.

Members of Azerbaijan’s independent media spoke of their fear of violence, unfair sentencing and the increasing need for self-censorship. Journalists told Index they have lost track of the number of times they have been threatened. One said that the media was confronted with “the worst scenario” possible because those who carry out attacks do so in the knowledge that they will not be punished for their crimes.

Convictions against journalists are very rarely directly related to what they have published — instead, editors, bloggers and reporters are sentenced on spurious drug possession charges, incitement of hatred or tax evasion. As a result, the Azerbaijani government successfully deflects outright criticism of its hostile treatment of the country’s journalists.

The joint group also addressed their colleagues at a forum for free expression organised by the Azerbaijani Committee for the Protection of Freedom of Speech and supported by Vaclav Havel. Prominent members of the government, including Ali Hasanov, were also invited to attend. All of them failed to take the opportunity to enter into dialogue with the independent media, a decision that did not surprise forum participants but nonetheless contributed to the increasing disenchantment among independent media workers.