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Azeri Press Seeks Protection

Journalists establish a new body to handle critical readers and ward off litigation.
By Gulnaz Gulieva

Azerbaijani journalists have formed a new press council, which they hope will deal with readers' complaints and put a stop to a spiralling libel cases.


On March 15, more than 400 journalists representing 170 print media met at the First Press Congress of Azerbaijan to set up the new council and adopt a Press Code of Ethics.


The formation of the council comes against a background of increasing pressure against the Azerbaijani press from the government, which is expected to escalate, as presidential elections approach this autumn. "The number of press cases in our courts has reached abnormal proportions," said Aiten Alieva of the Yeni Nesil press association.


Arif Aliev, the chairman of Yeni Nesil and head of the Baku Press Club, is the main author of the new initiative, which has been under discussion since 1998 and acquired greater urgency in 2001, with the abolition of Azerbaijan's press and information ministry.


Aliev said it had been formed with input from foreign media experts and NGOs, the Council of Europe and, most importantly, the slow-forming consent of local journalists.


"Certain developments in society and a corporate solidarity among Azerbaijan's media were needed for it to be formed," Aliev said.


Critics say that the newspapers are full of unchecked facts and unfounded allegations, while the libel laws in the region are unclear and interpreted inconsistently by the courts.


The new body plans to handle readers' complaints about articles before they reach the courts. Before or instead of going to court, plaintiffs will be encouraged to file complaints with the council, comprised of respected members of the press and the public.


The council has no authority to issue legally binding decisions. If the press council sustains a complaint, the transgressor will be asked to publish an apology. If the reader is not satisfied with the ruling, he is free to take his case to court.


"The reader can be assured of a fair, impartial decision, as the body represents both sides of the conflict," Aiten Alieva told IWPR. "But the new body has yet to win readers' trust. Whether or not the press council will work effectively will depend on the make-up of its executive committee and its chairman. They must be reputable, professional, and morally pure people."


As a result, the most heated discussions at the congress were over who should sit on the council's 15-member committee. Most journalists, fearful that members of the public could be subjected to government pressure, argued for more media representation.


In the end journalists took nine seats with six given to members of the public and Aflatun Amashov, head of the Ruh Press Protection Committee of Azerbaijan, was elected chairman.


Rauf Talyshinsky, editor-in-chief of Ekho newspaper, said it was important for media professionals to predominate in a body which would, initially at least, focus on internal media issues.


Khayal Tagiev, a producer with US-based media organisation Internews, gently disagreed. He said he respected the collective decision but regretted that "corporate interests have taken precedence over community needs once again".


The government has not been involved in the creation of the new body, but has kept a close watch. "We recognise the principle of self-regulation when it comes to press issues," said Ali Hasanov, chief of the presidential public policy department. "In line with international practice, the government has let the press handle this independently. But the government certainly has a vested interest in having a strong, influential press regulatory body in this country."


It remains to be seen, however, whether the new council will stop a flood of lawsuits launched by the government itself against opposition newspapers, which Internews recently declared "poses a danger to freedom of speech and the press in Azerbaijan".


Much of the opposition press in Baku lives under a daily threat of closure, as it refuses to pay fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars handed down by the courts for insulting the "honour and dignity" of various state officials.


Opposition publication Yeni Musavat, which has a circulation of 15,000 making it the best-selling paper in the south Caucasus, faces 15 libel suits alone, any one of which could bankrupt it if enforced.


"For one case alone they are demanding 100,000 dollars," Gabil Abasoglu, Yeni Musavat's deputy editor told IWPR earlier this month. "They initially wanted 45 million dollars but the court generously lowered the amount. In any case we can't pay. Our combined assets, including this office, are probably worth around 20,000 dollars."


The editor-in-chief of outspoken opposition magazine Monitor Elmar Husseinov faces a libel suit from the Baku representative of Azerbaijan's autonomous republic, Nakhichevan. Monitor published an article entitled "The Godfather", which drew parallels between mainland Italy and Sicily and Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, the birthplace of President Heidar Aliev. The plaintiffs are asking for damages on behalf of the whole population of Nakhichevan.


Husseinov was sceptical about the new council, telling IWPR, "This body's declared remit is simply superfluous today in Azerbaijan. It misses the point.


"The majority of conflicts involving the press today are conflicts between the press and the government. Both authorities and journalists have their own agendas. They will never trust the press council enough to let it administer justice."


Six other publications - Hurriyet, Novoe Vremya, Jumhurriyet, Veten, Uch Nogte and Ganun - boycotted the congress, announcing in a joint statement that it had been convened "behind closed doors" without their consent.


"Members were elected to the press council according to a plan approved by the president's office," said Shakir Gabiloglu, editor-in-chief of Novoe Vremya newspaper. "The list of candidates the government would like to see elected had been circulated among participating media ahead of time. Eighty per cent of those candidates were elected.


"We are not opposed to the council as such but, being committed to democracy and freedom, we have no desire to play along to someone else's script."


Gulnaz Gulieva is a journalist with Turan news agency in Baku


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