Most of the testimonies gathered by Reporters Without Borders during a fact-finding mission to Baku on 1-2 December point to a curtailment of press freedom since Ilham Aliev took over as president from his father, Heydar Aliev, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 1993. Ilham Aliev was installed on 31 October following elections on 15 October that were a "step backwards for democracy" and fell far short of international standards, according to the European organisations that monitored them.
The elections and their aftermath exposed the lack of diversity in the broadcast media, the many kinds of pressure applied by the authorities on the opposition and independent print media and Azerbaijan’s failure to respects its international commitments on freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders is particularly concerned about the detention of Rauf Arifoglu, the editor of the opposition daily Yeni Musavat, and the violence used against dozens of journalists while they were covering the protests on 15 and 16 October in Baku.
Reporters Without Borders calls on Ilham Aliev to change direction in his government’s policies toward the news media and to carry out reforms that would facilitate the development of a free and independent press.
The fact-finding mission interviewed representatives of the pro-government and opposition press, journalists’ associations and diplomats. It was able to visit Arifoglu in Bailov prison in Baku, where he has been held since 27 October. It also met the presidential aide responsible for the news media, Ali Hasanov, interior minister Ramil Ussubov and deputy attorney general Ramiz Rzayev.
Journalists caught up in the electoral turmoil
Several thousand persons, mostly opposition activists, gathered outside the headquarters of the opposition party Musavat in Baku on the evening of 15 October to protest against fraud in the elections held that day. Violent clashes broke out between protesters and police. The clashes continued in Azadliq Square in Baku the next day, with a toll of one dead and more than 100 wounded. Around 600 persons were arrested and 107 of them are still being held, awaiting prosecution. According to the figures compiled by the Azerbaijan Committee to Protect Journalists, RUH, 54 journalists were the victims of violence and 16 were detained in the course of the two days. Most of the detained journalists were released on 22 October after being sentenced to several days in prison for "disturbing the peace."
Some journalists undoubtedly took part in the protests as activists. But those who were there covering the events said the police, including plain-clothes police, beat them all the same, even when they knew they were there as reporters from the press cards they displayed or because they told the police as much. Emin Husseynov, a journalist with the independent news agency TURAN who was hospitalised for several days with head injuries, said he was attacked by police on 16 October while with a group who were clearly identifiable as journalists. "I don’t belong to any party. We were just doing our jobs," he told Reporters Without Borders. Nabi Alishev of the daily Khurriyet said he was carrying a tape-recorder and a press card and told police he was a journalist, but they nonetheless hit him and dragged him along the ground on 16 October in Azadliq Square.
Azadliq Square on 16 October 2003
The list compiled by the RUH was sent to the interior ministry, which opened an enquiry to assess whether the police were responsible for abuses against journalists on 15 and 16 October. The Press Council, a body that has the job of dealing with conflicts involving the news media, is carrying out an independent, parallel investigation in cooperation with the attorney general’s office and the interior ministry.
The officials Reporters Without Borders met were reluctant to recognise that there could have been abuses by the police. The presidential aide responsible for the news media, the interior minister and the deputy attorney general said it was impossible to distinguish the journalists from the demonstrators, while those carrying out the enquires have not yet issued their findings.
No grounds for holding Arifoglu
Rauf Arifoglu, in Bailov prison
Arifoglu, who is deputy president of the opposition party Musavat as well as Yeni Musavat’s editor, has been placed in custody for three months. He is charged under articles 220-1 and 315-2 of the criminal code with disturbing the peace and refusing to comply with the authorities, for which he could be sentenced to 12 years in prison. The authorities maintain that he organised and participated in the demonstrations of 15 and 16 October. In particular, they claim that objects used by Musavat protesters during the rioting were stored in his office in the newspaper, which occupies the same building as the Musavat party. No date has yet been set for a trial, and his period of custody could be extended if the investigation lasts more than three months. Deputy attorney general Rzayev said Arifoglu’s detention was justified by the gravity of the charges and the concern that he could become a fugitive from justice and obstruct the enquiry.
Arifoglu told Reporters Without Borders: "I was in solitary confinement for the first 32 days. I had to sleep on the ground, in the cold, for 18 days." Of late he has been sharing a cell with other detainees and has been able to receive several visits. However, Ana Karlsreiter of the office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s representative for freedom of the news media has not been allowed to see him. Arifoglu is suffering from a stomach ulcer.
Press Council president Aflatun Amashev said, "everyone knows that his detention is an injustice." The officials Reporters Without Borders met maintained that Arifoglu is not charged as a journalist but as a leader of the Musavat party. But Arifoglu told the organisation: "For the authorities, it is a piece of luck that I am in prison. They have been trying to put me in jail for years and now they will try to keep me here for as long as possible ... I am positive I am being held because of my work as a journalist." He recognised that his articles called on the population to react to the electoral fraud but he said he "did nothing concrete." The deputy attorney general said Yeni Musavat columns in September and October were "virtual appeals for violence."
Norway’s ambassador, Steinar Gil, said the authorities had respected the guarantees he obtained from them when Arifoglu took refuge in his embassy from 18 to 21 October for fear of abduction or violence. Arifoglu was arrested according to procedures established by the law and has not been subjected to violence. However, Arifoglu maintained that he had still not been questioned by investigators after 37 days in custody, that the judicial authorities had not told him exactly what he is accused of, and that the investigators were trying to get false evidence and false testimony against him.
Arifoglu said he began a hunger strike on 1 December, adding that most of the 107 people held because of the post-election demonstrations had done the same. The hunger strikers are calling for the release of everyone detained as a result of the demonstrations and the implementation of the recommendations of the OSCE electoral observation mission.
TV used for government propaganda
Officially, there are 40 TV channels in Azerbaijan, but only five cover the entire country. According to the monitoring carried out by Internews Azerbaijan, the Baku Press Club and the OSCE electoral observation mission, the four nationwide commercial TV channels (ANS, Space TV, Lider TV and ATV) and the state TV channel AzTV did not give the different candidates equitable coverage during the election campaign and the broadcasting council did nothing to correct the problem. The Baku Press Club said 61.1 per cent of election campaign TV coverage from 25 September to 14 October was dedicated to Ilham Aliev and only 4 per cent to the main opposition candidate, Issa Gambar. The people in charge of Lider TV, Space TV and ATV are all associates of the Aliev family, Reporters Without Borders learned. The monitoring reports and many testimonies confirmed that all the commercial TV channels basically reflected the government’s positions. This lack of pluralism is all the more serious as TV is the main source of news for the Azeri public.
The state TV channel AzTV was unequivocal in its support for the ruling party candidates and fiercely criticised opposition candidates. According to the commitments Azerbaijan made when joining the Council of Europe in 2001, AzTV should have become a public television channel run by an independent board of governors. A bill was presented more than a year ago, but it did not meet European standards and since then no significant progress has been seen. Under this bill, the president would have chosen the channel’s director and board members, and would have defined its mandate. A broadcasting council supposed to monitor implementation of the electoral code by radio and TV stations was set up on 24 January but its nine members were chosen by the president.
Diverse print media, but subject to many forms of pressure
There is no doubt that Azerbaijan’s print media are very diverse. But they are excessively politicised. Most of the dailies are - with varying degrees of proximity - linked to a political party or to the government. The press is not read very much by the public, which does not have enough money to buy newspapers every day. As a result, the newspapers are strapped for funds and depend on their donors, which makes them vulnerable. With a circulation of between 15,000 and 17,000, the opposition Yeni Musavat is the most widely-read daily.
The opposition and independent print media are subject to direct and indirect pressure from the authorities that hampers their work at every level. The testimonies gathered by Reporters Without Borders revealed problems with access to public information, newspaper distribution, printing and advertising. The testimonies stressed that newspapers are subjected to abusive libel prosecutions with disproportionate fines. The more insidious forms of pressure are all the more obstructive, especially as it is hard to complain about them. Many of the observers Reporters Without Borders met thought the situation had got worse since Ilham Aliev took over.
Beginning on 17 October, two days after the presidential election, the Azerbaijan state printing works refused to print five opposition newspapers: Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Baki Khaber, Khurriyet and Yeni Zaman/Novoye Vremya. According to Azer Ahyan, Yeni Musavat’s marketing director, the management of the printing works said: "The employees won’t work because you oppose the government." The management also said these newspapers owed too much money, but the press continued printing other - government and pro-government - newspapers that are just as indebted.
These opposition newspapers could not be published from 14 to 20 November because of a shortage of newsprint. Cap Evi, the only privately-owned printing works that was ready to print them, had used up all its newsprint stocks. The newspapers’ editors accused the authorities of artificially creating this shortage by doubling the price of newsprint.
Opposition journalists maintained that the state distribution company Qasid regularly held back copies of newspapers that it was supposed to distribute throughout the country. Khurriyet editor Vugar Mamedov also said Qasid held back proceeds from the newspaper’s sales and owed Khurriyet about 80 million manats (13,000 euros). Police often harass street vendors and confiscate newspapers from them.
Opposition newspapers moreover complained that it was impossible for them to get advertising from many Azeri and international companies because these companies feared government reprisals if they placed their ads anywhere other than the pro-government press. Reporters Without Borders believes that an independent body tasked with monitoring newspaper sales would help rein in this kind of pressure by allowing companies to decide where to place advertising on the basis of readership. The staff of opposition newspapers also told Reporters Without Borders that the authorities also put pressure on the owners of the premises they rent. A lack of transparency in the criteria used for assigning state aid and the amounts assigned is another source of discrimination.
Arifoglu’s lawyer, Mazahir Shahmanov, said Yeni Musavat was sued for libel more than 15 times in the 12 months ending in October. Reporters Without Borders believes that the lack of professional ethics shown by some journalists, whatever their political affiliation, in no way justifies the disproportionate size of the fines and damages imposed on newspapers when the libel suits are brought by government officials or associates of the Aliev clan, as is the case in 90 per cent of the suits. The law on defamation and insult provides for prison terms, in violation of international standards. Under article 147 of the criminal code, defamation is punishable by up to three years in prison. Under article 148, offending a person’s honour and dignity in the press is punishable by up to six months in prison.
Reporters Without Borders asks the authorities of Azerbaijan to:
ensure that the official and independent enquiries into the violence against journalists on 15 and 16 October are carried out with complete transparency and within a reasonable period and that their findings are make public;
punish the police responsible for any abuses against journalists who were just doing their job;
to arrange for the Press Council and interior ministry to give joint consideration to the coverage of demonstrations by journalists and to the possibility of establishing ways for journalists to be clearly identifiable;
to provisionally release Rauf Arifoglu while he awaits trial;
to respect the undertaking given to the Council of Europe by turning the state TV channel into an independent public television service with a board of governors that is independent of the government;
to transform the broadcasting council into a body that is independent of the government;
to refrain from using bureaucratic measures to restrict the freedom of the news media, or from using public companies - printing works and distributors - as a way to put pressure on news media;
to refrain from putting any pressure on advertisers;
to clarify the criteria used in assigning aid to the news media and to distribute this aid with complete transparency;
to implement the recommendations of Reporters Without Borders and the OSCE on defamation, in particular, to repeal the insult laws, decriminalize defamation and to ensure that fines and compensation awards are in proportion to the damage done.
Reporters Without Borders asks the news media to:
respect the articles of the electoral code that concern the news media, act responsibly and observe the rules of professional ethics in their work in order to limit the possibilities for the authorities to apply pressure.