Dear Madam Secretary,
In advance of your June 6th visit to Azerbaijan, we would like to share our concerns regarding the freedom of expression situation, and to ask you to support us in addressing these problems.
Today, the most urgent issues for us are the murders of journalists, attacks and provocations, and their arrests. In Azerbaijan, there exists a strong culture of impunity with respect to the perpetrators of attacks on journalists. Notably, those behind the murders of journalist Elmar Huseynov (shot dead in 2005) and Rafig Tagi (fatally stabbed in 2011) have still not been brought to justice.
Right now, there are seven journalists in prison under various charges widely agreed by both local and international bodies to be trumped-up:
1. Avaz Zeynalli, editor in chief, Khural newspaper
2. Aydin Janiyev, correspondent, Khural newspaper
3. Zaur Guliyev, correspondent, Khayal TV
4. Vugar Gonagov, correspondent, Khayal TV
5. Ramin Bayramov, editor-in-chief, “islamazeri.az”
6. Ogtay Gulaliyev, editor in chief of “Şəffafliq” (“Transparency”) journal
7. Anar Bayramli, correspondent, Iranian Sahar TV
In the past year, dozens of journalists have been subjected to physical pressure. We believe that their arrests are motivated by the government’s intolerance of the basic principle of freedom of expression.
In recent years, state special service bodies have used blackmail to target the country’s leading journalists, using illegally obtained material from their private lives. In March, Khadija Ismayilova, investigative journalist and correspondent of Radio Liberty’s Baku Bureau, became the latest victim of such an attack. Local and international parties believe that she was targeted for her investigations into the business interests of the president’s family.
Traditional radio and television broadcasting is under strict government control, and all radio and television companies serve the government in various ways. In 2009, the Azerbaijani government placed a ban on the broadcast of Radio BBC, Radio Liberty and Voice of America on local FM frequencies. These radio stations were the only ones that ensured political pluralism for Azerbaijani citizens.
It is impossible to obtain a license for broadcasting in Azerbaijan, despite the fact that there are a sufficient number of available frequencies. Censorship is applied to both radio and television broadcasts in Azerbaijan, and citizens are unable to access complete and balanced news and information.
The circulation levels of the four non-government-sponsored newspapers that seek to provide political pluralism are low, and they reach less than 3 percent of the population. The state economy has been monopolized by a small number of oligarchs, which limits the advertising market, and constitutes another obstacle in the development of the media in Azerbaijan. Even medium-sized entrepreneurs refuse to advertise in the independent and opposition media for fear of angering the authorities.
The Internet, now the only hope for Azerbaijani media, is slowly developing. But even so, social media activists face pressure from the authorities. This pressure has increased and intensified following the Arab Spring, and two social media activists are currently in behind bars for the information they disseminated via the Internet (Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and Taleh Xasmemmedov).
There is an urgent need in Azerbaijan for the reform and liberalization of state legislation on media, especially on the matters of broadcasting licensing and defamation. Defamation is still a crime in Azerbaijan that can result in imprisonment.
Secretary Clinton, we are asking you to raise these matters with President Ilham Aliyev and other state officials during your meetings, and to call upon the Azerbaijani government to fulfill its obligations regarding freedom of expression.