Wednesday, 16 January 2002

AZERBAIJAN MASS MEDIA LEGISLATION SIGNIFICANTLY LIBERALIZED

Published in Field Reports

By Gulnara Ismailova, a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan (1/16/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

2001 was challenging year for Azerbaijani mass media. According to Arif Aliyev, chairman of the Azerbaijan Journalists’ Union “Yeni Nesil”, 30 court judgments punished 21 newspapers during the year. “These newspapers have had to pay fines totaling 700 million Manats (ca.

2001 was challenging year for Azerbaijani mass media. According to Arif Aliyev, chairman of the Azerbaijan Journalists’ Union “Yeni Nesil”, 30 court judgments punished 21 newspapers during the year. “These newspapers have had to pay fines totaling 700 million Manats (ca. US$150,000). The rights of journalists were violated 120 times, and journalists were exposed to 55 of assaults and beatings, and nobody has been charged for these excesses. 4 newspapers were closed, and the broadcasts of the ABA TV channel were halted.

The culmination of the standoff between authorities and mass media representatives was the dissolution of a meeting against suppression of freedom of speech on December 12, 2001. 

At this event, representatives of opposition mass media decided to hold an unsanctioned meeting in front of the headquarters of the ruling “Yeni Azerbaijan” (YAP) Party. The locale for the action was not an accident. At the second summit of YAP,  three newspapers “Yeni Musavat”, “Azadlig” and “Hurriet” were criticized by YAP for undermining the statehood of the country, something which according to the opposition press was followed by increased pressure from authorities. About 100 journalists attempt to hold the demonstration in spite of failing to receive permission to do so. The were prevented by the police. Numerous journalists were beaten. After this incident, international organizations, anxious about the pressure on the media, decided to render assistance to the Azerbaijani mass media. The International Federation of Journalists decided to allocate financial support to Azeri journalists having lost their jobs. The International organization Reporters sans frontières requested the President of Azerbaijan to put an end to the suppression of the press.    

The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, also appealed to the Azerbaijani authorities. He asked Baku to undertake all necessary measures to prevent such action against the press in the future and to respect freedom of expressions and the mass media in accordance with Azerbaijan’s international obligations.

On December 18, President Heydar Aliyev decided to meet with representatives of the mass media. During a three hour meeting, a sharp exchange of opinions on the condition of mass media and on the political situation in the country took place. The main focus was on problems preventing the development of mass media, and on freedom of speech. The President made the important statement that the negative appraisal of opposition newspapers’ activity sounded at the second YAP summit was wrong. “I had not seen this document before the summit, and after it was released, I expressed my negative attitude and asked the executive secretary and other leaders of the party to correct the mistake”. The President explained that while addressing the summit, he called on members of the party to rebuff groundless accusations against the opposition, which should not be considered as signal for press suppression. 

In their turn, representatives of independent and opposition mass media expressed anxiety for the increasing tension between authorities and the press. In particular, they attracted the President’s attention to the closing of several newspapers, the arrest of journalists, and their harassment by the authorities. Discussions were held on economic measures specifically introduced to hinder the activities of the press. An example was the named prohibition to print opposition press in publishing houses, and the obstacles for newspapers distribution. The meeting resulted in the freezing of newspapers’ debts to publishing houses for one year, the resumption of opposition newspapers’ publication by  the state publishing house Azerbaijan, and the signing of a presidential decree by the President “on additional measures on increasing state attention to mass media”.

On December 28, 2001, the  parliament (Milli Mejlis) unanimously adopted a law “on amendments and changes to the mass media law”. The amendments to the mass media law meant a significant liberalization, and henceforth the press is allowed to be financed from all sources that are not explicitly prohibited by law. Besides, limitations on advertisement in printing and electronic mass media were repealed. The existing system of mass media registration was also abolished. Legislation allowing the bodies of executive power to suspend the activity of mass media was also cancelled. The amended version of the law allows the suspension or closure of mass media only according to court decision or a decision by the owners. The item permitting authorities to deprive the accreditation of journalists was also abolished.

At the beginning of the New Year, President Aliyev called on all government officials to cease legal actions against mass media representatives. In reply to this Huseyn Huseynov, head of the state concern “Azeravtonagliyyet” and mayor of Baku Hajibala Abutalibov repealed lawsuits against the newspapers “Avropa” and “Criminal”. Ramiz Mekhtiyev, head of the presidential administration, did the same thing on January 10. He waived a lawsuit against Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the “Milletin Sesi” newspaper, which had been closed by court decision. 

Immediately after these events, results of traditional annual opinion polls provided by the Committee on protection Azerbaijan journalists’ rights, showed that journalists and experts considered that President Aliyev had become the number one “Friend of the press” in 2001. The second and third places went to Chairman of the “Adalat” party Ilyas Ismailov, and to Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliyev. Interestingly, parliamentary deputy Jalal Aliyev, the  brother of the President, was termed the number one “enemy of press” by an overwhelming majority of respondents. The runner-ups in the list of enemies were Siyavush Novruzov, deputy executive secretary of YAP, and Ramiz Mehtiev, the head of the Presidential Administration.

In the opinion of Arif Aliyev, the chairman of “Yeni Nesil”, The President’s attitude to mass media should be an example for everyone, which instills hope that the condition of the Azerbaijani mass media would improve in 2002.

Gulnara Ismailova, a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.
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