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New Blow for Probing Azeri Journal

Government renews campaign against opposition magazine with reputation for exposing official corruption.

Monitor, a Russian-language socio-political magazine critical of the government, has just been forced to cease publication for the third time since it was founded five years ago.

The management of Express Publishers, which had initially agreed to print the title, backed down earlier this month and rescinded their printing contract with the magazine. In an informal conversation with IWPR, Monitor editorial staff said Express had been warned by the president's office to stop publishing.

Monitor, a monthly journal founded by a group of journalists, has always been very outspoken - often aggressively so - in its criticism of the government. The bulk of its 60-odd pages are filled with investigative pieces, exposing official corruption, mismanagement and crime in different fields of economics and politics.

As a result of its defiant opposition stance, Monitor has been taken to court 13 times in five years.

Pursuing their campaign against the magazine, officials claim its criticism is needlessly aggressive and groundless. "Monitor is prepared outside the country and financed by our enemies abroad," said Eldar Azizov, head of Baku's Nizami district and member of the policy-making board of the governing New Azerbaijan party.

One of the leaders of New Azerbaijan, parliament deputy Aidyn Mirzazade, agrees. "This journal undermines our national statehood and serves the interests of foreign secret services," he told IWPR.

Monitor is not the only periodical in Azerbaijan that attacks the government. Yeni Musavat, Azerbaijan's widest-read opposition newspaper, frequently carries very strong criticism of the ruling regime, and has faced a number of lawsuits because of it. But so far, Monitor has borne the brunt of government pressure.

Arzu Abdullaeva, co-chair of the Azerbaijani branch of the Helsinki Citizen Assembly, speculates that Monitor may have been targeted because it is published in Russian. "The journal is widely read abroad. Up to 20 per cent of the print run is exported," he said. "The Azerbaijani government is very concerned about its international image and would certainly like to see Monitor's harsh criticism silenced."

"Arrests, lawsuits and threats are nothing new to us," said Monitor's editor-in-chief Elmar Husseinov. Soon after the first issue came out in 1997, advertisers were frightened away, apparently by government warnings, and a few months later, some of the founders succumbed to official pressure and left.

Many analysts believe that persecution of the journal has intensified in the wake of a series of August and September issues that lambasted President Aliev's decision to hold a referendum on amending the constitution. The authors of the articles said that the plebiscite was turning the Azerbaijani presidency into a hereditary royal position.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a letter to President Aliev on August 7, urging him to cease harassment of the magazine.

"Based on our research, CPJ believes that Azerbaijani officials are using defamation laws and other tools at their disposal, including the intimidation of publishing houses, to silence Husseinov and his publications for questioning and criticising government policies," wrote Ann Cooper, the executive director of CPJ.

In the last two months, the official campaign escalated. Commenting on the forced suspension of Monitor, the pro-government paper Olailar wrote on November 2, "Do we really need a journal that insults our people and our statehood, and consistently ignores all progressive trends in our society?"

"We are fighting Aliev and his style of government which suppresses individual rights," said Husseinov, "If Aliev and our statehood are one, then we are also fighting our current form of statehood.

"This stance contradicts the generally accepted standards of journalism. The mission of the mass media is not to fight the regime, but to produce information. But something needs to be done about that fact that, like many other post-Soviet nations, Azerbaijan is so far removed from the ideals of democracy."

Husseinov cited Monitor's most recent court cases. On April 23, Azerbaijan's defence ministry filed a lawsuit with Baku's Yasamal district court against the magazine over a feature article entitled "A Report to Defence Minister" about the miserable condition of Azerbaijan's army, which had appeared in its April 9 issue.

On August 12, the court ruled that Monitor be fined 50 million manats (about 10,000 US dollars). Adding to the journal's list of woes, the government's press distribution agency Gasid is refusing to work with it.

"The government's harassment of Monitor shows that the relationship between the authorities and the press in Azerbaijan is far from civilised, generally accepted norms. We will do everything we can to help the journal resume publication," said Aflatun Amashov, chairman of the Azerbaijani Committee for the Protection of Journalists, known as Rukh.

Einulla Fatullaev is a political commentator with Monitor.

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