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Assault on Azeri Press

New president of Azerbaijan is following up his election victory with a crackdown on the opposition press.
By Vafa Farajova

The editor of Azerbaijan’s leading opposition newspaper is under arrest and other papers are facing pressure as Azerbaijan’s new president, Ilham Aliev, consolidates power.


Rauf Arifoglu, editor of Yeni Musavat, was arrested on October 27 and immediately sentenced to three months in detention for allegedly inciting the street disturbances, which shook Baku on October 16.


As well as being editor of Yeni Musavat – which, with a circulation of 15,000 copies, is the best-selling paper in the South Caucasus – Arifoglu is also deputy head of the Musavat party, whose leader Isa Gambar was the main challenger to Aliev.


“The regime has decided to punish, or rather take their revenge on, Rauf Arifoglu, who in his articles has exposed the greed, venality and hypocrisy of the corrupt bureaucracy,” commented Gabil Abbasoglu, Arifoglu’s deputy.


Arifoglu is being kept in the Bailovo pre-trial detention centre in what his lawyer Tufan Kerimli describes as harsh and anti-sanitary conditions. He is being denied any writing materials and gets his food according to a strict timetable set by his jailors. The latter is a particular problem for Arifoglu, who is a devout Muslim and cannot therefore properly observe Ramadan. His lawyer said that the editor looked in a state of extreme physical exhaustion.


An attempt was made to seize Arifoglu immediately after the October 15 presidential elections, when several men in civilian clothes tried to bundle him into a car. He escaped and took refuge in the Norwegian embassy for four days. He emerged after the Norway’s ambassador Steinar Gil received an assurance that the authorities would strictly observe the law in their dealings with him.


“I strongly doubt that Arifoglu did anything to justify his arrest after they assured me that they had no claims against him,” Gil told IWPR.


The ambassador – who also sheltered an imam accused of being a radical Islamist – has come under vicious attack from pro-government media and parliamentary deputies, as a result of his actions. On November 5, Siyavush Novruzov, one of the managers of Ilham Aliev’s election campaign, called in parliament for Gil to be declared persona non grata for “sheltering a criminal”.


Metin Mirza, press spokesman for the Azerbaijani foreign ministry, attempted to smooth over the row, telling IWPR that Novruzov’s comments were “the private opinion of a parliamentary deputy”. Gil himself noted that he had made his comments in full coordination with his government in Oslo. Through its state oil firm Statoil, Norway is a major investor in Azerbaijan.


Journalists have been caught in the middle of the recent political storm in Azerbaijan over the disputed presidential election. Around eighty of them were hurt in the street violence in Baku on October 16, twenty of them seriously, although none are still in hospital. Most were independent or opposition journalists beaten by the police, but the injured also included a few pro-government reporters, such as television journalist Sahil Kerimlin beaten up by opposition protestors.


Some critics say that in Azerbaijan the line between politics and journalism is often very thin and that many of the injured journalists were also opposition activists, who were not reporting the rally but taking an active part in it and shouting anti-government slogans. “Many of the journalists who were hurt were not doing their professional duty but were amongst the ranks of the most radical opposition demonstrators,” charged pro-government deputy Mubariz Gurbanly.


Since the election, the opposition press is facing trouble in the courts. On November 5, a Baku court partially upheld two claims by the company Azersun, awarding libel damages of more than 3,000 US dollars against Yeni Musavat. Abbasoglu said no one from the paper had been in court and this was in contravention of the law. He said the paper could not afford the fine and did not intend to pay it.


Azadlyq, the paper of another opposition party, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, is also experiencing the wrath of the new administration.


The pro-government private television station ANS is pursuing three court cases against Azadlyq for libel and unauthorised transcription of a television programme (a widespread practice in the Azerbaijani print media). ANS has already been awarded more than 5,000 dollars by the courts and the paper’s Baku bank account has been closed down.


Azadlyq editor-in-chief Ganimet Zakhidov said the ANS suit was “part of a coordinated campaign against freedom of speech” in Azerbaijan.


A press council was set up in Azerbaijan in March to try and regulate disputes within the media and claims against the media. Its head Aflatun Amashev is trying to mediate between ANS and Azadlyq. But Zakhidov was pessimistic about the chances of the council achieving a compromise.


The body was given few real powers and has been unable to show real teeth. One leading member, Vagid Samedoglu, recently resigned.


On November 5, pro-government deputy Gudrat Hasanguliev, a former Popular Front official, called for Azadlyq to be evicted from its Baku offices on the grounds that they are a “cultural monument”.


ANS is also suing Yeni Musavat for an article printed shortly before the election about its director Vahid Mustafiev and has another case pending against the Russian-language paper Novoye Vremya.


The opposition titles are still coming out and Yeni Musavat has even increased its circulation. However, Ganimat Zakhidov said his paper had just been presented with a 15 million manat (3,000 dollar) bill by Azerbaijan, the state printing house, at the same time as other papers are not being asked to clear much bigger debts.


The state printing house has refused to print Yeni Musavat and the management of the Baku metro system has banned sales of the paper in its stations. The opposition papers are now being printed by smaller printing houses and distributed by private individuals.


Nazim Isayev, a spokesman in the presidential administration, confirmed that “the printing house has cancelled contracts with these papers because they contain systematic calls for violence”.


“Several papers and journalists are currently trying to put themselves above the law, but everyone is equal before the law, including journalists,” he added.


A number of press freedom organisations, such as the International Federation of Journalists and Article 19, have sent their representatives to Baku to monitor the situation and the topic is likely to come up at the January session of the Council of Europe.


Since Ilham Aliev was inaugurated president on October 31, the situation has quietened down. The new president has called for dialogue with the opposition and the pro-government media has moderated the tone of its attacks.


Vafa Farajova is a reporter with Kavkazsky Uzel in Baku. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan coordinator.


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