Azerbaijan’s parliament is about to approve a bill legalising censorship and trampling on press freedom. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the authorities to revise the bill’s changes to the country’s media law, which would violate its constitution and the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Secretly drafted since last spring, the controversial bill is expected to be passed by the Milli Majlis, Azerbaijan’s parliament, on third and final reading tomorrow. When more than 30 journalists with independent and opposition media demonstrated against the bill outside the National Assembly in the capital, Baku, yesterday, reporter Nargiz Absalamova was hit by a police officer, sustaining a fracture to her coccyx. It was the second such protest to be held against the bill despite the danger of a violent crackdown by the security forces.
The bill’s provisions include the creation of a register of journalists and a single press card. Only those journalists who hold this card and whose media has been registered by the authorities will be officially recognised as such. Journalists who are not recognised are liable to find their activities restricted, including their access to official sources, who will be able to ignore their questions.
It will be the state that arbitrarily decides who is and who is not a journalist following a “test” about which no details have been disclosed. And it will be the authorities who hold the list and personal details of all registered journalists and media outlets (including their addresses and the details of their bank accounts and work contracts). This will put them at additional risk in a country controlled by an authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, who is regarded by RSF as a press freedom predator.
Azerbaijani media outlets that have based themselves abroad to avoid harassment, such as Meydan TV, which is based in Berlin, and Web TV channels will find it much harder to operate. If they are not registered as media outlets in Azerbaijan, it will be illegal for their correspondents to work there.
Journalists will also have to comply with various new rules, including one on the “objective” interpretation of facts and events – although “objective” is not defined, giving judges a free hand to interpret this article as they see fit – and a ban on disseminating any information from an unofficial source. It will therefore be impossible to do investigative reporting on matters of public interest or criticize the actions of the authorities. One of the bill’s articles prohibits the dissemination of any image of a person, even in public place, without their written permission. Inter alia, this would have the effect of preventing the publication of any video proving electoral fraud.
“Peppered with imprecise wording and contradictions, this law aims to step up control over the media and legalise censorship,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “It violates article 50 of the Azerbaijani constitution, on freedom of information, and article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), on freedom of expression. The state is overstepping its powers by interfering in the professional activities of journalists, without any consultation with independent media or experts specialising in freedom of expression. We urge the Azerbaijani government and parliament to carry out a complete revision of this bill so that it respects the constitution and the ECHR, and to promote self-regulatory alternatives.”
Although hounded by the authorities, including outside the country, critical journalists and independent media outlets play a major role in providing information about the reality of the situation in Azerbaijan and offering an alternative to the propaganda served up by the regime. This bill is liable to silence them.
Azerbaijan is ranked 167th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.