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Azerbaijan: Election Coverage Fuels TV Row

The start of election campaigning has reignited the controversy over how independent the country’s new public service television station is.
By Rufat Abbasov

When registration ended in Baku this week, over 2,000 candidates had put their names forward to contest the 125 seats in the Azerbaijani parliament in the November 6 election.


Within hours of the September 6 close of registration, observers and experts were arguing about the fair access to television that all candidates should have during the campaign.


At the centre of the row was the country’s new Public Service Television channel, OTV, which went on air on August 29. In a speech at the opening ceremony, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev acknowledged the demand for an independent channel, saying that it would be an important step along the road to creating a free society.


OTV was created to fulfill one of the obligations Azerbaijan undertook when it joined the Council of Europe in 2001.


Before it started broadcasting, there were six television channels operating in Azerbaijan, reaching over 90 per cent of the potential audience. Although four of them were technically privately-owned and independent, it was commonly believed that all of them came under government influence to a greater or lesser extent.


OTV, created out of the second channel of state TV, was heralded as the emergence of a true public-service broadcaster that would provide balanced coverage and equal access to all political viewpoints.


But there were worrying signs from the start. Long before it went on air, OTV was mired in protracted wrangling over who should appoint the members of its governing body (see CRS No. 284 “Azeri Journalists Boycott New Channel”).


In particular, many people were disappointed by the choice of the man appointed to run OTV, Ismail Omarov. His previous job was as head of current affairs at the state-owned television channel, where he was once described as acting “like the public prosecutor, sentencing opponents of the ruling regime and calling them traitors”.


A presidential decree of March 2005 said that OTV would be based only on AzTV2, while AzTV1, the first state channel, would be turned into a public limited company with the government retaining a controlling stake. Recommendations by European institutions that both channels should become public-service TV channels were thus ignored.


In July, the OSCE’s representative on media freedom, Miklos Haraszti, visited Baku to review arrangements for the proposed new service in advance of the election. He was unhappy that AzTV1 was still in government hands, and said, “It is not possible for state television to coexist in the country with public television. Channel One should be public.”


It is still early days, and some observers are adopting a wait-and-see policy. The editor-in-chief of the Gun newspaper, Arif Aliev, said he hoped that OTV would be a platform for views right across the political spectrum and that it would adopt standards generally observed in the western media. But he also expressed concern about the structure of the channel and the election of Omarov as its boss.


Another common criticism is that the new station simply doesn’t have enough people with the right professional skills. Aliev said the shortage of qualified people affected all channels, but would be worse at OTV since it was relying heavily on young people with little experience.


More scathing criticism came from Zeynal Mammedli, who has worked in television for many years and is a member of the Azerbaijan Press Council. “The programmes feel amateurish,” he said when IWPR interviewed him after the first few days of broadcasting. “The news is presented in the spirit of Soviet totalitarianism. It’s a provincial model of television which does not merit the name ‘public television’.”


With the election now fast approaching, the role of those media which have links to the current administration will be under considerable international scrutiny. The precise rules governing coverage of the campaign have yet to be announced by the Central Electoral Commission.


OTV boss Omarov has already said that candidates seeking airtime will be charged a cheap rate. But Mammedli is dubious about his claim that airtime will be made available to all political parties on an equal basis during the run-up to the election. “I think it will be very complicated to ensure that political broadcasts are balanced,” he said. “OTV can give equal airtime to candidates to outline their policies, but can it create suitable formats to ensure that discussions are fair? I doubt it.”


Mammedli is convinced that the closer the election looms, the more pressure will be exerted on OTV to favour the government line.


But the vote is still two months away, and in the meantime Omarov is confident that he will confound his critics and deliver fair campaign reporting.


“Our aim is both to surprise and please our viewers by providing them with a transparent, democratic institution which will strengthen national solidarity and civil consensus,” he told IWPR.


The TV boss dismisses criticism that his former post should disqualify him from this one. “It’s no sin to have worked for a state television channel,” he said, insisting that OTV paid no attention to people’s party affiliation when selecting employees.


Omarov told IWPR that the channel was already broadcasting reports on opposition party events, adding, “The charge that we are a pro-government channel simply has no basis in reality. The fact that we are financed out of the state budget does not mean we are a propaganda machine for the current governing party.


“OTV will be an independent channel and will be run in the interests of the entire nation.”


Rufat Abbasov is a correspondent for Reuters news agency in Azerbaijan. Gulnaz Guliyeva is an independent journalist.


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