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Comment: Rhetoric and Reality in Azerbaijan

Lending the West’s stamp of approval to Azerbaijan’s flawed TV legislation would do the country a disservice.
By Whit Mason

I remember taking the Trans-Siberian railway in the early Nineties and stopping in the Urals in the middle of the night. I asked the carriage attendant how long we’d be there and she told me “20 minutes.” Thinking I had plenty of time, I jumped off the train and trotted over to a kiosk to buy something to eat.

After less than a minute I was horrified to see the train beginning to pull out of the station. I ran for it, and was just able to jump aboard. “I thought,” I panted to the attendant, “you said we’d be here for 20 minutes.” She looked down at the schedule on her clipboard.

“In principle,” she replied, eyeing me impassively, “we were here 20 minutes.”

As George Orwell made the West aware of with his coinage of “doublespeak” in 1984, the yawning chasm between rhetoric and reality was a hallmark of the communist regimes of the Soviet empire.

During the seven decades of Soviet rule the distinction between doublespeak and reality became embedded in the Russian language itself. “V printsipe” – in principle – Soviet citizens were guaranteed more rights than anyone else on earth, and all the material necessities of life as well. “V deystvitelnosti”, in reality, of course, millions were slowly ground to death in Stalin’s gulags.

A close and reliable correspondence between words and reality is a sine qua non of democratic political systems.

Yet all too often the desire to avoid awkward diplomatic confrontations leads the organisations driving democratisation to reinforce the popular view in post-communist countries that words and reality have nothing to do with one another.

Azerbaijan’s draft law on public broadcasting, which establishes the legal framework for a new so-called public television broadcaster, appears poised to become a classic example.

President Ilham Aliyev’s office drafted the current proposed law and sent it to Azerbaijan’s national parliament, the Milli Majlis, for review and comment in December.

Taking on board criticisms that earlier drafts had failed to guarantee the public broadcaster’s independence from state control, the Milli Majlis rewrote portions of the current draft so as to downplay the role of the government. On January 9, 2004, after three readings, it approved the law and returned it to the president.

As Turan news agency reported at the time, “the bill was adopted without consideration of critical reviews of international structures, especially the Council of Europe”.

The draft legislation only awaits the president’s signature to become law.

The government of Azerbaijan has now submitted the draft law for review by the Council of Europe. Turning “the national [state] television channel into a public channel managed by an independent administrative board” was among the conditions set for Azerbaijan’s admission to the Council on January 25, 2001.

The main distinction between a state broadcaster and a public one is that while the former is beholden to the government, the latter is independent. Independence requires, obviously, that the government has no role in appointing the public broadcaster’s staff and no direct control over its budget or programming.

Despite the parliament’s efforts to improve it, the new version of the law still does not guarantee independence and so does not meet the definition of a public broadcaster.

Until a system of subscription fees is put in place in 2010, the draft law states that the broadcaster will be supported from the state budget. Irrespective of a sentence saying “Financing on the account of the state budget shall not constitute grounds for interference by state authorities with public broadcasting”, financial dependence can hardly fail to translate into political subservience.

Moreover the commission that will hire the director and other senior staff will be chosen by “an appropriate state authority”, further reinforcing the broadcaster’s dependence on the government. Finally, the “public” channel is required to broadcast “official information of state authorities without any delay and without making any amendments” – giving the state an open-ended right to foist any programming it chooses on a supposedly independent station.

None of this is to say that Azerbaijan’s draft law on public broadcasting is bad; only that it describes an entity that does not actually correspond to the definition of a public broadcaster.

If the Council of Europe were to endorse the fiction that a channel that is financially dependent on the state, whose staff is vetted by a state body, and which is required to broadcast the state’s programming is not in fact a state broadcaster, it would be doing a profound disservice not only to the country’s media but to the Azerbaijani people’s evolving confidence in the link between words and reality.

Azerbaijan’s newly elected president, Ilham Aliyev, still has a chance to send the draft law back to parliament and tell them to get real.

Whit Mason is Country Director of Internews Azerbaijan, which promotes independent media. Rashid Hajili is director of Azerbaijan’s Media Rights Institute.

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