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Azerbaijan: Public Television Hit by Bias Claims

Critics say that Azerbaijan’s new public television channel is serving the government, not the public.
By Sevinj Telmanqizi
Azerbaijan’s first public television station, launched with high hopes, is drawing criticism for accusations of pro-government bias.

Former parliamentarian Ismail Omarov, appointed in April last year, to be the general director of ITV (as the channel is known in Azeri) has been fiercely criticised not only by the opposition and non-governmental organisations, but also by international experts.

Last year, Azerbaijan was the last of the three countries of the South Caucasus to create a public television station in line with recommendations by the Council of Europe on media freedom. The channel was launched last August and broadcasts for 12 hours a day.

The station still relies on government funding but in theory has a degree of autonomy and run by an independent management.

However, media experts say ITV is virtually distinguishable from its state rivals. “It’s a great pity that we have not seen any difference between this television channel and the others,” said Zeinal Mamedli, a lecturer in the journalism faculty of Baku State University. “Society has not seen a reflection of itself in this television channel.”

Although Azerbaijan is both bigger and wealthier than its neighbours Armenia and Georgia, it lags behind the other two for choice of television viewing. According to figures published by the international media development organisation Internews, in 2005 Georgia had 68 regional television stations, Armenia 28 and Azerbaijan just eleven.

Baku is now served by one state channel, the public television channel and four private ones. Government figures argue that ITV has become an important addition to the media market.

“The staff of ITV have proved that it’s possible in a short space of time to create a new professional television station loved by viewers,” said Ali Hasanov, head of the socio-political department of the presidential administration. “ITV not only meets the cultural needs of society but also has high-quality news programmes.”

However, media experts say that ITV is operating within the same restricted environment as the rest of the Azerbaijani media in which stations that offend the presidential administration risk being shut down, as has happened with two former channels, BMTI and Sara.

Opposition politicians have been strongly critical of ITV. At rallies of the opposition alliance Azadlyq last year, there were calls for the dismissal of Omarov, the channel’s director.

Former prime minister Panah Huseyn, elected to parliament with Azadlyq, said, “We all expected that public television would first of all reflect the existing pluralism of opinion in society and periodically give air time to different political organisations. But the most they do is invite an opposition politician on to their discussion programmes.

“Even some private pro-government channels are braver than ITV. Unfortunately, public television has become another kind of state television.”

Research last year by Azerbaijan’s National Council on Broadcasting determined that only one per cent of airtime was taken up with advertising and that almost a quarter was filled with films.

A monitoring study carried out by the Council of Europe identified a pro-government bias in the channel’s news coverage. Another study by the Najaf Najafov Foundation from last September to this January, covering

the period of Azerbaijan’s divisive parliamentary elections in which the opposition alleged mass fraud by the government, said most of ITV’s positive coverage was for government parties.

Sardar Jalaloglu, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, blamed the channel for unfairly influencing voters. “They have no idea what balance is,” he said. “They gave one or two minutes to our speeches and a whole hour to slander and attacks by YAP (New Azerbaijan Party) functionaries on us.”

In its recently published annual report on media freedom, the international organisation Freedom House placed Azerbaijan 161st in the world, behind Georgia, Armenia and Russia. On public television it concluded, “The ITV’s coverage of the election campaign was indistinguishable from other pro-government channels; an OSCE monitoring report suggested that the ITV devoted 68 per cent of prime-time news coverage to [president Ilham] Aliev, the government, and the ruling party, while Azadliq received 23 per cent of the airtime, of which 53 per cent was assessed as negative and one per cent positive.”

Ismail Omarov rejected these criticisms. “Public television was created not to create the impression of political balance and please the critics who are never satisfied,” he told IWPR. “Our channel is very remote from politics. Currently ITV works as an democratic institution in Azerbaijan and this democratic institution was created personally by me.”

Omarov said that his channel had a code of ethics and “we do not give air time to appearances by primitive and mediocre singers because we do not take bribes”.

Omarov called the monitoring research into ITV biased and comparisons with public television stations in other countries misplaced, saying Georgian public television was 12-13 million dollars in debt.

Public television in Armenia and Georgia has also disappointed expectations. The Armenian channel is closely linked to the government. Boris Navarsadian, head of the Yerevan Press Club, told IWPR, “The station has not emerged as a public television station. Only a small part of its public functions are being fulfilled. On rough estimates public television carries out 10-12 per cent of the functions entrusted to it.”

Georgia’s public television station was founded at the beginning of 2005 and has also been criticised for being too close to the government. Its supposedly independent board is mainly composed of non-governmental figures, who played an active part in the “Rose Revolution” that brought current president Mikheil Saakashvili to power in 2003.

The channel has low ratings and a high staff turnover. This year it has tried to change its profile, launching a new political talkshow called Argument in March. Experts say many of the channel’s problems stem from the general under-funding of media in Georgia and the poor salaries for television employees.

Despite the criticism in Azerbaijan, Omarov said he had plans to launch a second public television channel, “By law we have the right to open two television and three radio channels and we will gradually aim to do that.”

Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, visited Azerbaijan last July and was critical of Omarov’s role as head of ITV.

“Omarov is a journalist who when he worked in state television was famous for his strong attacks on the opposition, so the OSCE has doubts about his appointment,” said Haraszti.

Omarov still has the support of Azerbaijan’s Broadcasting Board, who appointed him. Its chairman Jahangir Mamedli said that the board “highly esteemed” Omarov’s work.

Rafik Husseinov, a former employee of state television, was more pessimistic. “I didn’t expect anything from this channel and unfortunately my forecasts were borne out,” he said. “Public television died before it was born as serious mistakes were made when it was founded.”

Sevinj Telmanqizi works for Yeni Musavat newspaper in Baku.

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