The Silencing of SARA TV

An independent TV station in Azerbaijan remains shut down and its staff on hunger strike a month after armed police stormed the studios after the showing of a programme critical of President Heydar Aliev.

The Silencing of SARA TV

An independent TV station in Azerbaijan remains shut down and its staff on hunger strike a month after armed police stormed the studios after the showing of a programme critical of President Heydar Aliev.

Thursday, 4 November, 1999

On October 9 armed police took over the premises of the Sara independent broadcasting company without warning or warrant and cut off the power while making a search of the studio.


Employees allege that the police confiscated a number of video cassettes and assaulted staff members Anar Shukurov and Farrukh Zarbaliyev. Moreover, the heavy-handed tactics were alleged to have caused one woman employee to have a miscarriage.


The 'Contact' political phone-in show has rapidly become a popular Friday night programme in Azerbaijan because of the lively debates that follow from having top politicians grilled live by the audience.


But it seems the October 8 broadcast was found to be a show too far by the authorities. The studio guests had included Democratic Party leader Ilyas Ismailov, and National Independence Party Chairman Eitbar Mamedov and the mood of the show was distinctly 'anti' President Heydar Aliev.


Mamedov, runner-up to Aliev in last year's elections, used the show to invite the audience to join a large opposition meeting planned for the following day at Baku's motodome stadium. The meeting, under the banner title 'Defence of Karabakh', had already been given a permit by the authorities, but the combination of the opposition call to protest and the general tone of the show proved the last straw. The state brought the curtain down on Sara.


However, four hours after the police shut the Sara station down, supporters from other media who had come to the studio to express support, were shown the order from the Justice Ministry which had demanded its closure.


That order was made under Article 7 of the Law On Mass Media which prohibits foreigners from owning media organisations in Azerbaijan. It was also issued on October 6 - two days before the offending programme was broadcast - suggesting that the closure had been planned in advance.


Rasul Rauf, head of the Sara company say that under Article 14 of the same media law, only the courts - not the Justice Ministry - are allowed to close a station. Rauf, who is a Turkish citizen, said he had applied for Azeri citizenship eight months ago.


Sara, which also runs a very popular FM radio station, was registered in January 1994 on the basis of laws then in place, he said, and in five years no complaint from the authorities had ever been lodged. Its closure must have been political, not legal, he surmised. The station and the staff enjoy a good deal of popular support; the police action precipitated a storm of protest from fellow journalists, opposition politicians and human rights activists. Within a day a Committee on the Protection of Sara's Rights was created, chaired by memebr of parliament and former Press and Information minister Sabir Rustamkhanly.


Democratic Party leader Ismailov, the other participant in the last Contact show says the station is a victim of "political pressure" and the general secretary of the Mussavat party said it was a violation of freedom of speech.


More than 20 newspaper editors have signed a petition addressed to President Aliev and asked him to examine these attacks on the media. The petition presently enjoys the wide support of artists, musicians and actors.


But the chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Journalists, Azer Hasrat, claimed that "the President of Azerbaijan is the real guilty person here. He doesn't wish to hear the voice of his people".


Meanwhile, Sara's employees are determined to protect their infringed rights. They have already launched a suit against the Justice Ministry and forwarded it to the Court of Arbitration, while launching a public appeal for international support for their case. One week after the station's licence was suspended, no fewer than 33 employees including company vice-president Shahriyar Rauf went on hunger strike in protest against the actions of the authorities. Rauf and three other staff have since suspended their hunger strike on advice of their doctors, but other have stepped up to take their place.


Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's regional representative in Baku.


Karabakh, Azerbaijan
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