Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Broadcasting Ban Threat

Government says independent broadcasters are retransmitting foreign outlets illegally.
By Mina Muradova
Three western radio stations in Azerbaijan face being taken off the air in the New Year because of a licensing dispute.

Listeners can currently tune in to Azerbaijani-language programmes of the BBC, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America and also Voice of America’s television news programmes via local radio stations retransmitting them in high quality.

However, Azerbaijan’s National Council for Television and Radio, NCTR, says the stations are being re-transmitted illegally and will have to reapply for permission to broadcast.

The chairman of the NCTR, Nushiravan Magerramli, warned the popular broadcaster ANS, which transmits all three radio stations as well as Voice of America television, that it would face “serious sanctions” if it continued to broadcast them after January 1. The warning was also given to two other stations, which rebroadcast the foreign stations, Azerbaijani State Radio and Radio Antenn.

“We warned all the channels of the seriousness of our intentions and if they do not act to work within the law the subsequent decision will be very harsh and their position will worsen,” Magerramli told a press conference. He said ANS would not get its own broadcasting license until it stopped retransmitting foreign broadcasters.

The three foreign stations are completely outside Azerbaijani government control and reach a wide audience. For example, around seven per cent of Azerbaijan’s population listens to the BBC via ANS radio.

However, the three foreign broadcasters say they are totally in the dark about what the Azerbaijani government expects of them and have not been told what they should do in order to carry on broadcasting.

“They don’t tell us what legislation we have to observe is,” a journalist working at one of the foreign stations told IWPR on condition of anonymity. “They say they are still thinking about it. But they say they will still suspend us from January, which does not give us enough time to apply for a new license. And they haven’t yet decided what the new license is or what it costs.”

The NCTR was founded three years ago to coordinate broadcasting licenses in Azerbaijan, but has only been working actively for a year. Last year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Media Freedom Representative Miklos Haraszti expressed concern about the way the broadcasting council is formed, with its nine members all being appointed by the president.

Some commentators see the threats as being aimed not only at the foreign broadcasters, but at ANS, which is Azerbaijan’s most popular and professional television station and has been broadcasting for 15 years. Its radio station is the second most listened to in the country, with 20 per cent of the total audience. According to an assessment made by the Council of Europe, ANS was the most politically independent electronic media source during the 2005 parliamentary elections.

The co-founder and vice-president of ANS Seifulla Mustafayev told the Gun newspaper that they had been applying for a proper broadcasting license for three years but without success. “All this time we applied on several occasions for an extension of our license, but heard only promises that this issue was being reviewed. The last we heard was they were promising us a license either at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year.”

Another media expert, Zeinal Mamedli, wondered aloud, “How can you drag out giving out a license to a channel since 2003? All this is political pressure by the authorities, who don’t want there to be alternative sources of information in this country.

“It’s quite possible that there are figures who want to change the ownership of ANS and get their hands on an economically profitable channel. In terms of getting both a political and economic monopoly in Azerbaijan, they want to kill two birds with one stone.”

Rashid Hajily, director of the Media Rights Institute in Baku, noted that ANS was also undergoing thorough tax inspection and sees a political motive behind an attack on a channel that is “more or less objective” in its political coverage.

Hajily also questioned the threatened ban on the foreign radio stations, saying that under existing legislation broadcasting companies did have the legal right to retransmit other stations.

“Why should this ban affect only these three radio stations, when other foreign TV and radio companies – Russian, Turkish and French ones – broadcast without a license?” asked Hajily. “When you consider that these radio stations [the BBC and others] broadcast mainly in Azeri and their programmes are more about political topics, then you get the impression that the decision of the NCTR has a political subtext.”

Both local and international journalists and listeners are also sounding the alarm about the threatened ban.

Elshan Orujev, a listener to the BBC’s Azeri Service, said, “I love listening to BBC radio. They make very professional radio reports which our local radio stations don’t. Especially during the elections, I listened to them every evening. It’s a pity that from next year they won’t be broadcasting the BBC. I will have to learn English and listen to BBC World Service.”

The media defence organisation Reporters Without Borders condemned the decision, saying, “[It] is targeted at international media whose independence the Azeri government seems to fear.”

Emin Husseinov of the non-governmental Institute for Freedom and Security of Reporters sees the move as a first step by the government to control media coverage ahead of the 2008 presidential elections.

“It is difficult to do this during the elections,” he said. “That is why the government is resorting to these measures to remove alternative sources of influence on public opinion.”

Mina Muradova and Adalat Bargarar are the pseudonyms of two journalists working in Baku.