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Azerbaijan30 December 2008

Government ban on foreign radio stations called “strategic error”

Reporters Without Borders is very disappointed by the National Television and Radio Council’s decision today to ban foreign radio stations from broadcasting on local FM and medium wave frequencies from 1 January.

“This is a return to another age,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Coming after the president won another term in irregular elections in November and with a referendum on ending presidential term limits due to be held in March, the termination of Azeri-language broadcasts by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the BBC bodes ill for the future.”

The press freedom organisation added: “We are baffled by this. What kind of impression does President Ilham Aliev expect to give by insisting on isolating his people from news and information behind an iron curtain? They will temporarily lose access to quality news outlets but they will know who to blame. In the end they will undoubtedly find ways to get round the constraints that the government has tried to impose, to the detriment of Azerbaijan’s image. It is a strategic error.”

Today’s decision withdraws the licences of foreign radio stations to broadcast on local frequencies. As well as RFE/RL, Voice of America and BBC, the measure affects the local FM broadcasts of Russian radio station Europe Plus. In principle, it takes effect immediately although in practice it will probably be enforced from 1 January.

The National Television and Radio Council said its decision was based on legislation stipulating that only Azerbaijani radio stations can broadcast on local frequencies. This was a very biased sided interpretation as the broadcast law provides for exceptions established by inter-governmental agreements.

The underlying reason seems to be political, as RFE/RL, VOA and the BBC have been the only independent news media to tackle subjects that are ignored by media loyal to the government. Broadcasting 67 hours of programming a week, RFE’s Azeri-language service has had a very large audience, one drawn by the diversity of views expressed on the air and its coverage of issues such as corruption, infant mortality, the state of the health system and the elections.

The precursor of today’s move was an all-out offensive against the press in November 2006 in which the authorities ordered the closure of radio and TV broadcaster ANS. The station recovered its licence the following month after agreeing to change its editorial policy, and since then it has been loyal to the government.

The three western radio stations that have been banned today were threatened with a similar ban back then, but an agreement was reached at the last moment. At the same time, the leading opposition daily Azadlig and the independent news agency Turan were evicted from their offices and had to move to the outskirts of the capital. A number of journalists were also arrested around that time.

Azerbaijan was ranked 150th out of 173 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Four journalists are still in prison in Azerbaijan - brothers Sakit and Ganimat Zahidov of Azadlig, Eynulla Fatullayev of Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan, and Mushfig Husseynov of Bizim Yol.

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