President Heidar Aliev’s son Ilham took office as president on 31 October 2003 after an election denounced as a setback for democracy by European monitoring organisations. The elder Heidar, who died in a US clinic on 12 December aged 80, had prepared for the handover by naming Ilham prime minister during the summer. When his father’s health worsened, Ilham became acting president and on 2 October his father withdrew as a candidate for reelection. Media that dared to mention the old man’s health were punished.
The election campaign, the vote itself on 15 October and the post-election period brought many press freedom problems. Journalists were beaten and the government monopolised radio and TV, broadly harassed opposition and independent newspapers and failed to keep its international promises to respect press freedom. Journalists were physically attacked from the summer on while covering election meetings in Baku and the provinces and more than 50 were set upon during violent clashes on 15 and 16 October between demonstrators and security forces, who arrested more than a dozen of them.
Journalists organisations monitoring the campaign, as well as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in a report, said the four privately-owned nationwide TV stations all strongly backed ruling party candidates, as did the state-run AzT, which should have been turned into an independently-run public body as promised when Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in 2001.
A council was set up on 24 January 2003 to see that radio and TV obeyed the electoral law but its nine members were appointed by the president. A public TV bill was given a second reading by parliament on 24 December, but it too would allow the government to have a predominant voice.
The highly-politicised opposition and independent media came under broad and heavy direct and indirect pressure from the authorities - in access to public data, printing and distribution, advertising, unjustified use of defamation laws and excessive fines. Journalists demonstrated several times in the first half of the year against bureaucratic harassment obstructing them in their work.
The main opposition daily Yeni Musavat was sued for libel more than a dozen times between October 2002 and October 2003 and fined more than 100,000 euros. The laws on defamation and insults still provided prison sentences, in conflict with international standards. A Press Council of nine journalists and six government representatives members was set up on 15 March to mediate between journalists and citizens, especially the authorities.
Yeni Musavat editor Rauf Arifoglu was jailed in late October, accused of organising the 15 and 16 October demonstrations.
Two journalists imprisoned
Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the opposition daily Yeni Musavat and vice-president of the opposition Musavat party, was arrested on 27 October 2003 and remanded for three months in Baku’s Bailov prison for stirring up public unrest (article 220.1 of the criminal code) and for refusing to obey a police order (article 315.2). He could be sentenced to up to 12 years imprisonment. He was accused of organising the rioting that broke out around the country after the 15 October presidential election. He staged a hunger-strike in prison from 1 to 9 December to demand the release of the 107 people arrested in the protests and the application of the recommendations of the OSCE observers’ report on the elections. Deputy prosecutor-general Ramiz Rzayev said the gravity of the alleged offences, the possibility he would abscond and also interfere with the investigation justified him being held pending trial. Arifoglu, one of the regime’s fiercest critics, had taken refuge in the Norwegian embassy between 18 and 21 October for fear of being kidnapped or physically attacked.
Sadig Ismailov, of the opposition daily Baki Khaber, was arrested in Baku on 30 December and accused of involvement in the clashes in the city after the 15 October election. His editor, Aydin Gouliev, said he had been sent to Azadliq Square on 16 October to cover the demonstrations. The Nasimi regional court ordered him detained for three months in Bailov prison on 31 December while the case was being investigated. He was charged under articles 220.1 and 315 of the criminal code and faces between three and seven years in jail. There was no evidence he was being detained because of his work as a journalist.
At least 37 journalists arrested
Plainclothes police burst into the premises of the opposition daily Milliyet in Baku on 23 April 2003 and arrested journalists Tahir Abbasli and Sarkarda Sakharnova. They were freed a few hours later after appearing before deputy prosecutor-general Ramiz Rzayev, who gave them an "official warning" about a photomontage in the paper five days earlier showing the demolition of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad with President Heidar Aliev’s head on it instead of Hussein’s.
Police seized 1,800 copies of the Russian-language edition of the opposition daily Yeni Musavat on 2 May as they was leaving the Viza-Media printers in Baku and arrested journalists Azer Aykhan, Firdovsi Akhmedov and Sayyad Gadirli, as well as three staff of the printing firm, including its boss, Aliovst Talishkhanly, for publishing "anti-government" material. The journalists were freed five hours later.
Police in 10 cars roughly arrested a group of senior journalists on 26 July as they were driving away from the Baku home of Yeni Musavat editor Rauf Arifoglu on the way to the city’s press club. They included Arifoglu himself, Aflatun Amashev (president) and Gunduz Takhirli (member) of the Press Council, Mehman Aliev, head of the Turan independent news agency, Arif Aliev, president of the press club and head of the Yeni Nesil trade union, Ganimat Zakhidov, managing editor of the opposition daily Azadliq, and Yeni Musavat staffers 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.
The council of the country’s media chiefs and Arifoglu said they had heard a few days earlier of plans to arrest him. Just before the police swooped, the heads of the main opposition press and media organisations had gone to his home to discuss the situation.
Interior minister Ramil Usubov said on 30 July the episode would be investigated and the police responsible punished. But no action had been taken by the end of the year.
Rial Jafarli (Azadliq) and Ali Orujev (Milliyet) were arrested on 21 September while covering a meeting of two opposition presidential candidates, Etibar Mamedov (National Independence Party) and Ali Kerimly (Popular Front Party), in Lenkoran (south of Baku). Jafarli was freed five hours later but Orujev was charged with "hooliganism" and not released until 25 September.
Ali Ismailov (Milliyet) was beaten and briefly detained by police in the village of Sinjanboyag (120 km north of Baku) on 3 October while travelling with opposition candidate Issa Gambar.
Elnur Sadigov (Azadliq) was not allowed in a polling station, beaten by police and held by them for three hours in the northern town of Ganja on 15 October, the day of the presidential election. Two other journalists were arrested - Parviz Hashimov (Uch Nogta news agency), held for three hours in Ganja, and Mushfig Mamedli (the daily Baki Khaber), who was arrested in Baku.
The Committee to Protect Journalists of Azerbaijan (RUH) said at least 16 journalists were arrested on 15 and 16 October while covering the election and the next day’s protests. Most were freed on 22 October after being sentenced to a few days in prison for "disturbing the peace" or "refusing to obey orders.
Azer Qarachenli, of the weekly Avropa, disappeared between 15 to 21 October. His arrest by masked special police in front of Musavat party offices in Baku was filmed by the TV station ANS, but the interior ministry denied for several days he had been arrested. He had been picked up during anti-regime demonstrations and sentenced to two weeks in prison. He said he had not been allowed to contact the paper or see a lawyer and had refused to sign a false statement about the circumstances of his arrest.
Sayaf Gadoriv and Teymur Imanov, of Yeni Musavat, were arrested on 17 October as they left the paper’s offices.
Ilham Akhundov, founder and editor of the weekly Gyrkh Chirag in Ali-Bairamly (100 km south of Baku) and a member of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested at his home in the village of Mes on 18 October and two days later sentenced to 10 days in prison for "hooliganism and using bad language in public."
Jehyun Askerli, correspondent in Geychay (west of Baku) for Milliyet and member of the Popular Front Party, was arrested on 19 October and sentenced to 10 days in jail.
Police arrested Zabil Mugabiloglu, political reporter of the pro-government daily 525, at the paper’s offices on 20 October and taken to the Yasamal district court in Baku, where he was jailed for two weeks for disturbing the peace.
Mustafa Hajibeyli (Yeni Musavat), was arrested on 23 October at his parents’ home and held for several hours. Interior ministry officials searched the apartment and took away a video cassette.
At least 99 journalists physically attacked
About 30 men attacked the offices of the opposition daily Yeni Musavat on 4 May 2003, insulting journalists, threatening to kill editor Rauf Arifoglu and causing a lot of material damage. They demanded an end to articles about President Aliev’s health and to criticism of the government. Assistant managing editor Gabil Abbasoglu, and journalists Elshad Pashasoy, Samir Azizoglu and Khalid Kazimli were injured. The staff, who had expected such an attack, had asked for police protection after government officials had called for the paper to be "punished" and the government press had called them "enemies of the country." The officials accused the paper of calling for Aliev’s resignation because of his poor health. Editor Arifoglu said police protection, begun three days earlier, had been withdrawn two hours before the attack. Three of the attackers were jailed for between three and five days for "hooliganism."
Reporters Shafayat Salah (Turan news agency), Azer Ahmadov and Sahib Ismaylov (the opposition daily Azadliq) and Elshad Memedov (the opposition daily Khurriyet) were beaten up by police while covering a meeting of the Popular Front Party in Baku on 24 May.
Elshad Pashasoy (Yeni Musavat), Alim Huseynov (the daily Olaylar), Ramil Huseynov (the news agency Bilik Dunyasi), Perviz Heshimov (the weekly Politika), Rauf Mirkadyrov (the daily Zerkalo), Abbaseli Rustemli, Ruslan Beshirov, Ramiz Necefli, Ali Rza (all of Azadliq) and Tapdiq Ferhadoglu (Turan) were beaten by police on 27 May while covering a meeting of the Popular Front Party in front of the parliament building in Baku.
Parviz Peshmili (Politika) Natig Zeynalov (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) and Nijat Daglar and Tahir Tagiyev (both of Khurriyet) were beaten and insulted by police during a protest by opposition parties in front of parliament on 3 June.
Mushfig Hajiyev, cameraman with the independent TV station ANS, was attacked on 18 July by Lazim Mirzoyev, a government official in the village of Karmachatag (in Nakichevan), who tried to seize his camera. ANS reporter Natella Mahmudova, Kamala Surkhaygizi (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) and Malahat Nasibova (Turan), who were there with Hajiyev to report on clashes with the Armenian army, were also set upon and chased out of the village. Mirzoyev said he had been ordered to keep the journalists away from the village.
Nasibova, Mahmudova and Hajiyev were beaten and insulted by police and government officials in the village of Sadarak (Nakichevan) on 3 September while seeking information about complaints by inhabitants against the behaviour of the local authorities. They were called spies and traitors and ordered out of the village.
A dozen journalists and several members of the Popular Front Party were beaten by police, including deputy police chief Yashar Aliev, as they gathered in front of Baku police headquarters on 8 September while opposition presidential election candidate Fuad Mustafayev was being questioned there. Film taken by Internews was seized. Among the journalists involved were Khalig Bakhadur (Azadliq), Azer Rashidoglu and Metin Yasharoglu (Zerkalo), Hadija Ismailova (the daily Ekho), Rey Kerimoglu (the paper Milli Yol), Mirjavad Ragimli (Space TV), Sukhur Abdullayev (the daily Bu Gyun), Manaf Guliev (Internews cameraman) and Hagani Safaroglu (Avropa). The Committee to Protect Journalists of Azerbaijan (RUH) filed a complaint against deputy police chief Aliev on 4 December.
Irada Nureddingyzy (the opposition daily Milliyet), Nigyar Almangyzy (the daily Express), Samira Zamanly (Khurriyet), Taptig Farhadoglu (Turan) and Zaur Rasulzade (of the Russian-language daily Novoye Vremya) were clubbed and stoned by police and civilians at a meeting held by two opposition presidential candidates that police were trying to disperse in Masaly (south of Baku) on 21 September. Zamanly was knocked out by one of the stones.
Thugs beat people attending a meeting on 2 October held by presidential candidates Etibar Mamedov and Ali Kerimli in the Saatli region (200 km west of Baku) with wooden and metal objects. Among the victims were Aflatun Guliev (editor) and Ali Orudjev (reporter) of Milliyet. Guliev’s nose and several teeth were broken.
Fierce clashes with security forces erupted on the evening of election day, 15 October, as thousands of people demonstrated outside the Baku offices of the opposition party Musavat and continued the next day on the city’s Azadliq Square. The RUH said at least 54 journalists had been attacked over the two days. They included:
Sahil Kerimli (Lider TV), attacked by a crowd in Baku on 15 October; Kenul Salimgizi, Safar Humbatov, Murshud Hasanov and Salim Azizoglu (all of Yeni Musavat), roughed up at polling station 25 in Baku and Fahraddin Hajibeyli (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty), beaten by polling station officials in Agdam (350 km from Baku).
On 16 October, at least 26 journalists were beaten up by security forces in Azadliq Square. They included: Ilkin Guliev, Zafar Guliev (who received head injuries) and Emin Huseynov (a brain injury), all of Turan; Alexander Klimchuk (of the Georgian daily Tribuna); Sabina Iskenderli and Fuad Hasanguliyev (who was hospitalised with head inujuries), both of the Interfax-Azerbaijan news agency; Agil Jamal and Hayal Babayev (Azadliq); Azer Hasret, secretary-general of the journalists’ organisation JuHi; Shirhan Agayev (the daily Prognoz); Sarkarda Sarkhanoglu, Tebriz Sadayoglu, Nabi Alishev, Adil Huseynov and Tahir Aliyaroglu (all of Khurriyet). The last three were hospitalised with head injuries; Kenul Velieva, Metanet Muslimgizi and Nijat Daglar, who was hospitalised with serious injuries; Vasim Mamedov (the daily Baki Khaber), hospitalised with head injuries; Eynulla Umudov and Etibar Savalan (the paper Galanjak Gun); Elza Abishova (hospitalised), Mansura Sattarova, Lala Musa Gizi, Afgan Gafarov and Kenan Rovshanoglu (all of the daily Cumhurriyet). The interior ministry launched an enquiry into possible police brutality. But the authorities said right away that most of the journalists were not covering the protests but participating in them as opposition activists.
Harassment and obstruction
Several journalists and human rights activists staged a hunger-strike from 22 to 28 January 2003 to protest against legalistic harassment of the opposition daily Yeni Musavat and draw world attention to press freedom violations in the country. Editor Rauf Arifoglu pointed to the 13 prosecutions of the paper by the authorities in just a few months and to the threats made to its journalists. Participants included Yadigar Mamedli (president of the Democratic League of Journalists), Mehman Aliev (head of the Turan news agency), Ganimat Zakhidov (president of the Azad Soz Journalists’ Union), Azer Hasret (secretary-general of the Azerbaijan Journalists’ Confederation), Zahid Gazanfaroglu (Yeni Musavat), Zohrab Ismayil (publisher of the opposition daily Azadliq), Asif Marazli (editor of the weekly Tazadlar), Mohammed Arsoy (member of the Azad Soz Journalists’ Union) and Sanan Hasanoglu (editor of the diaspora magazine Compatriot).
Baku city authorities shut down on 28 January a newsstand run by the Gaya distribution firm in front of the university which sold opposition papers unavailable at the government newsstands. They said it was for reasons of "urban improvement," but a nearby state newsstand remained in place.
A court in Yasamal (Baku) fined Elmar Husseynov, founder and editor of the weekly Monitor, 4,600 euros on 4 April (under articles 147.2 and 148 of the criminal code) for libelling and insulting the honour and dignity of Hasan Zeynalov, head of the Baku office of the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan, in an article called "The Godfather" (in its second issue of 2003) which compared the inhabitants of the republic with Sicilians. Zeynalov also sued in a civil court, which awarded him 19,000 euros in damages on 25 February and ordered a denial to be published. The editor was amnestied on 12 May for the criminal conviction.
The independent weekly Bizim Yol was extensively harassed after it was founded in March. Police seized copies on 20 April from four vendors in Nizami (Baku) who were taken to a police station and questioned before being freed. Editor Mohammed Arsoy said the seizure was because the previous number contained a cartoon of President Aliev astride a donkey with his son Ilham holding its tail. More copies were confiscated in Baku the next day. All printers refused to print the paper on 11 May, on the orders of the authorities. On 17 May, three unidentified men stopped a van carrying 4,000 copies, threatened and insulted the driver and took away all the papers. The magazine was forced to close after six issues, but its journalists launched a new paper, Milli Yol, in June. Its offices were vandalised on 10 August and computer equipment damaged. In September and October, assistant editor Shahin Agabeyli was summoned and reprimanded several times by the deputy prosecutor-general for printing cartoons of government ministers. Presidential candidate and member of parliament Gudrat Hasanguliyev threatened its journalists in early October with reprisals if the paper continued to insult him. The independent printers Chap Evi refused to print the paper from 15 October.
The head of Baku’s metro railway system, Tagi Ahmedov, said on 21 April that the quarterly newspaper distribution agreements with the firms Said and Mars-3 would only be renewed if they stopped handling opposition papers such as Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Khurriyet and Milliyet. He said they printed inaccurate news about President Aliev’s health. The firms refused to comply and in mid-May, distribution resumed as normal.
The prosecutor-general’s office accused opposition papers Yeni Musavat, Khurriyet, Azadliq and Milliyet on 6 May of breaking the media laws by printing reports about President Aliev that violated journalistic ethics.
The president’s brother Jalal told parliament on 13 May, after stories appeared about the president’s health, that journalists who criticised the head of state should be stripped of their accreditation to cover parlialment.
At least 25 newspaper street-vendors were arrested in Baku on 16 and 17 May and thousands of copies of Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Milliyet and Monitor seized on the orders of city police chief Maharram Aliev.
A Baku court sentenced Yashar Agazade (reporter) and Rovshan Kebirli (publisher) of the weekly Mukhalifat to five months in prison on 21 May for libelling President Aliev’s brother Jalal in a 14 April article saying he headed a gang that monopolised the country’s grain market. They were both pardoned immediately.
Columnist Rauf Mirkadyrov, of the Russian-language daily Zerkalo, was fined 82,500 manats (15 euros) on 7 July for being drunk and trying to hit Baku mayor Hajikala Abutalibov. The journalist said he had simply asked the mayor who was in charge of work done on a city building and had then been set upon by police.
Justice minister Fikret Mamadov accused the media on 26 July of trying to destabilise the country before the 15 October presidential election and said he would act against those that defied the ban on undermining the president’s "honour and dignity." The warning was repeated the same day by prosecutor-general Zakir Garalov. The day before, interior minister Ramil Usubov had accused opposition media of printing libellous and insulting material. A few days earlier, Yeni Musavat and other opposition papers had written about the illness of the president, who was hospitalised in Turkey on 8 July.
Elnur Sadigov, a correspondent for Azadliq, said on 27 August he had been expelled from the state university in the northwestern town of Ganja, where he was a student, because he had been detained for a week in May for writing critical articles.
On the day of the 15 October presidential election, three journalists were barred from polling stations - Firudin Guliyev (Garbin Sesi) by police in Shemakha (120 km from Baku), Vidadi Bayramov (Khurriyet), who was insulted in Salyan (140 km from Baku), and Abbasali Rustamli (Azadliq) in Sabail (Baku).
The same day, seven journalists were insulted by polling officials. They were Aslan Abdullayev (Molla Nasreddin), by the polling station chief in Ujar (200 km from Baku); Matanat Alieva (Impuls), at station 22 in Nasimi (Baku); Eynulla Garayev (Fedai), in Ujar; Medina Aliyev (freelance), at station 38 in Baku; Tahir Pasha (head of the Association of Military Journalists) and Mubariz Jafarli and Mahir Mamedli (both of Yeni Musavat), at station 15 in Sabail (Baku).
During the week after protest demonstrations on 15 and 16 October, journalists from opposition papers Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Khurriyet, Baki Khaber and Yeni Zaman/Novoye Vremya were barred from parliament.
Tens of thousands of copies of Yeni Musavat, Azadliq, Khurriyet and Baki Khaber were seized from newsstands in Baku and in the provinces on 17 and 18 October.
Two days after the election, on 17 October, the state printers refused to print Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Baki Khaber, Khurriyet and Yeni Zaman/Novoye Vremya. Yeni Musavat business manager Azer Ahyan said the firm said its workers had refused to handle the papers because they were pro-opposition and that anyway the newspapers owed too much money. However, the firm continued to print other (pro-government) papers also in debt to the firm.
The five opposition papers failed to appear between 14 and 20 November when Chap Evi, the only privately-owned printers that agreed to print them, ran out of paper. The editors accused the authorities of creating an artificial newsprint shortage by doubling the price of it.
Tax inspectors turned up unannounced at the offices of Milliyet on 22 October and seized four computers, as well as photos and tape-recordings. They filmed the premises and said they were looking for firearms. The computers were returned two days later.
Member of parliament Omaliya Panakhova told a press conference on 27 October that journalists who criticised the government "should be killed."
A close aide of the prosecutor-general warned Turan editor Mehman Aliev on 28 October for reporting that elections board members who refused to sign false voting tallies had come under official pressure.