Azeri TV Closure Blow

The surprise closure of the popular ABA TV station is a serious blow to the independent media sector in Azerbaijan.

Azeri TV Closure Blow

The surprise closure of the popular ABA TV station is a serious blow to the independent media sector in Azerbaijan.

One of Azerbaijan's most powerful independent broadcasters was taken off the air last week, triggering claims from the owner that the government is trying to get its hands on his station's

 

state-of-the-art equipment.

 

ABA television's 27-year-old president, Faif Zulfugarov, announced the July 17 closure in a videotaped message to staff, at the end of an evening party held to celebrate the station's second anniversary.

 

The message stunned almost 200 staffers at the Baku-based station who had been marking ABA's anniversary at a popular go-kart track and discotheque. Many broke down and wept when they heard the news.

 

Hours later, the tax authorities stopped two trucks in Baku containing what was said to be 320,000 US dollars worth of ABA equipment, which staff had removed from the station. A tax ministry press release said the station had obtained the equipment illegally, though it provided no details.

 

ABA had attracted an audience comprising almost half the country's eight million population, but it was plagued with alleged tax irregularities during its last year of operations. The authorities are reported to have claimed that it owed them several hundred thousand dollars. The station's chief financial officer, Shamil Safiyev, was arrested on May 22 for tax evasion and has been in jail ever since.

 

The station rebroadcast programmes from the Russian channels RTR, NTV and ORT, replacing five and a half hours of RTR's evening programs with material produced in house by ABA.

 

It significantly raised its profile in May when it used the local evening slot to begin broadcasting licensed half-hour CNN news programmes which had been translated into Azeri. The broadcasts brought a stream of international news into millions of Azeri homes free of charge.

 

Zulfugarov's videotaped message, along with messages from ABA employees, was supposed to have been broadcast at the time of day when the station switches over from RTR to local Azeri programmes.

 

But one ABA source said the government had prevented the broadcast by refusing to switch off RTR. Instead of hearing Zulfugarov's farewell message, viewers continued watching a Latin American soap opera dubbed into Russian.

 

Zulfugarov and ABA's chief technical director Elchin Sultanov are believed to be in the United States, where they have remained since attending a CNN conference two months ago. Their exact whereabouts are unknown and station representatives say they have had no contact with either man.

 

The ABA president has publicly accused the government of increasing pressure on his station in order to get hold of his high-quality broadcasting equipment. The station amassed what many consider the best broadcasting equipment in the Caucasus, thought to be worth at least 500,000 US dollars. In his announcement to ABA staff, Zulfugarov mentioned the possibility of resuming operations in September.

 

ABA's closure is the latest in a string of setbacks for independent broadcasters in Azerbaijan, one of the newest members of the Council of Europe. Several independent stations in the region were closed in January and February for up to a month because they did not hold official operating licenses, despite having been applying for such licenses for several years. ABA, which rented its frequency from the government, had also been denied a license for its own operating frequency.

 

With the closure of ABA, the number of local independent broadcasters in Azerbaijan has fallen to 12, a figure that pales in comparison to almost 100 stations operating in the less populous neighbouring republics of Georgia and Armenia.

 

Shahin Rzaev is a regular IWPR contributor

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