Rahim Haciyev, acting editor-in-chief of Azadliq, told Index why it’s important to keep the paper’s journalists reporting.
Why is it important for Azadliq to continue its mission?
Rahim Haciyev: Azadliq is an independent newspaper that fights for freedom of speech in Azerbaijan. In fact, the main job of the press is to provide readers with objective information. Freedom of speech is under severe pressure from the government. We at the newspaper fight for freedom as well as provide readers with objective information. Our activity is of great importance because we are the only remaining press agency inside Azerbaijan that challenges the government.
Why is the government trying to shut down the paper?
Rahim Haciyev: Azadliq always follows the “golden rule of journalism”, which is to only serve the truth. In a country with wide-scale corruption and sharp limitations to human rights and freedom, it should not be surprising that the only newspaper that publishes articles about all of these issues is under intense pressure. It is common for authoritarian regimes to restrict the freedom of speech and expression in order to silence press outlets which provide citizens with objective information. This is what the Azerbaijani government attempts to do. The newspaper pays great attention to the problem of political prisoners and continues to do so right now. Each issue of the newspaper contains photos of political prisoners that the government would rather people forget.
How many people are still contributing to the paper’s coverage?
Rahim Haciyev: Azadliq, as a daily newspaper, is facing severe financial constraints. Our small staff of 20 journalists are working under the dual threat of government harassment and financial insecurity. We can’t hire more journalists because the state-owned news distributor, Qasid, refuses to pay the paper for sales. Right now it owes us approximately $50,000, but is demanding we pay them $12,000. At the same time, a lot of journalists don’t want to work with us because of the real personal and professional risk of being associated with an opposition newspaper.
Rahim Haciyev, editor of Azerbaijani newspaper Azadliq, holds up a copy at the 2014 Index awards (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)
Index award-winning newspaper Azadliq, widely recognised as one of the last remaining independent news outlets operating inside the country, is facing imminent closure. This comes amid an ongoing crackdown on critical journalists and human rights activists in Azerbaijan, and as the country is hosting the inaugural European Games in the capital Baku.
A statement from the paper, quoted Thursday on news site Contact, outlined its “difficult financial situation”.
“If the problems are not resolved in the shortest possible time, the publication of the newspaper will be impossible,” it read.
“The closure of an independent media outlet like Azadliq, which Azerbaijani officials have suffocated over the past two years, flies in the face of repeated assurances from President Ilham Aliyev that his government respects press freedom. The fact that this financial crisis is occurring during the Baku European Games just underlines the shameful disregard that the Azerbaijani government has for freedom of expression,” said Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg.
Azadliq has long faced an uphill battle to stay in business. Thursday’s statement merely detailed the latest development in a serious financial crisis, brought about at the hands of Azerbaijani authorities.
In July 2014, Azadliq was forced to suspend print publication. Editor Rahim Haciyev told Index that the government-backed distributor had refused to pay out the some £52,000 it owed the paper, which meant it could not pay its printer.
The paper has also seen its finances squeezed through being banned from selling copies on tube stations and the streets of Baku, and being slapped with fines of some £52,000 following defamation suits in 2013. The paper was also evicted from its offices in 2006 and its journalists have been repeatedly targeted by authorities. Seymur Hezi, for instance, was in January sentenced to five years in prison for “aggravated hooliganism” — charges widely dismissed as trumped up and politically motivated.
Azadliq — meaning “freedom” in Azerbaijani — has appealed to the public for help to stay afloat, urging “those who defend the freedom of speech in Azerbaijan” to join in the campaign to save the paper.
Hezi’s arrest is another sign of the continuing clampdown by Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government on civil society. The journalist was charged with an alleged attack on a person in the street, although his lawyers claim he was trying to protect himself after he had been harassed and attacked.
It is not the first time charges of hooliganism and disorderly conduct have been applied against opposition politicians, civil society activists and journalists in Azerbaijan. In previous years, the same charges were used to imprison critical journalists Sardar Alibeili and Ganimat Zahid as well as bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizadeh.
“Seymur Hezi’s arrest is a serious blow against our newspaper. He is one of the brightest Azerbaijani analysts and journalists, and a true intellectual,” Rahim Haciyev, acting editor of Azadliq newspaper, told Index.
Haciyev said he is sure Hezi’s arrest is the result of a planned provocation and the journalist is prosecuted for publishing critical articles on the authorities in the newspaper, as well as in his online TV program “Azerbaijani Hour”, which he scripts and hosts.
The journalist’s arrest came only a month after the newspaper he works for, Azadliq, was forced into suspension of publication due to financial pressure from the authorities. Now it exists only in its online version.
This wave of repression is connected to new legislation in place in Azerbaijan that restricts the freedom of association. In fact the new law makes it illegal for unregistered civil society organisations to receive funds for their activities.
Index Award winning Azadliq newspaper was forced into cancelling its print run last week with little hope of restoring its publication.
It is not that easy to get to the editorial office of Azadliq in Baku. Once you enter the building of Azerbaijan Publishing House, a police officer, who sits close to a statue of Heydar Aliyev, the late “father of the nation” and the actual father of the incumbent president Ilham Aliyev, asks you to call the office of the newspaper to get someone to pick you up downstairs. “Everyone in Baku knows their number,” an old lady in the phone room says as she tells me how to reach Azadliq.
Rahim Haciyev, an acting editor of the daily, smiles as he greets me, and leads to the top floor of the building that looks like a shattered remnant of the Soviet past. We pass a dark and neglected corridor that seems to be last painted around 1989 – the year Azadliq was launched.
“We owe 20,000 manat (about £15,000) to the publishing house, and they refuse to print our newspaper unless we pay the debt. But we are not able to, because we don’t get money for the newspaper sales. Gasid, the state-owned press distribution company, owes us 70,000 manat (about £53,000), which should be enough to cover our debts and operation costs. Its general manager is an MP and a member of the ruling party – and they just won’t pay us,” says Rahim Haciyev.
The authorities of Azerbaijan have used economic pressure to silence one of the last critical voices in the country. Last year the newspaper was a target of defamation suits that have resulted in £52,000 in fines, which were followed by bans against selling the paper at tube stations and on the streets of Baku. Thus, Azadliq lost sales of 3,500 copies daily – and with the official distribution network refusing to pay for the copies they sell, it has resulted in a complete blockade of any revenue streams. The State Press Support Fund refused to support the paper as well.
“The authorities have tried to stifle us for a long time, and it looks like they have finally succeeded. I don’t see them letting us go back to print. The only chance is strong pressure from the West, but I don’t expect this to happen. The Western democracies are now preoccupied with weakening the influence of Russia in the region, so it is unlikely they are going to put too much pressure on its neighbouring countries,” says Haciyev.
Azadliq’s editor also sees pressuring of the paper as a part of a wider campaign of the Azerbaijani authorities aimed at silencing of the country’s civil society. Two well-known human rights defenders, Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, were arrested last week; they will be detained pending trial for three months each.
“At the moment, when repressions against the civil society and human rights activists are getting tougher, the last thing they need is a critical newspaper that spreads the word about their clampdown. And we were the last daily that reported on those cases,” Haciyev points out.
Azadliq’s editorial team keeps working, although they have not been paid for two and a half months. The paper’s website, which is one of the most popular news source online in Azerbaijan, is still updated, but nobody knows for how long.
“Azadliq” means “freedom” is Azerbaijani. There is less and less freedom in the country that looks set to take a sad lead on the number of closed down media outlets and human rights activists in jail.