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Azeri Press Face Funding Dilemma

Azerbaijani newspapers are divided over a new government scheme offering them low-interest loans.
By Zarema Velikhanova

Azerbaijani editors, battle-scarred by years of clashes with the government, are facing a new challenge: how to respond to the apparently good news of an offer of cheap loans.


On October 9, Azerbaijan's economic development ministry and six commercial banks signed a contract setting up a scheme under which the media can receive government credits on favourable terms.


As perhaps the authorities intended, the new scheme has divided editors, triggering an acrimonious debate over whether the government sincerely wants to support the cash-strapped Azerbaijani media or is merely trying to buy it off.


President Heidar Aliev authorised the programme following a meeting with local media bosses last December. "The discrepancy between the abundance of the press and the real needs of society has caused much of the media financial problems," says the presidential decree approving the new loan scheme, which will create "wider opportunities for freedom of speech and information".


Under the initiative, a government body, the National Fund for Business Support, will in the first instance make available credits worth three billion manats (612,000 US dollars).


That is only the beginning. Economic development minister Farhad Aliev told media chiefs that this sum covers just the remaining three months of this year. He said the fund would be spending 250 billion manats over the next three years. Much of that money will be spent on the media.


With tiny circulations of only a few thousand copies and very low advertising revenues, Azerbaijan's newspapers are engaged in a constant survival struggle. But the editors have responded to this potential bonanza more with caution than with delight, fearing that this is the start of a campaign to bring them to heel.


Elchin Shikhlinsky of the Russian-language daily Zerkalo said that the promised aid would only be effective if it was distributed amongst ten of the country's leading papers.


"Three million manats is not enough to pull the papers out of crisis and it will only slightly ease the difficult situation they are in," said Rauf Talyshinsky, editor of Baku's other main Russian-language paper, Ekho.


Aidyn Guliev, editor of the leading opposition newspaper Hurriet, doubted if any money would be forthcoming at all. He said that the independent press would only receive the loans if it chose to toe the official line. What was needed to tackle the crisis in the media, he said, was not cheap credits, but the "democratisation of the situation in the country".


Censorship was abolished in Azerbaijan in 1998. But since then editors have had to deal with numerous government attempts to muzzle them. The latest came with an August presidential decree threatening journalists with severe penalties if they disclose state secrets. (See CRS No. 145, 05-Sept-02)


However, Farhan Aliev denied that there was an agenda behind the loans scheme. He said the paper's commercial reputation rather than its political profile would be key to whether it was selected for financial help.


The presidential decree says media can receive loans of between 1,000 and 100,000 dollars, which must be paid back within five years. The ministry will set an annual interest rate on the loan of only 0.5 per cent - favourable terms, considering that inflation is running at around three per cent a year.


Aliev said that his ministry had received more than 70 loan applications so far, but only nine contained business-plans and only three of those met its guidelines. He said that so far no one has received any credits.


Media that eventually receive funding will probably find it difficult to repay the loans. Many fear that if they cannot afford to reimburse the state, it will move to take them over.


Should titles default on loans, Elmar Husseinov, editor of Monitor magazine, says the government will have the right to requisition their property - including equipment - and their staff could face jail sentences of up to fifteen years. So what is at that moment a sweet promise could end up as very bitter medicine indeed.


Zarema Velikhanova is a journalist with Ekho newspaper in Baku.

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