Grim Month for Azeri Journalists

Jailings and detentions raise fresh concerns over fairness of country’s defamation laws.

Grim Month for Azeri Journalists

Jailings and detentions raise fresh concerns over fairness of country’s defamation laws.

Five Azeri journalists were jailed and three detained this month, prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, to condemn Azerbaijan’s “appalling position” on press freedom.

Baku’s Nasimi court on October 7 sentenced the director of the sports website, Zahir Azamat, and Natiq Mukhtarli, a journalist from the site, to six month and a year of corrective labour respectively.

They had been accused of defamation by Mais Mansimov, the president of the Khazar Lenkoren football club, after they published an article accusing him of embezzling club funds.

Separately, the Baku appeals court on October 8 upheld a decision by the Nasimi court to jail Sardar Alibeyli, the editor-in-chief of Nota magazine, and journalist Faramaz Noruzoglu for three months, and to give a six-month corrective labour term to journalist Ramiz Tagiyev.

They had written articles accusing the former opposition politician Tahmasib Novrusov of acting on behalf of the government in a media campaign against the opposition parties Musavat and the National Front of Azerbaijan.

The sentencing provoked CPJ into issuing a harshly worded statement.

“Azerbaijan has reclaimed its appalling position as the leading jailer of journalists in the region,” the statement quoted CPJ Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator Nina Ognianova as saying.

“Seven of our colleagues are now behind bars simply for expressing their opinion or covering the news. Authorities should immediately release all of them, decriminalise libel provisions, and allow the press to do its job without fear of reprisal.”

On October 9, the appeals court upheld another ruling by the Nasimi court, confirming a guilty verdict against Alibeyli on one more charge, increasing his sentence to four months.

The second accusation stemmed from an article in Nota magazine charging a number of leading figures in the interior ministry’s forces of corruption.

That same day, Ravil Mammadov, the deputy editor of the Milli Yol newspaper and the news agency, was detained by plain-clothes police on his way to work. Eldaniz Elgun, a journalist from the agency and publication, was called to the interior ministry and arrested later that day. Then, at 7.30 pm, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper and agency, Shahin Agabeyli, was detained by officers from the special police unit tasked with fighting organised crime.

An IWPR employee present when Agabeyli was detained had his camera confiscated, while two members of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety had their video camera removed.

Agabeyli said the operation was connected to an article in the newspaper and on the website about cuts that were expected to be made in the interior ministry.

The arrests revived a debate in Azerbaijan over its defamation laws, the subject of complaints from, among others, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which has said they lead to “intimidation and self-censorship”. Defamation is a criminal offence in Azerbaijan, so it is not just the subject of civil proceedings, but is also investigated by state prosecutors.

Government officials say the laws are applied fairly, but opposition figures accuse the prosecutors of aiding the government with selective cases.

“Only opposition journalists have been punished for defamation,” said Ranah Huseyn, parliamentary leader of the opposition Musavat party. “Journalists who praise the government and run down the opposition have not been punished. It is clear that these articles in the legal code only exist for one reason, to destroy criticism.”

But Agil Abbis, who is also a deputy and who publishes the newspaper Adalat (Justice), defended the laws.

“If you remove these articles from the criminal code, then it will have an unwelcome side-effect. If the insulted, defamed person does not have the chance of taking his defamer to court then he will punish him himself,” he said.

Idrak Abbasov is a reporter from Zerkalo magazine, and works for the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.
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