Two French reporters appeared in a Parisian court on September 5 to face charges that they defamed Azerbaijan by calling it a “dictatorship.”
One of the journalists, Elise Lucet, called Azerbaijan “one of the world’s harshest dictatorships” in a “Cash Investigation” program broadcast on the France 2 television network in September 2015. The other, Laurent Richard, referred to the state as a dictatorship during a radio interview with France Info following his May 2014 arrest during a reporting trip in Baku.
The head of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, Johann Bihr, testified on the journalists' behalf, as did Azerbaijani journalist Agil Khalil and husband-and-wife human rights defenders Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus. Khalil fled to France in 2008 after escaping several murder attempts in Azerbaijan. Leyla and Arif Yunus fled to the Netherlands after being imprisoned for 18 months.
In a release ahead of the trial, RSF called the suit an attempt “to export censorship to France.”
“By suing two French journalists who just used their right to free speech, the Azerbaijani government is demonstrating its complete inability to tolerate criticism, said ”RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
Meanwhile, former French parliamentarian Jean-Francois Marcel has agreed to testify for Azerbaijan’s government. Marcel is on the board of directors of the Association of Friends of Azerbaijan, which is partly financed by Baku.
French media called the case “unprecedented” as it appeared to be the first time French media were sued in France by another country.
The suit recalled a similar one in 2011, when Lola Karimova, the daughter of then Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, sued the French news website Rue89 in 2011 for calling her a “dictator’s daughter.” But Karimova then was suing as a private individual. She lost the case, with the court ruling that the article in question was “entirely true to reality.”
It was a bad PR day overall for Azerbaijan, as the waves from a blockbuster investigation published the night before continued to ripple. On September 4, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) released a damning report on Azerbaijan’s $2.9 billion money-laundering schemes in the UK. In response, Baku blocked access to the OCCRP’s website on September 5.
Hikmet Hajiyev, the spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then took to twitter to suggest the reports are part of a “Soros funded fake news and disinformation campaign” to discredit the government of Azerbaijan.
Hajiyev also attacked Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus Director at Human Rights Watch, after he shared a Washington Post op-ed on Baku’s crackdown on independent media, accusing him of orchestrating a “disinformation campaign against Azerbaijan.”
The Azerbaijani authorities have also been carefully dismantling domestic media. The Turan news agency, the country’s last independent media outlet, became the latest victim in August of this year. Its director has been jailed and its bank accounts have been frozen, forcing it to suspend all activities. Access to all the main independent news websites is blocked.
At least 16 of Azerbaijan’s journalists, bloggers and media workers are currently imprisoned according to RSF.