For all their efforts to teach journalists how to do their job, officials in Azerbaijan regretfully note that professional standards in the country’s media are still wanting. In the name of quality assurance, Azerbaijan’s government is now going after news operations for alleged defamation of the government or inaccurate information about official investigations.
The crackdown is the first application of new media-law provisions that allow courts to shut down news companies if they are found guilty of such transgressions twice in the space of one year.
Critics charge that claims of defamation long have become synonymous with government criticism in Azerbaijan, which international rights-watchdogs rank among countries with the least amount of press freedom.
Prosecutors, for now, have delivered a warning to eight-plus news outlets (Mia.az, Cumhuriyyət, Qaynarinfo, Gündəminfo, Criminal.az, Strateq.az, İstiqlal.az, JAM.az “and others” ), but warned that next time they might not spare the rod.
The press-freedom organization Reporters without Borders earlier described the amendments, signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev on November 2, as fresh evidence of continued governmental harassment of independent media in Azerbaijan.
“The only surprise is [the amendments’] superfluous nature, inasmuch as the authorities usually do not hesitate to trample on their own laws in order to silence critics,” Johann Bihr, the organization’s chief for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement about the changes, which also target outlets with foreign funding. “Presumably it is meant to send an additional threatening message to the few remaining sources of independently reported news and information.”
Many of the country’s prominent journalists are either in prison or in self-imposed exile, often accused of tax evasion. Now the focus seems to have switched to media-sensationalism.
President Aliyev’s senior political and media advisor, Ali Hasanov, though, maintains that Azerbaijani journalists have all the freedom they need and even abuse it to spread defamatory information.
“Especially internet media outlets spread groundless, biased and sometimes blackmailing information about various state bodies, their officials and employees,” he complained to the state-run news agency AzerTag in comments last week.
Hasanov, arguably, probably thinks he speaks from experience.
Like the Aliyevs and their business-holdings, he and his wife, Sona Veliyeva, came under scrutiny last year by now-jailed, award-winning investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, who reported for OCCRP how Veliyeva “and her family have benefited from regulating many of the businesses they own.”
Hasanov later trashed the report as part of a supposed smear campaign by “some Western circles” against Azerbaijan — a standard response to media-investigations into government corruption or conflicts of interest.
In his November 18 remarks, Hasanov skirted any reference to the OCCRP story, but called for journalists to “refrain from misusing the favorable conditions created for them.”
Irony not intended.