A Eurasianet partner post from Chai Khana
“I’ll call ANS TV.” Until a year ago, that was the threat often heard in Azerbaijan when local officials ignored street repairs or a factory wall collapsed. It was one place where many Azerbaijanis thought they could share their neighborhoods’ problems, and maybe even get results.
But that all changed on July 19, 2016 when Azerbaijan’s broadcasting board suspended the privately owned TV station’s operations to prevent “a provocation” and “the open propaganda of terrorism.”
The charges stemmed from an ANS interview, planned for broadcast, with the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey, had just accused of organizing a coup attempt against the Turkish government. Azerbaijan’s National Council on Radio and Television claimed that ANS’ interview suggested it supported the coup. The station, plus a sibling radio station and website, was eventually closed entirely.
Unlike other Azerbaijani media outlets which have wrangled with the authorities, ANS (Azerbaijan News Service), one of the first successful private TV stations in the former Soviet Union, had never been critical of the government. It had named President Ilham Aliyev “Person of the Year” repeatedly, and even had a pledge of support from his powerful father, the late President Heydar Aliyev.
In a 1997 interview, the elder Aliyev had called the station “proof of democracy in Azerbaijan and the existence of free media.”
“[N]obody would be able to stop your activities,” he pledged.
Yet, one year on, ANS remains off the air. Most of the journalists among its former hundreds of employees have left for other pro-government TV channels. A scant few are freelancing.
Some of these ex-employees believe that ANS’ death meant the death of any semblance of professional journalism in Azerbaijan.
“I was not completely independent at ANS, but when you compare it with other TV channels, you were comparatively free,” recollected one former reporter who now works for the pro-government APA news agency. Given concerns about government retaliation, he asked not to be named.
“During my work at ANS, I dare say that there was [almost] no censorship or pressure on journalists. Considering the situation of our media, when, for expressing an opinion you can be jailed or have another type of pressure placed on you, ANS was a school for us.”
While many grumbled about the discipline -- salary deductions were calculated down to the minute for being late to work or missing a deadline – they say that the station taught them how to be self-sufficient reporters, able to handle everything from filming to post-production.
“When we talk about ANS, the first thing that comes to my mind is that this channel was the only place where you could get a job only based on your skills and ability, unlike other places where you need connections in order to get a job,” claimed another former reporter, who worked at the station for five years until its closure.
Co-founded in 1991 by two journalists Vahid Mustafayev, Mirshahin Agayev) and one later screenwriter (Mustafayev’s brother, Seyfulla), ANS was a product of its era.
The station was known for its portrayals of Azerbaijan’s 1988-1994 war with Armenia and ethnic Armenian separatists over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory -- a focus that endeared it to many Azerbaijanis grieving for loved ones killed during the conflict.
As the patriotic rap song “Ya Qarabag, Ya Ölüm” (“Either Karabakh or I Die”) played, ANS regularly ran war footage shot by co-founder Vahid Mustafayev ’s brother, war-correspondent Chingiz Mustafayev, who was killed during the conflict. A company foundation organized contests for patriotic music, as well as for journalists.
When the TV channel was shut down, ANS Vice-President Mirshahin Agayev, one of the station’s co-founders, apologized to President Aliyev for the Gülen interview, and asked for another chance to continue the station’s work. It never came.
Agayev’s public letter this May to the late President Heydar Aliyev, reminding the deceased leader of his earlier willingness to protect the channel, also proved a dead end. It only drew mockery and, some say, more trouble. His elder brother, Mirəddin Agayev, was arrested and charged with fraud two days after news broke about the letter.
“Some called him a bootlicker; others crazy,” one of the former ANS reporters said of Agayev. “In my view, if Mirshahin took this step, there was a reason for it . . . [Journalism] was his dream. This was the main part of his life. And if he thought that sending a letter to the late president will help save the channel, in this case, I understand him.”
Critics believe that ANS should not be surprised that the government valued its ties with Turkey over this doggedly loyal station’s existence.
“The government does not accept even a little bit of freedom -- either you work as I want or you will be shut down,” Mehman Aliyev, director of the pro-opposition Turan news agency, claimed in an interview with Azadliq.org last year.
The government has not commented on Agayev’s appeals for ANS to reopen.
The ANS TV station, radio station and news website have been combined into one online operation, istipress.com. A luxury-watch shop, another part of the ANS Group, still operates in Baku.
But some Azerbaijanis have not given up hope that the original ANS TV will return. A Facebook group (“ANS Lovers” ) with thousands of members urges Azerbaijanis not to forget the shuttered station. “May Allah hear our prayers and help to open the channel,” one fan wrote recently.
Others are more pessimistic.
“Azerbaijani journalism and, in general, the whole country lost with the shutting down of ANS, and this loss will be felt for many years to come,” commented one of the former ANS reporters.