With international attention riveted on Afghanistan and the US anti-terrorism offensive, Azerbaijan is pressing on with a crackdown on independent media. Government harassment of journalists has intensified substantially since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The latest independent media outlet targeted by state agencies is ANS-TV. The State Radio Frequencies Committee imposed a hefty fine on the television station for broadcasting in rural areas without proper authorization, the Turan news agency reported on October 1.
During the last three weeks numerous journalists have been imprisoned, or otherwise harassed. In one of the more notable cases, Milletin Sesi editor-in-chief Shahbaz Khuduoglu, received a six-month sentence September 17 for "insulting the honor and dignity" of Ramiz Mehdiyev, President Heydar Aliev's Chief of Staff. Two of his staff also faced criminal proceedings. Khuduoqlu did not have access to counsel during the trial. Four days later, Elmar Huseynov the founder of another independent newspaper drew a similar sentence for critical remarks about Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov.
In addition to handing out prison terms to independent journalists, courts have levied large fines that have forced five newspapers out of business. In one September 13 ruling, an appeals court ordered the weekly newspaper Avropa to pay $40,500 in damages to the director of a company named Azeravtoneqliyyat. The paper provided documentation to substantiate a story that alleged the executive, Hussein Husseinov, engaged illegal activities in business dealings in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, a court ruled in favor of Husseinov, who denied the allegation.
"The fines levied violate Azerbaijan's own law on mass media, which clearly states that fines cannot exceed three times a newspaper's monthly expenses," the International Federation of Journalists complained in a September 27 letter to Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev. "This raises serious questions about the independence of the judiciary."
Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities appear intent on intimidation. For example, three journalists sustained substantial injuries September 19 in a melee with police outside the Baku Supreme Court.
The latest phase of free press crackdown began in July, when the newspaper Etimad published a joke about the chairman of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of the Caucasus. Islamic clerics said the comments were offensive. Etimad's editor later distanced himself from the joke. A court in August banned the newspaper from publishing.
Some independent journalists have formed a committee to defend Khuduoglu. They have also succeeded in recruiting at least five members of Parliament to their cause. Yet, there is seemingly little the group can do at the present time to resist government pressure, other than issue statements.
Aliyev's administration has long sought to restrain independent news gathering. Some local observers worry that Aliyev now intends to completely stifle domestic media outlets. Crushing the independent press, they add, might be a precursor to attacks against opposition political parties in Azerbaijan. Local observers are also concerned that the United States' new emphasis on securing international support for its anti-terrorism campaign will eclipse other foreign policy objectives, including the promotion and defense of democracy and human rights.
International organizations are starting to take note of Azerbaijan's media freedom issue. On September 27, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer expressed alarm at the media crackdowns. In a press release, Schwimmer reminded the country that it pledged to release or re-try its political prisoners when it joined the Council in January.
Meanwhile, the US government continues to monitor developments in Azerbaijan. After the sentencing of the dissident editors, US diplomat Douglas Davidson issued a statement to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urging members to "remove undue restrictions on freedom of association and the right to peaceful assembly." Davidson singled out Irada Guseinova, a journalist who had her apartment confiscated after criticizing the government. "We call on the government of Azerbaijan to uphold its OSCE commitments on freedom of the media by dropping charges against Ms. Guseinova and ensuring that no further retribution is taken against her for writing articles critical of the government," Davidson said.
An OSCE official said the human rights standards should be maintained even as states battle terrorism. "All global initiatives against acts of terror should not justify in any way the undermining of an individual's basic human rights the pillars on which the whole concept of our two organizations is based," said Freimut Duve, the OSCE's representative on the freedom of expression issues.
Kenan Aliev is a journalist based in Washington, DC.