An Independent Press Needs Independence

May 2nd, 2009
By Anne E. Derse, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan
On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, the international community takes time to recognize the importance of a free press and call upon governments to ensure journalists the opportunity to carry out their mission.

Unfortunately, in recent years, May 3 also has become a day to honor journalists who have died doing their work or express solidarity with journalists who have been deprived of their freedom as a result of their reporting and publishing.
Azerbaijan is, of course, a nation in transition.  A free and independent press was not a hallmark of the Soviet Union, and it is taking time to strengthen core democratic institutions in this, as in other, newly independent republics.
But I see every day the desire, the hope, of young journalists who believe the future will be different. 
Tomorrow's generation of Azerbaijani journalists are looking forward to a day:
    * When objectively reporting the truth, including reporting wrongdoing, does not result in recriminations, lawsuits and physical and economic pressures;
    * When journalists have regular access to public officials and the opportunity to ask detailed questions about policies, procedures and expenditures;
    * When newspapers, broadcasting companies and on-line news services can work as private, independent companies, with no financial ties to government, political parties or private interests; and

 

    * When independent, unbiased reporting and high ethical standards are the norm.

 

World Press Freedom Day was created by the United Nations in 1993 to mark the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, which called attention to press freedom issues in Africa.  The UN aimed to remind its members around the world of their commitments under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  That article states simply:  "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
 

As the U.S. Government has often stated and chronicled in our annual Human Rights Report, media freedom has long been an area of priority concern in Azerbaijan, as in many other countries of the former Soviet Union.  
 

The situation, however, is not static.  There has been change.  And there has been change for the better.   But more is needed.
 

Nothing would do more to strengthen Azerbaijan's progress towards democracy than a vibrant, independent press.   And while we appreciate the government's effort to help strengthen the media via a new State Media Support Fund, the very concept of the government providing financial support to media outlets undercuts the idea of independent media.
 

Independent media should be that — independent.   Free and independent press relies not on government funding, not on grants, not on the sponsorship of donors, transparent or otherwise.
 

Great newspapers, great broadcasting networks are companies.  They are independent business enterprises.  They sell advertising.  They have subscribers.  They answer to their readers, their viewers, their customers only.  As blunt as it may sound, until capitalism takes root in the Azerbaijani media and media companies — as self-financing independent businesses — become truly independent media companies, the free media will be less than free.

I recognize that this is not a process that takes place overnight, but it is a process that needs to move forward for the good of Azerbaijan's democracy and independent future.  

On this May 3, I congratulate Azerbaijan’s journalists on their courageous and important work.   I wish the new generation of journalists, in particular, the greatest success in supporting Azerbaijan’s development as a strong democracy.