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Azerbaijani Media Face Ad Squeeze

Opposition newspapers complain of advertising boycott.
By Roya Rafieva
When a company in Baku wanted to advertise its product last year, it chose a popular opposition paper to get broad publicity – but then it thought again.

“We were told that we could lose our business or even the whole company,” said an employee of the firm’s press office, who declined to give his name.

Noting the bureaucratic obstacles that suddenly arise for those who refuse to comply, “The companies that do run these kind of ads [in opposition papers] get audited by the tax service, the health and safety directorate, and even the fire service and these agencies uncover a lot of problems.”

In a market where advertising forms an important part of the media’s revenue, political considerations dictate that outlets critical of the government do not get the advertisements they need to survive, while little-read pro-government media reap the benefits.

Nargiz Samadova works for the ministry of finance, where she says she and her colleagues are forced to subscribe to official newspapers that they never read. Her son works as advertising manager for a private company.

“[They are told that] from time to time placing ads in independent newspapers is permitted,” said Samadova. “But placing one ad in an independent newspaper requires that it als be placed in some four to five official newspapers. And no ads are ever allowed in opposition newspapers, otherwise the punishment can be harsh.”

Large companies and banks advertise their products almost exclusively in official newspapers.

“There are two reasons why this happens,” said Mehman Aliev, head of the pro-opposition Turan news agency. “Firstly, these companies don’t actually need advertisements at all, because of the shadow, closed and monopolistic economy… The second and main reason is the control exerted by the presidential administration. They want to keep newspapers dependent. Most of the media in the country, I’d say 90 or 95 per cent, are financed by the government.”

Aliev said that in the West, around 70 per cent of media income is generated by advertising. “Taking this as a basis, the advertising market here should be no smaller than 100 million manats [123 million US dollars]. In reality, it’s just two million manats.”

“The ad market in Azerbaijan is run according to ideological rules, ” said Arif Aliev, the founder of the independent Gun-Seher newspaper, which had to cease publication a couple of months ago because of financial difficulties. “In western countries, small businesses control 60 to 70 per cent and large ones 20 to 30 per cent of the advertising market. In Azerbaijan, 90 per cent of the advertising market belongs to big business.”

Aliev said it was lack of advertising that forced him to shut his paper. “In 2005, we signed one-year advertising contracts with five banks,” he recalled. “However on the eve of the parliamentary election in October 2005, all five banks refused to place ads with us. Later, we started to publish our magazine as a weekly but after that, before the next elections, we had to halt operations.”

Elchin Shikhli, who is editor in chief of two independent newspapers called Ayna and Zerkalo, said the latter paper gets quite a lot of advertising, but that “the instructions are that a company that places an advertisement in an independent paper also has to run ads in a couple of state newspapers. The companies themselves have confirmed this to us.”

Russian-language papers such as Zerkalo have a slightly easier life than their Azeri-language counterparts, presumably because their political influence is not deemed to be so great.

“Foreign companies operating here prefer to place advertisements in newspapers published in English and Russian,” said an employee of the Poster Advertising Agency, who did not want to give his name.

Ilham Afandiev, head of the PR department for the popular Bakcell mobile phone company, confirmed there was a list of preferred newspapers and others which they chose not to deal with.

He said Bakcell pays for advertising slots in official newspapers such as Khalg, Azerbaijan and Respublika and independent ones such as Express, Sharg, 525-ji Gazet and Echo, running between ten and 12 ads a year in each of them.

He confirmed that Bakcell does not work with opposition newspapers, but said there was simply no tradition of dealing with opposition media. “We’re not prejudiced against them,” he insisted.

Pro-government newspapers deny that advertising is crucial for them.

Ramin Valibeyov, one of the managers of Yeni Azerbaijan, the official newspaper of the ruling party, said the market was very undeveloped.

“There are ads placed in our newspaper, but the income from them does not cover the expenses of the editorial office,” he said. “There needs to be supply and demand if the advertising market is to develop. It looks as though the electronic media is more developed than print, and advertisers prefer to place ads in the electronic media.”

Various solutions are being suggested to make the allocation of advertising more equitable.

The head of Azerbaijan’s Press Council, Aflatun Amashov, says a new body should be created to distribute advertising fairly amongst newspapers.

“To solve this problem, we submitted a concept note on state support for the media to President Ilham Aliev a month ago. If advertisements are controlled from a single centre, the problem of placing unequal numbers of ads in different newspapers will be resolved. The Press Council can perform this role,” he said.”

However, large newspapers are sceptical about this plan.

Sujeddin Sharifov, editor of the pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, says the Press Council has its own agenda and the plan will not work.

“The Press Council primarily consists of several small unknown and state newspapers,” he said. “Once the council starts pushing for ads in its own newspapers, the situation will become even more difficult for independent and opposition newspapers.”

Roya Rafieva is a journalist with Express newspaper in Baku.

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