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Azerbaijan: Foreign Radio Under Threat

Concerns that important forums for political debate will be shut down.
By Sevinj Telmangyzy
The threat to strip three influential foreign radio stations of local frequencies in Azerbaijan has raised a storm of international criticism.



Experts say that if the decision to shut down the local Azeri-language broadcasts of Radio Liberty, the BBC and Voice of America from the New Year is carried out, it will deprive listeners of an important alternative source of information and cause a rift between the Azerbaijani government and western countries.



All three stations broadcast inside Azerbaijan on FM frequencies. Radio Liberty is especially influential, broadcasting ten hours a day in the Azeri language.



Kenan Aliev, director of Radio Liberty’s Azeri service, said that if they lost their local frequency and had to rely on the Internet and other means of broadcasting, it would be a serious blow for them.



“The government’s proposal to rebroadcast on the Internet is not realistic, as most listeners in Azerbaijan don’t have access to the Internet,” he said.



Nushiravan Magerramli, president of the National Television and Radio Council, NSTR, said that the decision was being made purely because Azerbaijan’s national radio frequencies should belong to local broadcasters.



“A year ago we warned the foreign radio stations about this,” Magerramli told IWPR. “We need to suspend these broadcasts and then to solve this problem according to current world practice. Foreign radio stations can still broadcast on satellite, cable or on the Internet in Azerbaijan, just as in the countries of Europe.”



Magerramli said that the broadcasting licenses of the three stations had actually expired three months ago.



“On our own initiative we prolonged their licenses because of the presidential elections so the channels had the opportunity to cover such an important political process,” he said. “We wouldn’t like this to be viewed as suppression of freedom of speech.”



However, this is precisely how many Azerbaijani listeners are interpreting the news. Fakhraddin Gasimov, 34, said he was very worried by the announcement. He said that television news is not worth watching, and he relies on Radio Liberty to get up-to date reliable information.



“On Radio Liberty, as opposed to other stations, you can find out the position both of the authorities and of the opposition,” said Gasimov. “I love listening to their discussions on political topics. If these radio stations shut down, we won’t know what’s really happening in the country.”



Foreign broadcasters have been under pressure in Azerbaijan for four years. In 2004, most Russian and Turkish television stations stopped broadcasting, as did French international radio. In that year, the National Television and Radio Council began signing one-year licensing contracts with the Voice of America and the BBC.



Mehman Aliev, director of the independent Turan news agency, said that there was a clear political agenda behind the threatened closures.



“These radio stations are popular in society as fierce critics of the authorities,” said Aliev. “That’s why the authorities don’t want them to be accessible to the larger public and why they are attacking them.”



He said that President Ilham Aliev had made it clear in a meeting with the director of Radio Liberty that he was unhappy with their broadcasts.



A series of western officials, from the United States and British governments and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have expressed concern about the issue with the Azerbaijani government.



David Kramer, a US assistant secretary of state, on a visit to Baku warned Azerbaijani officials that if the shut-down goes ahead it will hurt bilateral relations with the America.



Matt Bryza, the main US state department official dealing with the South Caucasus, said, “Radio Liberty is very important for Azerbaijanis and what is important for Azerbaijanis is also important for us. This radio station has huge meaning for the development of democracy in Azerbaijan.”



Andreas Herkel, co-rapporteur on Azerbaijan for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said the plans were part of a disturbing trend for the media in general in Azerbaijan.



“The media is the most difficult area for the government,” said Herkel. “It’s being recorded in all international reports that freedom of speech in Azerbaijan is being restricted.”



There are still hopes that the dispute can be solved by the end of the year. Radio Liberty’s Azeri-language service said that it was working as normal and still hoping to resolve the dispute.



US embassy spokesman Terry Davidson said, “We have not yet seen any official decision on the closure of the radio stations.”



Magerramli said that there was still time to come to an agreement.



“I think that Azerbaijan’s relations with other countries won’t suffer as a result of this,” he said. “It’s not such a big problem as to hurt the relations between countries.”



Magerramli said that the licenses of the three radio stations might be extended for another year in December, but did not give details on how this could be done.



Rashid Hajili, director of the Institute for the Rights of the Media in Baku, noted that so far there was only a threat of action and no official decision has yet been taken on the issue by the Azerbaijani government.



“So far only the chairman of the National Television and Radio Council has expressed his opinion,” said Hajili. “And what Magerramli says does not have a basis in legislation. The law he talks about was passed in 2002. Why has this law been applied in one way up to now and now they want to apply it in a different way? After all, the demands of the law have been the same for the past six years.”



Sevinj Telmangyzy is a journalist with Yeni Musavat newspaper in Baku.