Azeri Paper Under Eviction Threat

Opposition journalists say government is trying to intimidate them.

Azeri Paper Under Eviction Threat

Opposition journalists say government is trying to intimidate them.

One of Azerbaijan’s most popular newspapers may be left without a roof in what observers say is a new attempt to suppress opposition media.

Azadlyg (“Liberty”) has been at the same address - 33 Hagani Street - in central Baku for 14 years, but now it is facing claims that it has defaulted on rent payments. In addition to eviction, the newspaper may also have to pay a fine of 35,000 US dollars.

The government’s State Property Committee recently brought an action in Azerbaijan’s economic court to evict Azadlyg and all other organisations housed in the same building, which serves as a kind of headquarters for opposition groups, notably the Popular Front Party, which governed the country in 1992-93. Azadlyg is the party’s official mouthpiece.

In the case against Azadlyg, the official rationale is that it has failed to pay its rent.

“I think that by raising the matter [of rent] after all these years, the authorities are trying to put political pressure on one of the most popular opposition newspapers in the country,” said Azer Ahmedov, the paper’s managing director. “The state committee’s demand for such a large sum of money is plainly illegal, as the office was originally made available to the newspaper on a rent-free basis. Besides, the newspaper has signed no lease deal with the state committee.”

Azadlyg first came out in 1989, as the independence movement took off in Azerbaijan, and moved to Hagani Street in 1992 when the Popular Front was in power. Since then, it has consistently been among the most popular Azerbaijani-language papers, and takes a critical opposition line to the current government's policies.

Analysts based in the country say the legal action is a well-tried method of pressuring independent press outlets.

“The newspaper is being evicted for absurd reasons,” independent political analyst Halid Kazymly told IWPR. “Evictions of other opposition newspapers and parties may well follow.”

Kazymly cited the cases of the opposition newspaper Millet, which has had to change its address several times, while the Yeni Musavat paper has already been evicted once and may have its current lease ended.

The press office of the Baku mayor’s office said the city authorities of the early Nineties had no right to give any organisation free accommodation.

A press officer with the State Property Committee added, “For 14 years now, this newspaper has been occupying a state-owned building without paying rent. The building does not belong to the newspaper. We are not calling the sum we are demanding a debt, but rather compensation for damage done to the state.”

The paper’s editor-in-chief Ganimat Zahid said the eviction could be just the tip of the iceberg.

“The newspaper does not mind paying rent from now on, but if the court forces it to pay a fine of 35,000 dollars, it simply won’t be able to go on,” he said. “If they succeed in silencing us in this manner, other government bodies will do the same to all the other newspapers they don’t like.”

Kazymly agreed, saying, “If the State Property Committee gets its way, the next thing will be that the customs committee refuses – on a similarly absurd pretext – to allow imports of print paper for these newspapers. The tax ministry will also find reasons to pick on critical newspapers.

“The result will be either that the newspapers close down, or that they stop writing the truth. And that will be a blow to democracy.”

The sanctions facing Azadlyg have been debated heatedly in parliament. Opposition deputy Asim Mollazade took to the floor to complain about recent attacks on media outlets and journalists, and called for a commission to be set up to look into the Azadlyg eviction case.

Bahar Muradova, the deputy speaker of parliament, said Mollazade’s worries about media independence were groundless, and insisted there was “more than enough” freedom of speech in Azerbaijan.

Muradova said Azadlyg had done a good job in helping Azerbaijan assert its independence – but added, “That does not mean it should be inviolable.”

Speaker Oktay Asadov wound up the debates by saying that Azadlyg had the right to lodge a counter-claim against the State Property Committee.

The paper has filed such an action, but a date has not yet been set for the hearing.

The episode is worrying the rest of the Azerbaijani media. Rauf Arufoglu, editor of the opposition paper Yeni Musavat, told IWPR, “Three years ago, after the presidential election, similar action was taken against our newspaper. Together with the Musavat party we were illegally evicted from a building where we’d worked for ten years.

“Azadlyg gave us shelter, and we published our paper from their office for a long time. Now they are being evicted too. These methods can obstruct the free press effectively - but it’s not that easy to destroy.”

The paper and the political movement also called Azadlyg have been holding protests in the capital for the past week. Isak Avazogly, spokesman for the Popular Front Party, told IWPR that a November 2 demonstration in central Baku was broken up by police, who made several arrests

Some Azadlyg staffers have been on a hunger strike at the newspaper’s offices.

Avazogly said demonstrations and the hunger strike would continue until a fair solution was found.

Sabuhi Mamedli is a correspondent for Yeni Musavat newspaper in Baku.

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