Azerbaijan: Journalists on hunger strike
Ahead of a key poll, Azerbaijani journalists join jailed editor Eynulla Fatullayev on hunger strike. Vugar Gojayev Read our new report Azerbaijan: Free expression under attack
28 Oct 10

Ahead of a key poll, Azerbaijani journalists join jailed editor Eynulla Fatullayev on hunger strike. Vugar Gojayev reports

Eynulla Fatullayev, the outspoken journalist behind bars in Azerbaijan, remains on the hunger strike he began on 19 October. He  is protesting the Azerbaijani authorities’ failure to honour the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, which found that the Azerbaijani government had violated Fatullayev’s rights to freedom of expression and fair trial, declared his imprisonment illegal, and ordered that Fatullayev be freed and be paid £25,000 in compensation. The government challenged the judgment, taking an appeal to the court’s Grand Chamber, but the verdict was upheld two weeks ago.

Punishing dissent
Prior to his arrest in April 2007, Fatullayev — an investigative journalist and staunch critic of the Azerbaijani government — was the chief-editor of two of the country’s most outspoken and popular newspapers, Realniy Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan. He is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for defamation, terrorism and tax evasion offences. Both of his newspapers were effectively closed in May 2007.

In a letter addressed to the international community last week, Fatullayev said, “I am on open-ended hunger strike to demand my immediate release from jail, as I do not see any other ways to protect my rights”. Expressing solidarity with Fatullayev, a group of opposition journalists have also gone on hunger strikes, urging the ECHR verdict be implemented.

International rights groups call the charges against Fatullayev fabricated and politically motivated. Last week, 11 international human rights and media watchdogs — including Index on Censorship — issued a joint media report on Azerbaijan and also sent an open letter to President Aliyev demanding the immediate release of Fatullayev. The report highlighted the state’s failure to honour its international obligations to promote and protect freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. “The actions taken by the Azerbaijani authorities to restrict freedom of expression have significantly damaged Azerbaijan’s international reputation, placing it firmly in the camp of ‘worst offenders’,” the report said.

The authorities effectively use criminal libel and defamation charges to obstruct investigative journalism, prevent public debate and stifle open criticism of the government. Alongside Fatullayev, there are two young bloggers who remain behind bars on dubious charges. Last week Azerbaijan was ranked 146th out of 175 countries in Reporters Sans Frontieres’ latest Press Freedom Index.

Paralysed media in pre-election period
With less than two weeks to go until Azerbaijan’s parliamentary poll, the state’s tight grip on the media and its hostility toward independent and opposition views will prevent a free and fair election. Journalists, human rights defenders and opposition activists who publicly criticise the government risk violence, threats and arrest. Opposition journalists acknowledge that they frequently self-censor, avoiding criticism of government policy out of fear of potential legal and physical repercussions.

Citing the restrictive media environment ahead of elections, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation Mission, the European bodies that will monitor the polls, said the de-facto government monopoly on broadcast media has ensured citizens get “very limited access to diverse political views in the broadcast media”. Aside from a small number of opposition dailies, the mainstream media totally fail to provide access to political opinions outside the current establishment. Most Azerbaijanis get information about socio-public events from the broadcast media, which were and are firmly under the control of the ruling regime. This effectively prevents the political opposition from mounting effective campaigns to mobilise citizens as voters, or as potential protesters against election fraud. In this election, even less information is available in the country after important and longstanding radio channels broadcasting independent information in Azerbaijani, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the BBC, lost their licences to broadcast on their normal FM frequencies in January 2009.

There is little space for opposition candidates to air their messages and the lack of public debate has long undermined the public’s trust in the legality of the elections. In fact no previous election in Azerbaijan has ever been judged as free and fair. The polls have always been damaged by the lack of press freedom, intervention by local authorities or police, restrictions on freedom of assembly and an electoral commission crammed with government supporters.

“A vibrant public debate is crucial to free and fair elections,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But you can’t have a free and fair vote when the people who report the news are in jail or have been harassed into silence.”

Vugar Gojayev is a freelance journalist writing on the developments in the South Caucasus

Read a new report from Index on Censorship and partnership organisations, Azerbaijan: Free expression under attack