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Azeri Press Fears New Secrets Decree

Journalists in Azerbaijan see press regulations brought in at the end of August as a new form backdoor censorship.
By Kamal Ali

The media are in uproar over a new presidential decree, which they fear will restore censorship, officially abolished in the country four years ago.


President Heidar Aliev signed the decree, aimed preventing the disclosure of state secrets in the mass media, on August 28. In essence, it includes editors and journalists in the list of those responsible for preserving state secrets.


The injunction sets out in detail the steps editors must take so as not to betray confidential material and the punishments they face for doing so.


If a newspaper thinks one of its forthcoming articles may be disclosing a secret, it must apply to an inter-governmental commission working under the president. The latter must give its response within seven days and has the right to ask for the source of the censored information to be revealed. The same rules apply if such an article has already been published.


If the commission finds against them, both editors and journalists can face criminal charges.


Journalists and human rights activists say the decree has ended a short truce between President Aliev and the media, which began at the end of last year. On December 18, Aliev met a number of editors, issued several decrees favourable to the media and was hailed as a "friend of journalists" in the pro-government press.


Before that the regime and the media had been in perpetual conflict: journalists were beaten; and some newspapers were fined and others closed. Official censorship was abolished in Azerbaijan only recently, on August 6, 1998.


Government officials strongly reject the charge that that new rules threaten freedom of expression or are a new form of censorship. At a discussion in the Baku Press Club on September 4, Nuraddin Niftiev, head of the working group in the president's State Secrets Commission, told journalists they had nothing to worry about.


But at the same the meeting, the lawyer Fuad Agayev said the edict contradicted Article 50 of the constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, to which it is a signatory. Others said that the rules were incompatible with Azerbaijan's obligations to the Council of Europe.


The London-based NGO, Article 19, which campaigns for press freedom worldwide, said it was "very concerned" over the decree.


"The obligation to refer to a presidential commission creates a system which effectively legitimises prior censorship and greatly limits media outlets' editorial freedom," said the campaign group. "The fact that the presidential commission is a governmental body means that the authorities will act as 'filters' in the dissemination of information and will have the last word in deciding whether such information may be disclosed."


Many fear the decree will prevent journalists from protecting their sources - something seen as a prerequisite for good reporting on government and officialdom.


"Application of the new rules will mean that many people who currently cooperate with the media, will refuse to have any dealings with it," said Agayev. "Out of fear for their own safety and position, they will not want to reveal information which is in the public interest."


"A lot in Azerbaijan depends on the organs which execute the laws and because of these new rules a journalist may end up behind bars simply on the whim of a bureaucrat who is putting the law into effect," added Elchin Skhikhlinsky, editor-in-chief of Zerkalo newspaper.


Supporters of the decree say it is vital for state security. Ali Akhmedov, executive secretary of the governing New Azerbaijan party, argued the new rules were required because the country was still in a state of "unstable peace" eight years after the end of the war with Armenia and journalists needed to play their part in protecting the state.


"Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at conflict for more than ten years over Nagorny Karabakh and although there has been a fragile ceasefire regime since 1994, bloodshed could resume at any minute," said Akhmedov.


But one of the main criticisms of the edict is that it defines as "state secrets" many facts widely discussed in the public domain, including the structure of the Azerbaijani armed forces and the country's military cooperation with other states.


"By using the concept of 'state secret' imprecisely, officials can declare tomorrow that their rights have been infringed, when an article contains information on arms, presented by commissions from the OSCE or NATO and published in the Internet and international journals," said Leila Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy in Baku.


"One of the positions of the Council of Europe is public control over the armed forces. I believe that the new decree by the president of Azerbaijan will be regarded by experts from international organisations as a restriction of freedom of speech."


Aydin Sadakhly, editor of Region, said he hoped domestic and international pressure would make the president revoke the decree, perhaps using the device of an appeal to the constitutional court.


This is what Aliev did earlier this year, slapping a veto on a draft law on grants to non-governmental organisations, which had attracted wide criticism.


If the president does not reconsider and the confrontation escalates, the media may well be able to draw on public backing for their cause. More than two thousand people turned out at a demonstration in support of journalists in Baku in January this year.


Kamal Ali is a journalist with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.