A government program in Azerbaijan to provide free state-constructed apartments to journalists appears to be securing the gratitude of recipients. But it is also generating some hard feelings among those who are not the beneficiaries of Baku’s largesse.
The second phase of the program concluded in late July, with President Ilham Aliyev presiding over a ceremony in which apartments were allotted to 255 journalists in a newly constructed building. In 2013, authorities distributed 156 apartments in another building.
Aliyev said that a third building is expected to be constructed specifically for journalists by 2020.
Azerbaijani authorities in recent years have pressed ahead with a far-reaching crackdown on free speech, stifling independent media outlets in the process. Free speech advocates deride the give-away, describing it as a bribe designed to ensure that journalists living in state-provided homes provide favorable coverage of government policies.
Some recipients disputed that notion, while offering glowing praise for Aliyev.
“This apartment is a gift from the number one person in the country. What can be more beautiful than that?” said Mammad Gulmammadov, editor-in-chief of the pro-government news website olke.az, referring to the president.
“Journalism is a creative profession and a creative person should be in a comfortable zone. A brighter room produces better work,” the 32-year-old Gulmammadov told EurasiaNet.org. “This initiative should not be misinterpreted as depriving journalists of their freedom. It gives journalists more freedoms and independence.”
Many of the Azerbaijani journalists interviewed by EurasiaNet.org complained about low pay and the increasing difficulty of making ends meet. In addition, staff positions are shrinking at media outlets, forcing many to endure the constant pressure associated with freelancing. Lots of journalists would like to own a home, but, given the irregular working conditions, often cannot obtain a mortgage.
Among journalists who were unsuccessful in securing an apartment, criticism tends to focus on the selection process.
As someone who was displaced over two decades ago by the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, and who since then has lived in a school basement, journalist Vafa Faraj felt she was deserving of one of the 255 apartments. But she did not receive one.
She vented on Facebook on July 23, the day after the allocation ceremony, hinting that the process was flawed. She alleged that the program is not benefiting needy journalists like her, but those who have close connections to the right authorities. She also hinted that some of the recipients should not have been eligible.
“I am furious,” wrote Faraj, who is a freelancer for the news website vesti.az. “Flats should be distributed to improve journalists’ living conditions rather than to let a spokesperson own one more flat, or to give a second or a third flat to [journalists] to rent or sell them.”
More than 2,400 journalists applied for the apartments, and their eligibility was assessed by a presidential commission. The apartments were supposed to go to journalists with at least 10 years’ experience who did not already own a home, and every qualifying media outlet was allotted a certain number of employees that it could nominate: television and radio broadcasters could identify 10 candidates; daily newspapers and news agencies, six; and weekly papers, and news websites, three.
With competition like that, disappointment was perhaps inevitable. Ali Hasanov, a senior presidential aide in charge of the program, said the selection process was not easy. “Neither the commission nor the commission members are immune from making mistakes,” he told local television station Khazar TV.
“We have tried to implement Mr. President’s kind initiative based on very fair measures.”
Hasanov suggested that many journalists falsified their work history or signed over their existing apartments to relatives to make it look as if they did not possess their own homes. “Those who weren't eligible are now shouting and complaining, while those who were are being polite,” he said.
One journalist who complained about being denied an apartment acknowledged that she signed over her apartment, which she shared with her brother and parents, to her parents in order to be eligible.
“My 11-year-old daughter considers the president stronger than anyone else. I told her our president would give us a house,” the journalist, Aytan Safarova, wrote on Facebook.
“Is this how [the commission] treats a journalist with 25 years’ experience?” she asked. “Why are you driving a wedge between me and my president? I don’t know what the reason behind it is, but I will never turn against our leader or the state because I have a special role in strengthening of this state.”
Some of the disappointed journalists appealed to Aliyev to correct supposed selection-process mistakes made by his subordinates. One, Elvin Basgalli, wrote in an open letter on Facebook: “Mr. President, without any doubt, your goal was to help those in difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, though, they [commission members] have betrayed you, trying to create conflict between you and the media, casting a shadow on your kind initiative of supporting the press.”
Faraj contended that getting a free apartment would not have compromised her independent-minded principles. “Those flats have been built by the state budget and I need that flat. After getting it, I would not kowtow to the president, writing poems to him, but instead would simply be thankful and continue to do my job,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
Others are skeptical that journalists can maintain their independence while benefiting so much from the state’s generosity. “For professional journalists this is interference into their freedoms, while for non-professionals it's a means of support,” media law expert Alasgar Mammadli told EurasiaNet.org.
In any case, room for independent reporting is rapidly shrinking in Azerbaijan, underscored by the recent arrest of the director of the country’s only remaining independent news agency, Turan.
Turan had opted not to participate in the apartment give-away program. Among independent-minded outlets that did participate, a few reporters for the newspaper Azadliq were selected to receive a free apartment in the first round of the program. Nevertheless, the outlet was forced to stop publishing a print edition in 2016.
The free apartments program was the target of a scathing editorial published by the Washington Post on September 4. The editorial characterized President Aliyev as a “strongman, who talks about freedom but behaves like a tyrant,” and described the apartment give-away program as a “corrosive practice of buying off journalists.”
In response, Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev called the editorial “fake news and disinformation.”
A subsequent commentary published by the pro-government website Trend claimed that the Post’s editorial board may be compromised themselves: “And what exactly was promised to the authors of these fake articles? Maybe a free apartment somewhere in Washington?”
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani reporter.