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Azerbaijan: Wishing Critical Media "Давай, До Свидания" During Election Campaign

Azerbaijan has hit the obligatory day of silence before its October 9 presidential vote, but attempts to silence free media -- or any government critic, for that matter -- have marked the entire campaign period.

But perhaps that's not a surprising record for one of the world's top jailers of journalists. Whatever your medium -- video, audio, print or online -- the Azerbaijani government these days seems to have a reprimand or punishment in mind to match any critical message.

Let's start with video. If Jon Stewart lived and worked in Azerbaijan, he would most probably be serving a prison sentence now for possession of bombs, drugs, or for stirring up unrest. Doing video spoofs on presidential candidates may be popular in the US, but in Azerbaijan it gets people in trouble with law enforcement.  

Blogger Mehman Huseynov found that out last week when he was "invited for a talk" with police after uploading a little parody on YouTube. The video, a clip from the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster "300," based on the Battle of Thermopylae, features an exchange between Spartan King Leonidas and a messenger of the Persian king, Xerxes, but with the voices of main opposition candidate Jamil Hasanli and rival Hafiz Hajiyev, head of the Modern Musavat Party.

The opposition claims that the government-praising Hajiev (and others among the remaining eight candidates) only joined the race to give President Ilham Aliyev (the implied King Xerxes) the illusion of a competitive election.

In the clip, Hasanli, in the role of King Leonidas, kicks Xerxes' messenger into a pit, and yells “The government must leave!" That apparently was sufficient for a cop-chat with Huseynov, which lasted several hours. “They told me to behave,” he told RFE/RL.

But Huseynov got off easily. Two bloggers, who posted a famous donkey video mocking President Aliyev and the government import of donkeys, were imprisoned in 2009.  

Some Azerbaijanis prefer just to tread on the side of caution.

The rural duo whose wildly popular meykhanа version of "Давай, до свидания!" ("Get a move on, good-bye!") was used by some Azerbaijanis as a knock against President Aliyev, now have issued an election rendition of the song that bids до свидания, to -- whom else? -- Jamil Hasanli, Haqqin.az reported.

The logic behind such creativity is simple: One critical word and, lo, there are drugs in your pockets, an entire cache of weapons in your bedroom, or a video of you having sex bandied about on the Internet.

In September, police raided the apartment of Parviz Hasimli, a reporter for the opposition newspaper Bizim Yol ("Our Way"), to find hand grenades there. Now he is serving a sentence in prison.  In the same month, Hilal Mamedov, editor of the Talysh-language newspaper Talyshi Sado was sentenced to five years in prison for high treason.  

And then there is the case of journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whose investigations into suspect property holdings by President Aliyev's family led to her intimate life being filmed with a hidden camera and released online in installments.

After getting nowhere with her complaints to the government or to the police, she now has filed a case against the Azerbaijani government with the European Court of Human Rights for running a smear campaign against her and violating her right to privacy.

Some government loyalists claim that Ismayilova, who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, does not have the moral right to question high officials.

The Central Election Commission, apparently, now follows a similar line of reasoning toward the the online Azerbaijani services of the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, some of the few which provide critical coverage of the Azerbaijani government.

At the behest of President Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP), the CEC decided that the lot are in "propaganda mode."  The Commission has not yet specified what "mode" pro-government, Azerbaijan-based news outlets are in.  Nor is it likely to. On all of the allegations of meddling with media, the Azerbaijani government and YAP plead their innocence. Instead, they often blame enemy Armenia or the Armenian Diaspora for the criticism.

Don't look for that to change anytime soon. With President Ilham Aliyev expected to breeze to a third straight victory on October 9, Azerbaijani media most likely are in for another five years of such tactics.

Azerbaijan: Wishing Critical Media "Давай, До Свидания" During Election Campaign

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