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Azeri Journalists Boycott New Channel

A new state-funded television station is under attack before it has even started broadcasting.
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Azerbaijan’s long-awaited public television channel is mired in controversy before it has even gone on the air.


No sooner had the members of the Azerbaijani Public Television Broadcasting Board announced the name of the director of Azerbaijan’s new station, than journalists began a boycott of the channel.


Azer Hesret, head of the Azerbaijani Press Confederation, has since started drumming up support for a campaign against ITV, as the new station will be known in Azeri.


Hesret claims that the new director of ITV, Ismail Omarov, is simply “a government appointee” and that the promise to provide Azerbaijan with a truly public channel had not been delivered. He said the campaign would continue until Azerbaijan gets a television channel that upholds democratic values.


He added that the confederation’s initiative had been supported by at least three other press organisations, two opposition parties - the Democratic Party and the Popular Front - and the country’s two leading opposition papers Yeni Musavat and Azadlyg.


The campaigners say they intend to collect three thousand signatures under their petition to the Council of Europe, CoE - which initiated the creation of the new channel - and to lodge protests at western embassies in Baku.


Omarov was elected to the post of station director by the ITV board on April 16 with six votes out of a possible nine. He is a controversial figure because, as a journalist on government-run television, he frequently accused the Azerbaijani opposition of high treason.


But the new director has assured journalists that his television experience would help him in his new job.


“ITV will cover all issues of concern to the public,” he pledged.


“We will hire some of Azerbaijan’s top journalistic talent. Our political programming will be balanced, and opposition members will appear on ITV so frequently that they will soon get tired of it.”


ITV is a new broadcaster established in line with the commitments Baku made in 2001 for joining the CoE that year. When it goes on air later this year, it will become the sixth channel to cover the whole country.


The station had been scheduled to go live by the October 2003 presidential elections, but was put on hold indefinitely when the Azerbaijani authorities and CoE officials disagreed about who its management board should consist of.


The Azerbaijani government wanted three of the nine council members to be proposed by the president, three by parliament, and the rest by non-governmental organisations, NGOs. The CoE opposed this procedure.


Eventually, Azerbaijani NGOs - including pro-authority and opposition groups - were given the opportunity to nominate their choice of candidates for possible election to the ITV board.


The nine ITV board members were elected by parliament from a pool of 27 candidates on March 15, 2005. However, the choice drew protests from opposition and media NGOs the following day, arguing that only two of the elected members were recognised professional journalists, while the rest have nothing to do with the industry.


Murad Sadadinov, who heads the Fund for Democratic Development and Human Rights, argues that only media professionals should be involved. He claims that pro-government chemist Vagif Abbasov made it onto the board “because he is affiliated with the ruling party”, while Rafik Huseinov, “a renowned television journalist” did not.


Huseinov himself has criticised the line-up of the new board.


“Salman Musayev, deputy head of the Caucasus Muslim Authority, is on this board,” he noted. “He was with those who campaigned for the deportation of the Norwegian ambassador, Steinar Gil, for his human rights advocacy.”


Leila Yunus, who heads the Institute of Peace and Democracy, described the new chairman of the board, Jahangir Mamedli, as a democratically minded professional journalist, but raised fears that he will be unable to wield enough influence in the new station.


But Mamedli himself, who teaches journalism at Baku State University, is more optimistic than most of his colleagues.


Immediately after being elected chairman, Mamedli said that the board would stay away from politics, in spite of being legally obliged to accept state funding until 2010.


“This is a television channel for the public, not for the authorities or the opposition,” he said. “Let no one assume we will be serving anyone, except the public.


“As for those NGOs who are unhappy with the composition of the board, they have only themselves to blame. Parliament chose from the candidates they themselves had proposed.”


Ali Hasanov, who is in charge of public policy matters in the presidential administration, sees no reason to be alarmed.


“I believe that [ITV] will be exactly what it should be. The Azerbaijani government has made it its priority to give the nation quality television.”


But Zeinal Mamedli, a member of Azerbaijan’s Press Council, said he regretted that the Azerbaijani people had played little role in the formation of what was supposedly the country’s first public television channel.


“Regrettably, ITV was not initiated by the public, and the majority of citizens do not have the means to contribute to its finances,” he said. “The only way for the public to get involved would be by monitoring the channel, but this is not going to happen either.”


The CoE continues to monitor the situation. Rapporteur Andreas Gross has recently made enquiries about the progress of the channel, and remains hopeful that it will be on air before the general elections scheduled for November 2005.


Meanwhile, Jahangir Mamedli has insisted that the ITV board members were chosen by and independent process in which there was no political interference. And Hasanov said that the appointees were not pro-government, as they did not belong to pro-government parties.


Emil Guliev is a freelance reporter based in Baku.


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