Azerbaijan: Website Remains Missing in Action after Linking Russia's Putin to Gazprom Funny Business
The mysterious closure of Azerbaijan's Day.az web news portal has ignited a new controversy about press freedom in the energy-rich Caucasus state. Some observers believe the website's shutdown is related to the posting of an article containing allegations that Russia's paramount leader, Vladimir Putin, has "economic interests" in the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom. Officials in Baku deny taking action to muzzle Day.az.
Launched in 2003, the Russian-language Day.az, and its English-language version Today.az, provided a broad range of news, often including interviews with political insiders on sensitive topics. The site, which claimed a daily audience of about 25,000 users, belonged to parliamentarian Anar Mammadkhanov, a member of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party. The web portal enjoyed a reputation inside Azerbaijan for offering viewpoints that did not always adhere to the official line of President Ilham Aliyev's administration.
A message posted on the site on February 18 announced that Day.az had "closed for technical reasons and would resume operating on February 25."
But by mid-afternoon on February 25 the portal had not resumed operations. In a February 24 interview with the APA news agency, editor-in-chief Elnur Baimov stated that the website had been sold, but declined to give details. In a later interview with the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, former Day.az owner Mammadkhanov confirmed the sale of the site and added that a public statement would be forthcoming.
Day.az employees who started to return to work on February 24 told EurasiaNet that they had been told nothing about the portal's sale, or the site's future.
Meanwhile, other Azerbaijani journalists and one watchdog group find Day.az's silence significant.
Mehman Aliyev, director of the pro-opposition Turan news agency, believes that the unanswered phone calls to the portal's offices and the lack of clear explanations for the site's shutdown show that the Day.az managers "were really scared."
"The situation again shows that the authorities have instruments for putting strong influence on the mass media here, ranging from pressure to threats to close their operations," said Mehman Aliyev.
Azerbaijan in recent months has been wracked by freedom-of-information controversies over the cancellation of FM broadcasts from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation. The switch-off followed months of growing concern among international organizations about limitations on independent media outlets in the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav011609d.shtml
Government officials have so far limited their comments about the closure. In a February 19 interview with ANS TV, Ali Hasanov, the influential chief of the presidential administration's Political and Public Affairs Department, denied that the authorities had pressured Day.az to close. "I have no information about reasons for the closure of this website. Anyhow, its owners know them better," Hasanov said in reference to reasons for the shutdown. "How can the Azerbaijani government close an Internet site?"
One Day.az employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet that most editorial employees believe that that the portal's shutdown is related to an interview with Russian dissident oligarch Boris Berezovsky that was posted on February 16. Although the Azerbaijani government's relations with Moscow have lately soured, many Azerbaijanis believe that Baku remains wary of inciting the Kremlin's anger. Berezovksy, a Russian oligarch who now lives in exile, sits high atop the Kremlin's "enemies list."
In the interview, Berezovsky claimed that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has financial interests in Gazprom's recent gas dispute with Ukraine, and repeated the now-familiar charge that Russia had delivered arms to Armenia to scuttle a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav012709d.shtml "That Vladimir Putin has economic interests in Gazprom, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty," said Berezovsky, who was an instrumental figure in Putin's rise to power.
In his comments, Hasanov said nothing to squash the spreading assumption that the Berezovksy interview was connected to the shutdown. "We are a friendly state with Russia and cannot be indifferent to information related to its heads of state and government," he said. "But I do not think that any site can be closed because of such information."
The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety states that Day.az has not approached them about any problems related to alleged government pressure to sell the site or to change content. "They [site representatives] have said there's no pressure on them," said Emin Huseynov, the organization's chairman.
Former owner Mammadkhanov has denied that the Berezovsky interview had any link to the site's shutdown. Other experts suggest that Day.az was simply too independent a news outlet for the government's taste, and so officials simply forced it to close.
What the future holds for Day.az remains uncertain. Turan's Aliyev argues that the portal could become "more pro-governmental, less balanced and less objective."
The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety's Huseynov, however, says that he does not expect the portal's information to change. "Day.az was . . . always controllable due to the fact that its owner was member of the ruling party. They just handed over the website from one person to another one inside the government," he speculated.
In his February 21 interview with Yeni Musavat, former owner Mammadkhanov rejected the notion that Day.az was under the government's thumb. "Some people considered that we support royal rule [a reference to President Aliyev]. Now the same people say that we are allegedly opposition. We have never excluded anybody and have always spoken freely."
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter in Baku.
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