Azerbaijan’s entry into the Council of Europe in 2001 produced legislation in 2002 to bring the country more in line with European standards, including an amended press law that came into effect in mid-March.
Procedure for starting up and registering new publications was simplified and the protection of journalists’ sources strengthened. Bans and sanctions against newspapers can now only be ordered by a court. But the independence of the legal system was not guaranteed and the government was still able to exert pressure on non-government media.
A broadcasting law, drawn up in consultation with the Council of Europe, came into effect on 8 October and provided for a National Broadcasting Council appointed by the president to assist the growth of privately-owned TV stations. It was to issue operating licences, monitor compliance with the rules and when necessary impose fines or brief suspensions.
By the end of the year, a law to abolish the state-run TV station had still not been approved. The proposed law did not guarantee establishment of a truly independent public TV station, despite the government’s promise to the Council of Europe that it would.
At the same time, new laws and amendments to old ones gave the government more power to monitor journalists and what they wrote. On 17 May, parliament amended laws on communication and criminal investigations. Phone taps and interception of postal and electronic mail were made easier in cases of criminal investigation and fighting terrorism.
President Heidar Aliev issued a decree on 28 August about media responsibility in revealing state secrets that violated the principle of protection of journalists’ sources. After strong protests by the media and human rights groups, the measure was watered down.
At the end of the year, a new wave of libel suits increased pressure on independent newspapers, already the target of an advertising boycott. Huge fines were imposed and due process was weak. Hundreds of journalists demonstrated in December and the Council of Editors asked the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe to intervene.
Three journalists arrested
Eynulla Fatullayev, of the banned independent daily Milletin Sesi, was arrested at his home on 3 January and taken to a Baku court, where he was told a libel suit against him would start on 8 January, filed by the head of the president’s office, Ramiz Mekhtiev, for writing that he had been seen in a restaurant with "call-girls." Mekhtiev dropped the suit on 11 January.
Uliviya Tairgizi, correspondent for the daily Azadliq, was set upon by the deputy mayor of Baku, Rauf Panahov, on 10 April, while investigating the demolition of houses near where the president lived. He seized an audio cassette and the journalist was taken to a police station, where she was advised to stop investigating the area. She filed a complaint.
Irada Huseynova, an independent journalist working for the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), a press freedom organisation, was arrested at her workplace in Moscow on 25 November in response to a request by the Azerbaijan public prosecutor’s office for her extradition in connection with several libel cases, including one brought by Baku mayor Hajibala Abutalybov. She was freed the next day. She had fled Azerbaijan in September 2001, fearing she would be put in prison.
Two youths hit Mubariz Jafarli, correspondent of the independent daily Yeni Musavat, near his home on 4 June after abusing him about the president’s son, Ilham Aliev, who he had compared in a 20 May article to the South Korean president’s son, who was found guilty of corruption. The journalist and the paper also linked the attack to an article about the activities in Azerbaijan of the Kurdish terrorist organisation PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party, which later renamed itself HADEK).
Aydyn Guliev, editor of the opposition daily Khurriyet, appealed on 4 September for protection by the authorities after people who said they were friends of Mudariz Panakhov, the customs chief in the border town of Sadarak, made death threats against the paper’s staff. They threatened to plant a bomb in its offices. On 30 August, the paper had reported a petrol smuggling racket on the border with Turkey. The journalists were not given protection.
Pressure and obstruction
Only state media journalists were allowed to attend a meeting of the parliament of the Azerbaijani autonomous republic of Nakhichevan on 5 January. The same day, all copies of the independent daily Azadliq were seized by security forces at Nakhichevan airport. The issue contained an article about irregularities in privatisation being carried out in the republic.
The supreme court rejected on 15 February an appeal by the weekly Avropa against a fine imposed on 13 September 2001 in a libel suit brought by Huseyn Huseynov, head of the state transport firm Azeravtonagliyyat, for a September 2000 article mentioning legal proceedings against him in Uzbekistan. The paper appealed to the supreme court after the appeals court banned the paper and increased its fine from 3 million manats to 190 million (620 to 39,500 euros).
Small fines were imposed on 18 February on journalists Beyukaga Agayev, of Azadliq, Farid Gahramanov, of the Turan news agency, and Shahin Abbasov, deputy editor of Ekho. Azadliq was ordered to pay 10 million manats (2,060 euros) and publish a retraction. The journalists had gone in autumn 2001 to the Upper Karabakh region and to Armenia at the invitation of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and were prosecuted by state security minister Namiq Abbasov for "unprincipled conduct." The ANS TV station had strongly criticised the journalists who had responded with an article. ANS sued them on 6 November 2001.
Elmar Husseynov, founder and editor of the weekly Monitor, and one of his journalists, Eynulla Fatullayev, were fined 50 million manats (10,000 euros) on 29 July and ordered to print a retraction about an article on 6 April criticising the army and objected to by defence minister Safar Abiyev. All the country’s state and privately-owned printing works had refused to print the offending issue, which was the paper’s first appearance in four years.
The supreme court rejected on 31 July the appeal of the newspaper Femida against a fine of 100 million manats (20,000 euros) for libelling Tofiq Alioglu Kerimov, deputy prosecutor of the Nasimi district, who was accused of incompetence in an article on 21 July 2001. The paper has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.
Police banned the sale of the magazine Monitor in the Baku subway system on 31August because it contained an article criticising the President Aliev’s son Ilham. Many postal subscribers failed to receive their copies that day.
In September, the authorities blocked access to the Internet website of Monitor. The site, which is run from Moscow, suspended operations after this.
Elmar Husseynov, editor of Monitor, announced on 31 October that the paper was closing because the authorities had banned it.
Eight legal complaints were filed against the daily Yeni Musavat and its journalists in October and November. The defence ministry filed a libel suit against it in October, calling for a 300 million manats fine (60,000 euros) for publishing three articles in September about disputes at the senior military college. Two libel suits were filed on 31 October and 1 November by the rulers of two regions, Gulhuseyn Ahmedov (Saatli) and Abulfaz Agayev (Sabirabad) against the paper and journalist Mahir Mamedli for an article on social problems there.
On 4 November, Nadir Nasibov, former head of the State Property Committee, and his former deputy, Barat Nuriyev, sued Yeni Musavat journalists Elgun Araz, Gabil Abbasoglu, Mahir Mamedli, Dunya Sakit, Elkhan Hasanli, Khalid Kazimli, Vusal Gasimli, "Mehdi," Konul Shamilkizi, "Gashgay" and Zahid Safaroglu for "spreading rumours." They also demanded the closure of the paper for three years.
The paper had published articles in October and November mentioning legal action being taken in the United States against President Aliev and his son Ilham.
Capt. Namig Mamedov asked on 28November for 50 million manats (10,000euros) in damages from the paper for having "insulted his reputation and dignity" in a 20 September article criticising the poor living conditions of rank-and-file soldiers.