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Libel Actions Squeeze Azerbaijan's Opposition Press

Renewed pressure comes ahead of key election.
By Seymur Kazimov
  • Rahim Hajiyev, editor-in-chief of Azadliq newspaper. (Photo: Natiq Adilov)
    Rahim Hajiyev, editor-in-chief of Azadliq newspaper. (Photo: Natiq Adilov)

Rights activists and journalists in Azerbaijan warn that a media crackdown is already under way as the authorities prepare for a presidential election later this year.

The pressure is being applied indirectly. Last year it was unpaid utility and print bills – see Azeri Opposition Paper Faces Closure – and now it is libel suits that selectively target media outlets critical of the government.

The Azadliq and Yeni Musavat newspapers, published by the opposition Popular Front and Musavat parties, respectively, are both facing massive fines which their owners say may force them to close.

Last month, Azadliq had damage payments of 62,000 manats, about 77,000 US dollars, imposed on it. Its bank accounts could be frozen if it does not pay by April.

“Our articles criticising the government are read by 50,000 internet users. This of course worries the authorities,” its chief editor Rahim Hajiyev said.

The money represents damages from two libel cases, one brought by the head of Baku’s metro network after the paper reported that statff were charging passengers 20 qapiks instead of 15 per journey (there are 100 qapiks to the manat). A court imposed damages of 30,000 manats.

The case involves the owner of the capital’s Bina shopping centre who sued Azadliq after it reported on the concerns of traders who rent space there and complain of high lease payments. (For a report on a protest by shopkeepers at Bina, see Local Grievances Spark Protests in Azerbaijan.) The owner won the case and was awarded 30,000 manats from the paper and another 2,000 from the reporter who wrote the piece.

Hajiyev said these were just the latest in a long line of attempts to squeeze the paper out of existence.

“At first they unlawfully turned off the gas supply to our office, they arrested our editor-in-chief for many years, and our employees were robbed and beaten. Although these things happened long ago, the culprits have never been found or punished,” he told IWPR.

“On top of this, the Gasid press distribution company, which is controlled by the government, has failed to pay us 30,000 manats that it owes us. It recently promised to pay by the end of February, but it’s already March and we haven’t received a thing. Because of this debt, we now owe money to the Azerbaijan Publishing Company from which we rent our office. And now there are these fines too.”

Arif Aliyev, of the Yeni Nesil union of journalists, said it was no coincidence that President Ilham Aliyev was facing re-election this year.

“2013 is an election year, so the situation has deteriorated again. The government has been trying to get the electronic media under control since the start of the year, while Azadliq is the biggest target among the printed media,” he said.

Yeni Musavat, meanwhile, is facing new fines of 56,000 manats, following cases brought by Anar Mammadov, son of the transport minister; by Emergencies Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov, and by the president’s uncle Jalal Aliyev.

The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Rauf Arifoglu said another case, brought by six army generals seeking 450,000 manats in damages, was still before the courts.

Hearings in yet another lawsuit began on February 21. This case was brought by the Baku Steel Company, which wants damages of a million manats from Yeni Musavat.

“In 2012, the newspaper was fined 2.95 million manats. All these lawsuits are designed to destroy the paper,” Arifoglu said.

In its latest assessment of global press freedom, the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, RSF, ranked Azerbaijan 156th out of 179 countries. This was a slight improvement on last year’s 162nd position, but RSF said the recent libel rulings had made things worse again.

“These disproportionate damages awards against Azadliq are clearly politically motivated and have put its survival in greater danger than ever before… They directly contravene the international treaties ratified by Azerbaijan and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, of which it is a party,” RSF said in a statement after the latest court cases ended. “In a country where the media is already largely controlled by the authorities, Azadliq’s disappearance would have extremely serious consequences.

“The international community must make it clear to the government that its current crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the October 2013 presidential election is unacceptable.”

Bakhtiyar Sadiqov, editor-in-chief of Azerbaijan, the official parliamentary newspaper, disputed RSF’s assessment, and argued that his country was better than most when it came to freedom of speech.

“The press is free in our country. The government itself is helping to develop our democratic foundations and civil society,” he said. “We therefore disagree with these assessments from international organisations that are trying to put pressure on Azerbaijan. It isn’t worth taking such assessments seriously.”

Seymur Kazimov is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.

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