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-  Surface area: 86,600 sq. km.

-  Population: 8,041,000

-  Language: Turkish (off.)

-  Type of State: Federal Republic

-  Head of State: Heydar Aliyev

-  Head of government:

-  Artur Rasizade

Azerbaijan - Annual report 2002

Although Azerbaijan became a new member of the Council of Europe on 25 January, threats and violence against the independent press got worse in 2001. At the end of the year President Aliyev vowed to end this situation.

Press freedom saw unprecedented deterioration in 2001. A dozen journalists were detained; at least ten others were physically attacked; court proceedings were initiated against some twenty papers, which were fined a total of 310 million manats (73,000 euros) ; TV networks were threatened with closure; four publications were suspended, and several newspapers were not allowed to sell their copies. The law on State secrets was changed to force journalists to censor themselves by making the name of an information source mandatory if it "relates to State secrets". Other measures, including the one making newspapers use the Latin alphabet as opposed to the Cyrillic, handicap the independent press in particular. Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of Yeni Musavat, feels that "in eight years of rule by Heydar Aliyev, never has pressure on the media been so intense".

Meanwhile the freedom of information has become the main issue in civil society’s political debate and mobilisation. While those close to power, including deputy Calal Aliyev, the President’s brother, publicly threaten independent journalists with unprecedented violence, the independents refuse to knuckle under to censorship and have grouped together to confront legal and financial pressure. On 25 September several editors-in-chief announced the creation of a committee for the rights of detained journalists and, as of 1 January 2002, a fund for the security of journalists with a view to financially helping arrested or dismissed journalists and to contribute to the circulation of information about attacks on press freedom. About half of the announced budget (about 40,000 euros) would be funded by the Open Society Institute (OSI), financier George Soros’s foundation. Six of the eight regional television networks were refused licences because of opaque rules. Nonetheless the networks continue to broadcast without official authorisation and refuse to give in to the pressure.

The concerns expressed by the Council of Europe led to the adoption of liberalising measures in the second half of the year. In July "within the framework of the recommendations made by the Council of Europe", President Aliyev created a "national committee for the mass media, radio, television and the Internet at the Ministry of the Press and Information. On 4 December parliament debated a revision to the law on political parties and the media, in particular calling for the streamlining of formalities for creating and registering media, the lifting of obstacles to private financing and advertising and greater protection for the confidentiality of sources for journalists. Moreover the banning of or sanctions against the media may now only be done upon decisions from the courts. On 18 December President Aliyev called his party’s declarations against the opposition press "errors". He expressed his regrets for the censorship and police violence against journalists at a demonstration for press freedom on 12 December. He promised to freeze the debts of the independent newspapers and ordered the State printing presses to publish them. "We are correcting our errors," he said, "not because of the pressure applied by the Council of Europe but because of evolving mentalities." On 21 December five regional television networks received the broadcasting licenses they had been waiting eight years for.

Two journalists jailed

On 19 July 2001 Rahim Namazov, a reporter for the weekly Elilljar, was sentenced to six years in prison and jailed. He had been arrested for "insubordination and plotting against the government" after having defended himself against the forces of law and order in February during a meeting organised by the Society for the Invalids of the Karabakh War. The police destroyed his professional equipment when he was arrested.

On 21 September Elmar Husseynov, editor-in-chief and founder of the Russian-language newspaper, Bakinski Bulvar, was sentenced to six months in prison and jailed following a case for slander brought by Baku’s mayor, Gajibala Abutalibov, after the publication on 16 June of an article entitled "Racketeering by the State". On 5 October the country’s main dailies held a one-hour strike in support of the journalist.

Twenty-two journalists arrested

On 8 January 2001 Mustafa Dibirov, manager of the TV network DMR TV in Balakan was arrested at his home. At the police station he was forced to write a statement in which he promised not to re-open his network as long as he had not received an official broadcasting licence. As for a number of other regional networks, the government has continually refused to grant an official broadcasting licence to DMR TV without ever giving a real reason.

On 19 February 2001 three journalists of the Russian-language daily, Echo, were arrested by the police while covering a demonstration of veterans of the Karabakh war. Shahin Abbas, deputy editor-in-chief, Mammed Bagir, journalist and Samir Ali, photographer, were taken to the police station although they had shown their press cards. They were freed a few hours later.

On 22 February producer Kamran Memedov and cameraman Samir Hasanov of the TV network, ABA TV, were arrested by the police and questioned for two hours in Baku. The journalists had both shown their press cards. A little later the police declared that the journalists "looked like narcotics dealers".

On 23 March Gylynjkhan Nesirli, local correspondent for the newspaper, Express, was arrested in the Salya region while meeting farmers opposed to regional agricultural reforms.

On 3 April Idrak Abbasov, journalist for the newspaper, Impuls, was arrested, beaten and locked up by the police of Baku’s fourth district (Binagadi). He was preparing a report on the harassment of the deputy manager of a newspaper distribution company, Qaya, by this same police department.

On 21 April at least three journalists were attacked and arrested by the police while covering a demonstration by the opposition party in Baku. Heydar Oguz and Jesur Mammedov, journalists for Hurriyyet, were beaten by a group of policemen while trying to show their press cards, then arrested and jailed for several days. Surkhay Gojayev, deputy editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Ulus, was fined.

On 5 June Mushvig Javarov, a cameraman for the television network, ANS TV, was arrested and locked for an hour in a holding cell at the Nakhichevan courthouse, where the trial of five members of the Kurdish armed independence movement, PKK, was opening. Mushvig Javarov and other journalists had come to protest the fact that journalists were banned from the trial. The journalist’s camera was confiscated and not returned.

On 15 November journalists from banned publications demonstrated in the centre of Baku against violations of the free press. The police prevented dozens of them from reaching the meeting point, a statue of the founder of the Azeri written press, Hassan Bey Zerdabi. Demonstrators were attacked, including journalist Bella Zakirova, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Bakinski Bulva. Shahbaz Khuduoglu, editor-in-chief of Melletin Sesi, Elmar Husseynov, founder of Bakinski Bulvar, and four other correspondents of the same newspapers, Kakir Rzayev, Artur Feyzullayev, Mirknan Huseynov and Anar Neftliyev, were arrested and taken to police station no. 9 in Baku (Sabayil). The police threatened to hold them for several days as "administrative punishment" but released them the same day.

On 12 December the police attacked and dispersed some one hundred journalists representing about 15 publications, who were demonstrating in front of President Heydar Aliyev’s party headquarters against the attacks on press freedom in the country. Those journalists beaten belonged to the newspapers Yeni Musavat, Hurriyyet and Azadliq. Several of them were wounded, including Ramiz Najafli of the daily Azadliq who was taken to the emergency ward with a concussion. Rauf Arifoglu, managing editor of Yeni Musavat, Azeri Husret, president of the Union of Journalists, and Elman Maliyev of Yeni Musavat, were arrested then released after a legislator intervened on their behalf.

Ten journalists attacked

On 17 January 2001 Zamin Haji, a journalist for the opposition daily, Azadliq, was attacked by three assailants between his office and home. He was beaten but managed to call for help and get away. Zamin Haji, one of Azerbaijan’s best known journalists, thinks that his assailants meant to kidnap him. He had received two warnings following articles criticising the Heydar Aliyev regime and had notified the authorities.

On 19 January Etibar Mansuroglu, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Etimad, was attacked in the street near an outdoor market in Baku. His assailant threw him to the ground and kicked him violently. The journalist was hospitalised in serious condition. According to his colleagues, this attack was linked to the publication in Etimad a little while before of controversial articles about the economic and financial interests of people close to President Heydar Aliyev.

On 6 February Hamiq Ibrahimov, a journalist for the Russian-language daily, Echo, was beaten by the police, and his camera broken, while covering a refugee meeting in Baku. He had shown his press card to the police. He was detained in a police car, then released a few hours later.

On 21 April Idrak Abbasov, a correspondent for the newspaper Impuls in Baku, and Suleiman Mamedli, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Hurriyyet, were beaten by plainclothes policemen while covering scenes of police violence at an unauthorised demonstration in support of political prisoners. Other journalists present that day were also manhandled: Seimur Verdizade, a correspondent for the newspaper Bu Gyun, Aibeniz Velikhanly and Parvin Sadai, correspondents for Milletin Sesi, and Raghim Gadinov, a correspondent for the newspaper 515-ci Gazet. Following this attack, Suleiman Mamedli lodged a complaint against Yashar Aliyev, deputy chief of police in Baku. The journalist accused him of having ordered his men to beat him and to have participated in the beating.

On 3 May Elchin Mamedli, a journalist for Azakliq, was attacked and insulted by civil servants of Baku’s Narimanov district while covering the demolition of a shopping centre. The civil servants seized his camera and struck him in the face.

Journalists threatened

On 4 December 2001 deputy Calal Aliyev, President Heydar Aliyev’s brother, warned the opposition press, in particular quoting the newspaper Yeni Musavat, in especially threatening terms, "These vicious newspapers insult the nation. What do you expect? They say what they want, and when you sue them, they blackmail the judge and lawyers, write insanity and bore their readership. Most of them are found guilty but don’t pay their fines. I am no longer asking for them to receive fines. Whatever the courts’ decision, they disobey and commit other crimes. Those people should be wiped out. They are enemies. There are no greater dangers than them for this nation. They are parasites." On the same day another deputy of the party in power, "Yeni Azerbaycan", Kerim Karimov, suggested abolishing the law on the media in order to end "the anarchy of the press".

On 6 December Shahnaz Metlebqizi, a journalist for the independent daily, Yeni Musavat, was attacked outside the offices of his newspaper by an unidentified assailant who tore his paper from his hands and cut it to shreds with a knife, warning him, "We’ll to the same with all of you." The journalist was hit on the head several times by his assailant. The man then escaped. Following this attack, Rauf Arifoglu, Yeni Musavat’s managing editor, suggested that all his employees quit since he was "incapable of protecting them from the present regime". In protest of these attacks on journalists, Elbeyi Hassanli, Rahib Kazimli and Elshad Pashasoy, three of Yeni Musavat’s journalists, began a hunger strike.

Pressure and obstruction

In January 2001 the authorities refused to allocate its own broadcasting frequency and licence to the TV network, ABA. Until then ABA had been renting a frequency from the Ministry of Communications. On 5 January the Ministry of Finance ordered a series of inspections of the network, all riddled with procedural code violations.

On 25 January the Mingechevir TV network in Mingechevir, suspended its programming after being told by the police that in absence of an official licence continued broadcasting would lead to legal action.

On 29 January police officers confiscated all copies of the newspapers Interpark and Eilanja from the news-stands in the city of Nakhichevan. The Ministry of the Interior of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan defended this incident in the name of measures against the circulation of "pornographic pictures". These newspapers were not treated like this in the rest of the country.

On 17 April the trial of Shahin Jafarli, deputy editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Yeni Musavat, was postponed because the plaintiffs, three inhabitants of the village of Mashtagi, did not show up. On 25 November 2000 the villagers had entered the newspaper’s offices to protest against the way certain events were covered. Shahin Jafarli, who had ordered them off the premises, was then accused of insults and violence. The journalist’s lawyer thinks that the fact that the "victims" did not want to attend the trial demonstrates that the "affair was a totally put up job".

On 30 April the authorities of the city of Baku rejected the right of the Journalists’ Union (JuHi) to organise a demonstration on 3 May 2001, International Day for Press Freedom, in memory of slain journalists.

On 6 June representatives of the Ministry of Communications, accompanied by police officers, closed two regional television networks, Gubt and Khayal, in Guba (170 km north of Baku) which were broadcasting without licences.

On 4 September the Nizami regional court ordered the closure of the independent newspaper, Bakinski Bulvar, following a complaint lodged by Baku’s mayor, Gajibala Abutalibov, who felt he had been slandered by an article published on 16 June, entitled "Racketeering by the State". And the court ordered editor-in-chief, Elmar Husseynov, to pay 80 million manats (about 16,000 euros) in damages to Baku’s mayor. This fine, which represents more than three times the paper’s monthly expenses, is, for this reason, against the law on the media.

On 13 September 2001 the independent weekly, Avropa, already closed for financial reasons, was ordered to pay 190 million manats (about 38,000 euros) to the manager of a State company, a sum that surpasses the fines set out by the law on the media.

On 17 September the court in Narimanov found Gulnaz Qamberli, a journalist for the independent daily, Milletin Sesi, guilty of "slander". Legal action was also initiated against the publisher, Eynulla Fatullayev. These actions occurred after the publication of an article on 26 August reporting the presence of a head of the country’s presidential administration in a discotheque.

On 6 August the independent newspaper, Milletin Sesi, was closed by a legal decision following complaints lodged by two State civil servants, saying they had been insulted in an article that accused them of complicity in corruption. On 17 September 2001, the court in Narimanov, sentenced Shahbaz Khuduoglu, editor-in-chief of Milletin Sesi, to six months in prison for "slander". On 17 October President Aliyev signed a decree "pardoning" Shahbaz Khuduoglu in honour of the tenth anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence. The President stated that he had taken into consideration requests made by groups for the defence of press freedom and journalists themselves.

On 6 December the electricity to the private printing press in Baku where the independent newspapers Yeni Musavat and Hurriyyet are printed, was cut, thereby preventing the sale of the latest issue of Hurriyyet and the printing of 2,000 copies of Yeni Musavat for 10 December.

On 19 December Ikram Rafigoglu, a correspondent for the newspaper, Khurriyet, in the town of Ganja, was arrested, accused of "hooliganism". In the days that followed, Khurriyet was banned from being distributed in the region. On 21 December the newspaper’s printing press decided to no longer print the paper although it was under contract to do so until April, 2002. The newspaper’s managing editor, Aydyn Guliyev, explained that the pressures put on the paper were the result of his refusal to go to a press gathering with President Aliyev on 18 December.

On 20 December Calal Aliyev, the President’s brother, launched more legal action against the opposition newspaper, Yeni Musavat, for having "insulted his honour and dignity".

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see also
Annual report 2002

Hard times for press freedom
Africa annual report 2002
Asia annual report 2002
Americas annual report 2002
Maghreb / Middle-East annual report 2002