Opposition editors in Azerbaijan have complained about an increase in government pressure, which they portray as retaliation for their aggressive coverage of President Heidar Aliyev's prolonged illness. The president remains out of sight, but administration officials claim that his health is steadily improving.
Presidential aide Ali Hasanov claimed that Aliyev may soon be well enough to resume a normal work schedule, the Turan news agency reported May 22. Since Aliyev collapsed during an April 21 speech, officials have been evasive on the topic of the president's illness. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
They have insisted that Aliyev's ailments are not serious, and that the president has remained involved in the day-to-day operation of government, speaking frequently with top officials.
Official accounts on Aliyev's health differ sharply from reports published by opposition-oriented media outlets. Opposition newspapers in particular Hurriyyat and Yeni Musavat have reported that Aliyev is suffering from serious kidney, liver and cardiovascular ailments, and, at one point, may have been near death. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Opposition media have also cast doubt on whether Aliyev will be fit enough to run in the presidential election scheduled for October. A Yeni Musavat report in mid May, for example, suggested that Aliyev's team was looking for ways to ensure that a smooth transfer of power within his administration. Many observers believe that Aliyev would like his son, Ilham, to succeed him as president. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Outside news organizations have followed the opposition media's lead. An Interfax news agency report May 20 alleged that "in the course of the next two or three weeks," Ilham would be become the ruling New Azerbaijan Party's nominee for president. Other media reports claimed that Aliyev would soon return to his native region of Nakhichevan, a potential sign that the president intended to effectively retire from politics.
Administration officials have been clearly rankled by the reports and have vigorously denied that Ilham would be nominated for the presidency, and that President Aliyev had plans to return to Nakhichevan. Hasanov, in his comments to Turan, complained that "certain circles are deliberately spreading misinformation."
According to opposition media representatives, the government in recent weeks has taken steps to disrupt the distribution of opposition newspapers, going so far as to ban the sale of Hurriyyat and Yeni Musavat. According to a May 9 report in Hurriyyat, vendors who attempted to sell Hurriyyat and Yeni Musavat "are being attacked by unidentified people."
At the same time, officials reportedly have refused to extend contracts with several distribution firms, including Said and Mars-3, which both circulate opposition newspapers to vending locations in Baku's subway system.
On May 12, several dozen opposition journalists protested outside Baku's central police station, calling for an end to the government's "illegal actions." Protesters asserted that the government's recent measures violated Article 26 of the country's mass media law, which states that any effort to interfere with newspaper distribution requires a court order.
Azerbaijan's Media Council has called on Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer to investigate the alleged reprisals committed by the Baku government against opposition media outlets, according to a May 19 report by Turan.
The Media Council has also tried to mediate directly between opposition media representatives and the government. Prior to the May 12 demonstration, the council convened a meeting attended by journalists from both state-run and opposition media outlets, as well as by Aliyev administration officials. The meeting allowed both side to air their concerns and grievances. Media Council head Aflatun Amashev said the meeting served as a useful confidence-building exercise. However, there have been no tangible signs of an improvement in government-opposition media relations since the meeting.
Naila Sohbetqizi is a freelance journalist based in Baku.