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Azerbaijan22 November 2006

Journalists’ hunger strike goes on in a climate of growing tension

The health of the hunger-striking editor of the daily Azadlig, Ganimat Zahidov, has deteriorated sharply but he rejected a plea from the journalists’ union to end his fast as a campaign by journalists and opponents of President Ilham Aliyev against press freedom violations gained momentum.

As Zahidov was joined in his fast on 21 November by Shahin Agabbeyll, of the newspaper Milli Yol, and Fikret Faramazoglu, of the daily Yeni Musavtet, the numbers of hunger-strikers could shortly be swelled by human rights activists and known Azeri figures.

Throughout the last week the hunger strike has been bolstered by a demonstration organised by the journalists’ union in front of the presidential office.

“Reporters Without Borders points out that the existence of an opposition press is one of the key criteria for assessing the degree of freedom enjoyed in a society,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

“The Azeri opposition press should enjoy the same working conditions as the official press. The trial of strength with independent, national and foreign media and the opposition is a worrying sign of the determination of the government to bring society to heel,” it added.

The campaign against harassment of the independent press has strengthened over the past few weeks in the face of press freedom violations. In October, the journalist and writer Sakit Zahidov was sentenced to three years in prison for drug-trafficking.

Foreign radios, BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America have for several weeks been under threat of losing their current frequencies (through local distributors) and the eviction from their premises has been announced of leading opposition newspaper, Azadlig, independent ANS TV and news agency Turan. Demonstrations against this harassment have been forcibly broken up.

In response to these threats, opposition figures, journalists and free press activists have called for support from European bodies, urging them not to close their eyes to political reality in the country in exchange for Azeri oil.

In a statement on 15 November 2006, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called on the Azeri authorities to do more to protect journalists and to track down the killers of Elmar Huseynov, editor of the opposition weekly Monitor who was gunned down in the capital Baku in 2005.

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