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Azerbaijan has never had a strong record on press freedom. Since independence, the country’s journalists have been mistreated, while independent and opposition newspapers faced constant libel charges and other harassment from local law enforcement or criminal elements.
Journalists and outlets that support government policies are left alone to fill their pages with praise, while those who take a more critical approach are punished. Official court documents detail how journalists have been sent to prison on trumped-up charges of hooliganism, extortion, trafficking, and instigating mass protests and violence.
In practice, however, targeted journalists reported on official corruption, criticised extravagant government spending or documented illegal evictions. While the country’s leaders and key decision makers pay lip service to media freedom, the government continues to hunt down journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
Periodic waves of arrests have created a sense of fear that has suffocated the country’s journalists. Independent media — like Index award-winning Azadliq — have been pushed into bankruptcy through the withholding of funds and spurious libel litigation. Even media organisations based outside the country — like meydan.tv — have been subject to harassment and punitive investigations. Azerbaijan’s small but remaining mass of independent voices is shrinking.
The timeline, beginning in 2003, includes journalists and bloggers who have been arrested and sentenced on bogus charges.
The future for political prisoners in Azerbaijan looks bleak after politicians at the Council of Europe (CoE) failed adopt an important resolution today calling for more than 80 cases to be resolved.
Azerbaijani authorities repeatedly deny the presence of any political prisoners in the country, which commands huge business interests around the world, including among several MPs from the United Kingdom, several of whom voted against the resolution.
Disappointment among those who campaign for free expression in Azerbaijan was palpable, with several NGO representatives referring to the vote — 79 in favour and 125 against — as a disgrace.
The resolution was based on a report by Rapporteur Christoph Strasser, who was repeatedly denied entry into Azerbaijan to carry out his mandate. Several delegates refused to recognise the resolution on grounds that Strasser prepared his report from outside the oil-rich country.
However, free expression advocates welcomed the adoption of a resolution calling for continued monitoring of the country’s record on free speech and human rights, with 196 members voting in favour and only 13 against. The resolution was based on a report by the CoE’s rapporteurs to Azerbaijan, who expressed “growing concern with regard to rule of law and respect for human rights” in the country and encouraged the Azerbaijani government to strengthen its commitment to honour human rights obligations.
Index on Censorship and Crow Hill Films invite you to a screening of Amazing Azerbaijan! followed by a discussion on Azerbaijan and human rights on 30 January.
Witnessing Azerbaijan’s autocracy in action, Mike Harris reports from the Internet Governance Forum