Azerbaijan: Probing Channel Pulled Off the Air

Dramatic shutdown of popular TV station seen as blow to freedom of speech.

Azerbaijan: Probing Channel Pulled Off the Air

Dramatic shutdown of popular TV station seen as blow to freedom of speech.

Monday, 11 December, 2006
Azerbaijan’s most popular and longest-running independent television channel, ANS, was unexpectedly closed on November 24, the culmination of a bitter dispute with the government.

The decision was taken that morning by the national television and radio broadcasting council. Council chairman Nushiravan Magerramli, said the channel’s license was not being extended and called on it to stop broadcasting within three hours.

The ANS management was not given written notification of the council’s decision, but at precisely three o’clock, operatives from the communications ministry, accompanied by policemen, broke into the company’s headquarters and switched off and sealed all its transmitters.

The council said that ANS had repeatedly received warnings for breaking broadcasting regulations. For the past few years, the company had been broadcasting without a license, because of an ongoing dispute with the government. ANS said it had repeatedly applied for a new license but had been refused.

Mekhti Mamedov, assistant to the chairman of the council, told IWPR, “Since the council was created in the spring of 2005, ANS was given nine warnings, and on two occasions it was fined. That is why the decision to revoke its license is absolutely justified.” Mamedov said ANS had failed to observe advertising regulations and opened a branch in the town of Sheki without permission.

ANS general director Fuad Jabbarly told IWPR that the channel had received only five written warnings from the council and reacted in a proper way to all of them. “I have no idea where the figure nine comes from,” he said. “It’s true that we were fined twice and paid the penalties on time. Until recently, the council never approached us with any complaints.”

ANS started broadcasting in November 1991 and is, according its president Vahid Mustafaiev, the first private and independent television channel in the former Soviet Union. It won a reputation for its frontline reporting from the Nagorny Karabakh conflict - and has maintained an aggressive stance on the Karabakh issue to this day.

The channel also won popularity for its news reporting, which was more independent than the official television channels, and for programmes such as “Internal News”, where ordinary citizens were allowed to ask questions of government officials.

A grand concert had been scheduled for November 26 to mark the channel’s fifteenth birthday, however the administration of the Heidar Aliev Concert Palace, where the event was due to be held, cancelled the party, citing the need to make essential repairs.

Rashid Gajily, an expert on media and director of the Institute of Law, said the council had exceeded its authority by issuing the decision to close down ANS. “The council does indeed have the authority to issue and extend licenses or not to extend them,” he said. “But it is up to a court to decide on the closure of a media outlet. There were no legal proceedings in the ANS case.”

The ANS management says it intends to challenge the decision in court, while the broadcasting council announced a tender for the station’s frequency with a deadline of January 7.

President Ilham Aliev hinted there was room for compromise, saying, “There are state organs and they have well-justified demands that need to be fulfilled. I think that the dispute with ANS can be resolved in a businesslike manner and with good will. If all demands are met its activity can be restored.”

But presidential aide Ali Hasanov, apparently with the approval of his boss, warned, “Even the president himself does not have the right to interfere in the process of issuing licenses. Responsibility for this lies with the broadcasting council.”

The dramatic shutdown of the popular television channel has triggered feverish speculation in Azerbaijan.

One interpretation is that the government was planning to make major concessions to the Armenians in the ongoing peace talks over the Karabakh issue and therefore wanted to take off the air a station which strongly opposed compromise in the dispute.

“It’s true, the most convincing explanation for the closure of ANS is a forthcoming surrender of Karabakh,” said journalist Ilgar Mamedov. “As long as ANS was on the air, it would be hard to impose on the people a peace plan that meant defeat.”

Einulla Fatullayev, a former ANS employee who is now a strong critic and the editor-in-chief of the Realny Azerbaijan newspaper, sees domestic politics as being at the root of the issue.

“ANS was closely tied to former economic development Farhad Aliev, who is now accused of plotting a coup d’etat,” said Fatullayev. He said the president could not forgive the station’s perceived “treachery” towards the government.

Most observers are inclined to see the shutdown within the context of a general move against the independent media in Azerbaijan. Political scientist Rasim Agayev, who was formerly a government official said, “ANS was the only media outlet which defended me at a difficult time when Heidar Aliev was in power and when I was arrested. I consider its closure a blow against freedom of speech and the image of Azerbaijan and I am ready to do everything I can to defend it.”

US ambassador Ann Derse told the Turan news agency that Azerbaijan should remember its obligations on freedom of speech under international treaties and called on the government to reconsider the issue.

In the meantime, ANS’s entire staff is currently on unpaid leave and waiting to see what happens next to their channel. And millions of viewers are deeply unhappy. “ANS stood out from the other TV channels for being much more professional,” said 37-year-old Tarlan Babayev. “With ANS closed it feels as though the airwaves of Azerbaijan have been orphaned.”

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan country director. Matanat Alieva is editor-in-chief of Impuls newspaper.
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