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Azeri Media Under Threat

Press organisations claim more than 70 Azeri journalists have complained of verbal and physical intimidation over the past year

Azeri media groups are calling for a presidential enquiry after an award-winning journalist whose outspoken articles had angered the authorities was beaten up outside his Baku home.


Zamin Gadjiev, 25, was ambushed by three attackers as he returned home from work last week. Two of the men twisted his arms behind his back whilst the third sprayed tear gas in his face. The attackers fled when Gadjiev's calls for help brought neighbours running to the scene.


Days later, Gadjiev announced publicly that he was retiring from journalism, claiming that he had been subjected to constant intimidation by anonymous callers he believed to be government agents.


In a newspaper article explaining the reasons for his decision, Gadjiev said, "If the people who organised the attack were determined to break me, then they have achieved their goal. I have a family and friends and I cannot risk anything happening to them. I will not work as a journalist as long as Azerbaijan is ruled by a regime which simply ignores all human rights issues."


Last year, Gadjiev was voted Best Print Journalist in Azerbaijan and was awarded the Yeni Nesil (The Media Key) prize by the Association of Azeri Journalists.


The young reporter first rose to prominence in 1998 when he published an article entitled "An Army of Starving Soldiers and Fat Generals" which probed allegations of corruption in the Azeri army.


Less than a month after the article was published, Gadjiev was conscripted - despite a disabling eye condition - and was posted directly to the military district which had been the focus of his investigation. Gadjiev claims that, although his eyesight deteriorated, he was denied medical attention throughout his military service.


After leaving the army, the young journalist was given a regular column in the opposition newspaper, Azadlyg. However, on January 19 this year, the paper's editor, Gyunduz Tahirli, organised a press conference for the Azeri media at which he claimed to have received several anonymous phone calls demanding a stop to Gadjiev's articles.


The last threatening call, said Tahirli, was made on January 8, a day after Gadjiev reported on the deaths of 11 Azeri soldiers during an avalanche on Mount Inal. Both journalists subsequently complained to the police and, according to Tahirli, "a friendly source in the government" called the paper to warn that Gadjiev's life was in danger.


Hours after the attack on Gadjiev, Azerbaijan's Council of Editors held an emergency session to discuss the incident. Members signed two appeals - one addressed to the interior ministry and the other to President Heidar Aliev.


In the second appeal, they wrote, "We want to express our special concern over this attack because, in Azerbaijan, cases involving assaults on journalists are very rarely solved. Last year alone, 70 Azeri journalists were subjected to verbal and physical intimidation - but only two people have actually been convicted of assaulting journalists in the past three years."


The editors called on Aliev to take personal charge of the investigation but the Zerkalo newspaper revealed last week that the president claims to have no knowledge of any such incidents.


Earlier in the month, the editor of the Etimad newspaper, Etibar Mansuroglu, was also attacked on the street. He suffered several cracked ribs, a broken nose and severe concussion. An initial police investigation found that Mansuroglu had been the victim of a domestic dispute but, less than a week later, a traffic policeman, Arzu Gurliev, was arrested in connection with the assault.


Meanwhile, Azeri newspapers are facing a different crisis - a recent 30 per cent increase in the cost of newsprint has put the future of many publications under threat.


Journalists have staged two large-scale demonstrations in Baku over the past two weeks. On January 20, Mukhalifat staff ran the gauntlet of riot police to symbolically bury a copy of their newspaper in the capital's Yasamalskoe cemetery. Mukhalifat has been forced to suspend publication as a result of the rise in paper prices.


Ten days later, around 100 journalists gathered outside the State Customs Committee headquarters, bearing placards which read, "Shame on the Paper Speculators", "Down with the Paper Monopolies" and "Down with Press Intimidation".


Rauf Arifogly, editor of the Eni Musavat newspaper, claims that between 500 and 600 journalists will lose their jobs if there is no breakthrough in the paper crisis over the next few days.


Ali Gasanov, head of the social and political department of the president's administration, said the problem had been caused by the State Duma in Moscow, which had postponed the ratification of a bilateral tax agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan.


However, the Association of Editors, the Baku Press Club and the journalists' organisation, Rukh, believe the State Customs Committee is holding back a reserve fund of 100,000 tonnes of paper with a further 90,000 being stockpiled by government officials. Releasing these reserves on to the market would cause a massive drop in paper prices.


Rauf Arifogly described the crisis as a thinly disguised attempt by the authorities "to shut down independent publications in Azerbaijan." Several newspapers such as Uch Nogta (Three Points) and Hurreyet (Independence) have already been forced out of business.


Shahin Rzaev is a regular IWPR contributor

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