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Campaign Against "Enemy Press" in Azerbaijan

Focus on “hostile” Armenian reports and “biased” Western media.
By Afgan Mukhtarli

In its ongoing campaign against freedom of expression, the Azerbaijani government is funding a project to track down and target “enemy” media.

The Centre for Expert Journalism, an apparently new organisation, is getting funding from the government’s Council for NGO Support for a Facebook group page called Attention – Enemy Press.

The page says its aim is to prevent Azerbaijani media revealing state or military secrets or anything else harmful to national security, blocking “provocative material” quoted from foreign media sources, and to “educate” journalists.

For Azerbaijan’s beleaguered independent journalists, this looks like an attempt by government to put further pressure on them, using a non-government group to stay at arm’s length.

Natiq Adilov, who is currently in self-imposed exile in France, says the choice of name says everything about where the initiative comes from.

“This was a very popular slogan under the repressive Soviet system – ‘Attention, the enemy never sleeps!’ This is a cheap plagiarism. It’s hugely symbolic that they have chosen this winning title. ‘Attention – Enemy Press!’”

Seymur Kazimov, a journalism lecturer and freelance reporter, questions the thinking behind engaging a notionally independent organisation to “do propaganda for government policy”.

“Where’s the need to fund this kind of project? Everything [regarding media obligations] is already set out in the law. Any editorial department can print out important sections of the law and hang them up on the wall,” he said. “There’s no logical reason why the Council for NGO Support should hand out money to an organisation to post announcements.”

The head of the Centre for Expert Journalism, Jeyhun Musaoglu, defended the need for the campaign.

“It’s very important to prevent information that constitutes a state or military secret being disseminated in the press,” he said. “We explain the country’s laws to journalists as well as points of the media law.”

Musaoglu cited a case where Azerbaijani media had quoted Armenian reports on a particularly controversial story. In July 2014, two Azerbaijani men were arrested in Nagorny Karabakh. Azerbaijani officials said the men, and a third man who was killed before they were captured, were civilians trying to visit homes they fled during the conflict of the early 1990s. Musaoglu accused local media of uncritically repeating the Armenian claim that the men were engaged in subversive activity.

“Our press published information from the Armenian media. European media subsequently quoted the Azerbaijani press as describing [the men] as saboteurs,” he said.

(IWPR reported the story as Bitter Azeri-Armenian Divisions Over "Spy" Trial.   See also New Curbs on Conflict Zone Reporting in Azerbaijan on sensitivities around local journalists.) 

He said that while the Attention – Enemy Media project was conceived as a way of countering hostile Armenian reporting, “European and Western media then began publishing biased articles about the Azerbaijani state and its president. Articles like these are also a central focus for us. We believe the Azerbaijani media shouldn’t be giving a platform to articles like that.”

Critics of the Attention – Enemy Media campaign see it as just another way for the government to restrict freedom of expression.

“Until now, the authorities controlled the media by unlawful means. But the official funding given to this kind of project suggests that they are openly trying to restore censorship, in flagrant violation of international legal standards,” Shamshad Aga, chief editor of the independent news website Arqument.az, told IWPR. “Although censorship has not officially been brought back, they are forcing journalists to censor themselves…. The aim is to silence the few voices that remain, and preventing leaks of state and military secrets is just a pretext.”

Adilov says the government has a range of tools for controlling the media, using front organisations to channel state funding to regime-friendly groups.

“The government-created Press Council, Fund for Media Support, Council for NGO Support and other structures were set up to monitor the activities of journalists and civil society generally,” he told IWPR. “These agencies finance pseudo-NGOs – created by the authorities – to carry out this monitoring and gather information about journalists who criticise the authorities.”

Afgan Mukhtarli is an Azerbaijani journalist living abroad.

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