Azerbaijani Media Suffers Blow

Leading editor says he is being intimidated into silence.

Azerbaijani Media Suffers Blow

Leading editor says he is being intimidated into silence.

Wednesday, 4 October, 2006
The founder and editor-in-chief of the two most popular newspapers in Azerbaijan, Einulla Fatullayev, says he is closing the two publications and abandoning journalism, after he was given a suspended jail sentence by a Baku court.

On October 3, readers of the weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the daily Gündelik Azerbaijan read the last combined issue of the papers in which the editors bid farewell to their readers and said they were shutting down because of pressure from the government.

On September 26, a district court in Baku gave Fatullayev a suspended two-year jail sentence and a fine of 5,000 manats (5,650 US dollars) and Realny Azerbaijan was fined twice that amount. Both were found guilty of having “insulted the honour and dignity” of the interior minister, Ramil Usubov. An article had alleged that Usubov must have known about the mysterious criminal gang, headed by Haji Mamedov, operating within the interior ministry for more than ten years - and that therefore the minister was protecting them.

Both the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe have long demanded that the Azerbaijani authorities abolish articles 147 and 148 of the criminal code, which make a journalist criminally responsible for defamation. However, changes have not yet been made and journalists can still be put in prison for their articles.

Azerbaijan has earned a low rating from international organisations for the quality and freedom of its media recently. On October 4, opposition journalist Sakit Zakhidov was given a three-year jail sentence for alleged drug possession in a case which critics say was politically motivated. This year another editor, Baheddin Haziev, was abducted and beaten up, and other journalists have complained of intimidation and physical violence.

The authorities made no official comment on Fatullayev’s sentence, letting it speak for itself. But it followed a sustained campaign against the editor over the past year. He had been fined several times, condemned in the government media, detained at Baku airport and was also beaten up by an unknown assailant in the centre of Baku.

Last year, Elmar Husseinov, the former colleague of Fatullayev and editor of Monitor magazine, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. Fatullayev, a Monitor journalist, founded Realny Azerbaijan shortly afterwards.

Immediately after the verdict, Fatullayev himself told IWPR, “Now I have two ways out. I can either renounce Azerbaijani citizenship and leave the country, because I have understood that after the murder of Elmar Husseinov, they have chosen the policy of terror against us. Or I can go to jail and be killed. Those are the alternatives for me.”

In the last few days, Fatullayev has not been contactable by telephone and it was reported in the newspapers that he had fled to the USA. However, Mamed Suleimanov, a colleague of Fatullayev, said that he was still in Azerbaijan and had personally helped edit the last edition of the newspaper, but “he is simply very tired and therefore decided to switch off all his telephones”.

Realny Azerbaijan had become the best-read political publication in Azerbaijan in a very short space of time, with a circulation of 30,000 copies. Its daily partner had a circulation of 11,000.

Ganimat Zakhidov, editor of the opposition newspaper Azadlyq, was critical of Fatullayev’s decision. “These newspapers were high-circulation and they did not experience financial problems,” he wrote. “They say the reason for their closure was pressure from the government. But if a journalist buckles under pressure and decides to retreat I have a bad opinion of that.”

Eldar Namazov, a former government official who is also a regular author in Realny Azerbaijan, said the two papers had been the “vanguard of the fight against human rights abuses, falsification of elections and other illegal actions. That is why these two papers came under such great pressure. I hope that the closure will only be temporary.”

Another well-known Azerbaijani commentator Arif Yunus said the demise of the titles was a result of a fight between two factions inside government.

He said the newspapers were supported by one group, which included National Security Minister Eldar Makhmudov and Emergencies Minister Kamaladdin Heidarov - an allegation Fatullayev denied, although his articles never criticised them. Opposing them was a group led by interior minister and veteran presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mekhtiev.

“I am of course against the criminal persecution of journalists for their articles, but I think they should not have got so deeply involved. Einulla Fatullayev and his newspapers had simply become a pawn in the intra-clan power struggles and fell victim to them,” said Yunus.

Pro-government political analyst Mubariz Akhmedoglu agreed that the titles had been used by members of the elite to publish compromising allegations about their competitors.

He said there were two possibilities, “Either one group turned out to be stronger than the other and demanded the closure of this channel of compromising allegations, or there was a truce between the two groups and the group that was behind the newspapers voluntarily decided to close them as a guarantee of the truce being observed.”

Akhmedoglu also speculated that Fatullayev might have plans to lay the groundwork for an Azerbaijani “coloured revolution” as in Georgia and Ukraine.

“Maybe the leaders of these newspapers want to attract attention to themselves and soon come up with a big new project,” he said. “I think Fatullayev may want to take on the role in the future of Georgia’s Rustavi-2 or Ukraine’s Fifth Channel [which played key roles in the revolutions in their respective countries].”

Aflatun Amashov, chairman of the Press Council of Azerbaijan, said the news of the closures had been unexpected and he saw no reason for it, “By law a newspaper can only be shut down by a decision of a court and there was no question of this in the case of these newspapers. We will watch closely how events develop.”

Elshad Guliev is a freelance journalist in Baku. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan Country Director.

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