Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeri Newspaper to Fight Property Seizure

Editors say judicial action is punishment for Khural paper’s critical stance.
By Leyla Mustafayeva
  • Bailiffs arrived at the Khural newspaper's offices on October 19. (Photo: Leyla Mustafayeva)
    Bailiffs arrived at the Khural newspaper's offices on October 19. (Photo: Leyla Mustafayeva)
  • They seized all of the editorial office's property. (Photo: Leyla Mustafayeva)
    They seized all of the editorial office's property. (Photo: Leyla Mustafayeva)
  • Khural's senior staff say they will fight the ruling in court. (Photo: Leyla Mustafayeva)
    Khural's senior staff say they will fight the ruling in court. (Photo: Leyla Mustafayeva)

Senior staff at the independent Khural newspaper in Azerbaijan plan to fight a court order which resulted in all its assets being seized, and thus effectively closed it down.

Bailiffs arrived at the paper’s offices on October 19 and confiscated all the property there, executing a court’s ruling against Khural in a libel action brought by senior officials,

“The offices were surrounded by representatives of the justice ministry representatives, police and unidentified individuals in civilian clothes, as if they were going to catch some criminal,”
Khural’s editor-in-chief Avaz Zeynalli said.

Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of the presidential administration, and Vugar Safarli, head of the president’s media support office, last year won damages of 10,000 and 5,000 manats (12,700 and 6,400 US dollars), respectively.

Mehdiyev’s defamation case concerned an article that Khural carried in May 2010 accusing him of preventing a well-known poet from taking part in an election in 2000, and of then attempting to link him to subsequent protests.

Safarli complained about an article published in June last year that accused him of assisting President Ilham Aliyev in his drive to destroy the free media.

After a court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favour, bailiffs carried out an assessment of the newspaper’s property this May.

Zeynalli tried to block further action by going to court and arguing that the paper lacked sufficient funds to meet the damages payments.

But when the bailiffs returned this week, the authorities’ argument was that since Khural had changed from being a weekly publication to a daily, it must have fresh funds.

They confiscated everything they found on the premises, including property belonging to the www.liberal.az website, located in the same building. The site’s editor Afgan Mukhtarli said the seizure was unlawful and pledged to contest it in court.

Zeynalli said the raid was politically-motivated, although the bailiffs denied this.

“You don’t need to look for some kind of political subtext here,” said one of them, refusing to give his name. “We’re just doing our jobs.”

Azerbaijan’s justice ministry dismissed allegations that it was deliberately forcing Khural out of business. A spokesman for the ministry told the www.1news.az site that confiscation was part of a straightforward legal process.

“Major reforms are under way to ensure freedom of the press and opportunities for media to have freedom to act,” he said. “Unfortunately, however, some newspapers exploit these opportunities for their own ends, and publish defamatory material and unfounded allegations on their pages. Khural is one of them. In just the last three years, Khural has lost six court cases for unlawfully damaging the good name of individuals in government, public life and the arts.”

He said Khural of evading court decisions, making it necessary to send in the bailiffs.

Zeynalli rejected the idea that the bailiffs’ actions were legal.

“First of all, the court decision on confiscation was enforced just 15 minutes after being issued. By law, we should have been given 10 days in which to respond, and the right of appeal within that period. We also went to court to seek a stay in the execution of the order, and this was due to be heard on October 24,” he said. “But without waiting for the court decision, they seized the newspaper’s property. That really shows that the politicians just wanted to close our paper.

“All our readers know that Khural is famed for its robust criticism of high-ranking officials, including President Ilham Aliyev and the head of his administration.”

Zeynal Mammadli, a professor of journalism at Baku State University, agreed that the confiscation was unlawful, adding, “This incident does not cover the Azerbaijani authorities in glory.”

According to Khural’s commercial director Nizami Hasanli, the printing company Express-service refused to print the paper on October 20.

“They phoned us from the printing house and told us there were problems with the machinery so they wouldn’t be able to print our paper. We’ve been printed by this company for ten years, yet they’ve broken the contract without explanation,” he said. “We have information that after confiscating our property, the bailiffs visited the publishing house and spoke to the director, and this was followed by a phone call from the president’s administration. Under pressure like that, the publisher was forced to stop printing our paper.”

When IWPR called Elnur Aliyev, director of Express-Service, he put the phone down when he heard what the question was about.

IWPR also called the president’s press spokesman Azer Gasimov, but he refused to comment on the case.

“I answer questions that concern the president personally,” he said. “And anyway, I don’t have time for this.”

Leyla Mustafayeva is a correspondent for the Yeni Musavat newspaper.