On August 28, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev passed a decree on "Rules on preventing the dissemination of state secrets in mass media". A law "About state secrecy" was adopted on November 15, 1996 and the Council of Europe suggested to Azerbaijan's authorities to make serious changes in it. The rules apply to mass media, founded and acting on the territory of Azerbaijan.
It is noted in the Decree that editors and journalists bear the responsibility for disseminating state secrets and must not allow their dissemination in mass media. If the editors are in doubt whether a report contains a state secret, they should address a request to the interdepartmental commission on protecting state secrets of the Presidency of Azerbaijan. The Commission is obliged to give an official response to such requests within seven days. In case the Commission defines that the submitted report includes a state secret, it may require the release of the source of this information and the submission of an original copy. If a report containing a state secret is disseminated, the commission must apply to the court in order to ascertain the source. For breaching these rules, editors and journalists bear responsibility according to current legislation.
Most items of the law about state secrecy are in contradiction to Azerbaijan's obligations to international organizations on ensuring freedom of the press and transparency of state agencies' activity. That's why Council of Europe included this law in a list of legislative acts, which needs obligatory and thorough improvement. And now necessary steps are being undertaken in this direction.
Some provisions of the recent Decree contradict both the Constitution and the law on the mass media. According to law, only courts may demand from mass media the release of a source of information. And submitting an original copy on the request of the interdepartmental commission on protecting state secrecy at the presidency amounts to restoring preliminary censorship. The Journalists' union "Yeni nesil" was the first to react to this decree. It made a statement that these new rules hade been the cause of journalists' anxiety. "In accordance with Azerbaijan's obligations to Council of Europe, there amendments in the law on freedom of information and the law on state secrecy need to be made. We call on our government to urgently update the above-mentioned laws from the standpoint of requirements brought up by the Council of Europe. The decree itself needs to be changed, as the state obliged not only to determine state secrecy, but also to protect it. And hence this responsibility cannot be shifted on to journalists".
On September 4, a roundtable with the participation of the heads of a number of leading mass media took place in the Baku press-club. Editors are sure that the implementation of the new rules would lead to refusal of people who used to cooperate with the mass media previously. Fearing for their safety, they would prefer not to release information of public interest. Moreover, journalists themselves would avoid publishing materials and reports of vital importance for the public. Thus censorship would practically be reintroduced in Azerbaijan.
According to the chief of TURAN news agency Mehman Aliev, it is not right to make journalists responsible for keeping state secrecy. "How can mass media representatives define what is secret and what is not? Mechanisms and criteria on determining grades of state secrecy haven't been worked out yet".
Simultaneously, the head of the working group of the interdepartmental commission on protecting state secrecy at the Presidency, Nuraddin Nifitev who participated in the roundtable, declared that the new rules pose absolutely no threat to freedom of speech and would not amount to new censorship.
The reaction of international structures on introducing the new regulations was rather tough. International human rights organization Article19 expressed its serious anxiety regarding this Decree. Most serious among them is requirement to submit to the Presidential Commission in order to determine if a report contains a state secret. "Such practice will to a certain extent turn into new censorship of self-censorship for journalists and exercise restraining influence on the process of getting and dissemination of information," a statement from Article19 noted.
Anxiety also arises from the fact that state secrecy is connected to such spheres as possible government corruption, using finances of public funds, ecology, health, etc. Another problem is that journalists are obliged to release the sources of their information. "It is a breach of the fundamental principle of free press about protecting source", the statement says.
In a recent interview, the secretary general of "Reporters sans frontiers" Robert Menard stated that the adopted decree threatens freedom of the press in Azerbaijan, as they strengthen government control upon the contents of news. Pushing mass media to check information for state secrecy before its publishing, the government hinders journalists from their work, breaches their right not to release sources of information and contributes to introducing of self-censorship.
According to him "Reporters sans frontiers" directed a letter to the President of Azerbaijan, explaining that this measure is absolutely unacceptable, as he committed himself to the Council of Europe to respect European standards of freedom of information.
According to Shahin Aliyev, director of the department of legal affairs of the office of the President, the legislative base regarding state secrecy, and in particular, the obligatory release of sources of information on demand of the executive body is indeed outdated and needs to be reviewed. He did not exclude the possibility of inserting amendments into the Decree, and promised to discuss all these issues within the shortest possible time and that answers to all questions would be given in a short time. This points to a readiness for compromise on the part of the government, though it remains quite unclear why the authorities decided to strain the situation in the first place.