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Azerbaijan Turns on US-Funded Broadcaster

Attack on Radio Liberty is partly about silencing free media, but also reflects new anti-Western mood.
By Samira Ahmedbeyli

After a year hounding journalists and government critics, the Azerbaijani authorities concluded by taking on a broadcaster funded by the United States.

Prosecution service staff descended on the Baku office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) offices in Baku on December 26, just three weeks after the arrest of Khadija Ismayilova, a leading investigative journalist who also worked for the station.

Investigators seized computers, memory sticks, documents, cameras and video equipment before sealing the office, effectively shutting down RFE/RL’s operations. In the days that followed, they raided the homes of staff and questioned many of them.

“We don’t know what they were actually looking for,” Kenan  Aliyev, who heads RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service, told the Mediaforum.az website. Radio Azadliq [Liberty] has often come under pressure of this kind. The Baku office is functioning and will continue to do so. We are not considering halting operations under any circumstances.”

A spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s office, Eldar Sultanov, told the APA news agency that the raid was carried out in furtherance of a criminal case currently under investigation, although he did not say what this was about. 

“Several full-time and freelance staff at Radio Liberty are facing criminal proceedings,” he said. “The search was probably carried out to establish details that emerged when these individuals were questioned.”

It is unclear which RFE/RL staff picture are under suspicion, aside from Ismayilova.

Other reports say the Baku branch of RFE/L, which is US government-funded and headquartered in Prague, is under investigation in connection with legislation on foreign-funded local organisations.

RFE/RL’s editor-in-chief and co-chief executive, Nenad Pejic, said the raid was a "flagrant violation of every international commitment and standard Azerbaijan has pledged to uphold." 

Jeff Shell, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that oversees US international broadcasters including RFE/RL, said the Azerbaijani government’s behaviour, “including direct threats against our journalists, violates every principle of media freedom”.

He urged the authorities “to permit RFE/RL’s Baku bureau to reopen, to halt the investigations and harassment of RFE/RL journalists and their families, and to release Khadija Ismayilova”.

Ismayilova has been in custody since December 5, and an appeal for bail has been turned down. She is accused of encouraging someone to commit suicide by getting him dismissed from RFE/RL, a charge she denies. (See Top Azerbaijani Journalist Behind Bars.)

President Ilham Aliyev’s administration spent much of 2014 detaining and jailing journalists, political opponents and others, and shutting down  quickened its is the latest in a series of attempts to eliminate media pluralism. Several local and foreign groups that supported media freedom and democracy were shut down over the course of the year, among them the National Democratic Institute and IREX.

In December, parliament passed legislative amendments allowing courts to shut down media outlets found to be receiving funding from abroad or that have lost defamation cases – a common strategy used to target them. (Azerbaijan Law Makes it Easier to Stifle Media has more on this.)

As well as falling within the pattern of a broader clampdown,  the attack on RFE/RL looks like a direct snub to the US, and appears to signal a significant downturn in relations.

So far,  the State Department has said it is concerned about the treatment of RFE/RL but has refrained from more strongly-worded comment about a state whose resources and location between Russia and Iran makes it a key partner.

In the 1990s, Washington was instrumental in making the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline happen, allowing post-Soviet Azerbaijan to become a major oil exporter without being reliant on Russia. Many US oil companies are still involved in the industry. Azerbaijan was also keen to work with the West in areas like security, for example offering NATO transit facilities for air supplies to Afghanistan.

The mood has changed. In December, President Aliyev’s chief of staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, railed against Western-funded NGOs he said were acting as a “fifth column” in Azerbaijan, and denounced RFE/RL’s reporting in particular. On January 13, the official newspaper Azerbaycan carried an article containing a litany of complaints against Washington, accusing it of a policy of double standards towards Azerbaijan.

Siyavush Novruzov, deputy head of the president’s Yeni Azerbaijan party, has tried to soft-pedal on the wider implications of the action taken against RFE/RL.

“There are no grounds to see the search as an act of provocation or as a way of putting pressure on the radio station,” he told Mediaforum.az, adding that the date it happened had nothing to do with Boxing Day being a public holiday in the US. 

Samira Ahmedbeyli reports from Azerbaijan.

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