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Azerbaijan28 July 2003

Independent media under pressure as presidential election nears

Reporters Without Borders today deplored growing harassment of Azerbaijan’s independent press with the approach of a presidential election in October. Several opposition journalists and media organisation officials were arrested on 26 July.

"We are shocked at the increasing legal, media and physical pressure on opposition journalists," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to interior minister Ramil Usubov. "These illegal arrests are clearly political and simply aimed at preventing journalists revealing things that displease President Heidar Aliev. The only law they have broken is the law of silence."

He warned that the authorities would be held responsible if anything happened to one of those arrested, Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the daily paper Yeni Musavat, who has been told his life might be in danger.

The governing board of the national media association and Arifoglu said they had heard of plans to arrest him and the heads of the main opposition press and media organisations had gone to his home in Baku on 26 July to discuss the situation.

As they were leaving to go the Press Club, 10 police cars appeared and roughly seized Arifoglu, Press Council president Aflatun Amashev, Press Council member Gunduz Takhirli, Mekhman Aliyev, head of the Turan news agency, Arif Aliyev, head of the Yeni Nesil trade union, Ganimat Zakhidov, managing editor of the daily paper Azadliq, and Yeni Musavat staffers Aflatun Amashev, Elkhan Hasanli, Safar Hummatov, Mirza Zeynalov and Murshud Hasanov. All were freed an hour and a half later. Police said they had violated traffic laws and had insulted and hit the police.

Justice minister Fikret Mamadov accused the media the same day of trying to destabilise the country before the 15 October presidential elections and said he would crack down on media that failed to respect the ban on undermining the "honour and dignity" of the president. These warnings were repeated a few hours later by prosecutor-general Zakir Garalov. The day before, interior minister Usubov had accused opposition media of putting out defamatory and insulting material.

Yeni Musavat and other pro-opposition papers have recently written about the declining health of 80-year-old President Aliev, who has been in hospital in Turkey since 8 July.

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