As All Eyes on Turkey, Azerbaijan Tightens the Screws

July 20th, 2016

Statement

IRFS condemns the suspension of the broadcast of ANS TV by the Azerbaijani authorities on the basis of an interview with Turkish public figure Fetullah Gulen. IRFS regards this action as an illegitimate restriction on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.

Yesterday, the National TV and Radio Council (NTRC) of Azerbaijan suspended the private television channel’s broadcasting license for a period of one month at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office. The NTRC decided that advance publicity of an interview with Fetullah Gulen constitutes “terrorist propaganda”. At the same time, law enforcement officers have blocked the entrance to the ANS office, preventing staff from accessing the building. ANS management has been summoned to the Prosecutor General’s Office for interrogation.

IRFS views it as something of a legal absurdity that the Azerbaijani NTRC is accusing a private TV channel of threatening Turkey’s stability by conducting and preparing to disseminate an interview with Fetullah Gulen in the United States, given that Turkey has no reciprocal measure towards Azerbaijan.

IRFS notes that the closure of ANS took place immediately after a phone conversation between Turkish President Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Notably, Erdogan himself has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with foreign media outlets that have interviewed Fetullah Gulen, urging them to not provide a platform for a person he believes is the mastermind behind the attempted military coup on 15 July. However, Erdogan noted that the majority of the mainstream media in Turkey have expressed solidarity and refused to enable Gulen and his supporters to express their opinions.

IRFS believes that a basic tenet of professional journalism is the provision of comprehensive coverage of important events; this means including the viewpoints of all parties – including those that are unwelcome to the authorities. Independent media outlets are not obliged to show solidarity with the government to the detriment of objective and professional coverage of events. IRFS considers the so-called “solidarity” with government interests as a clear symptom of self-censorship. IRFS is concerned that using this logic, the authorities could follow the example of Turkey and block YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other popular platforms in Azerbaijan.

IRFS is also concerned that the Azerbaijani government – which has gained international notoriety for its intolerance to dissent and lack of respect for fundamental human rights – will use the failed military coup in Turkey to justify further repression in Azerbaijan.

IRFS believes that the ruling elite of Azerbaijan will take advantage of the fact that the international community will be focused on the developments in Turkey and the large-scale repression likely to unfold there, and seize the opportunity to strengthen the already over-mighty presidency of Ilham Aliyev. The suspension of ANS TV is a harbinger of the repressions to come. Previously, the Azerbaijani authorities have taken advantage of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the civil war in Syria and the influx of migrants to Europe when Western countries were distracted. During these times of crisis, the state has arrested leading human rights defenders and journalists, completely paralyzing the work of civil society in a matter of months.

Another obvious warning of future restrictions on human rights and the basic principles of democracy is Ilham Aliyev’s new proposal to amend the Constitution in a move to make his personal power more absolute, and virtually eradicate public accountability of the presidency.

As IRFS has warned in recent weeks, the release of a group of prominent journalists and human rights defenders does not represent a significant or fundamental change in the government’s policy towards dissent and democracy. At the same time as releasing a group of political prisoners, the authorities jailed new critics: the revolving door principle. In cases where the authorities are unable to arrest their opponents, their relatives are targeted, as in the case of the recently convicted nephews of the Editor-in-Chief of the leading opposition newspaper Azadliq.

IRFS believes that the Government of Azerbaijan is grossly violating the Constitution of Azerbaijan and the European Convention on Human Rights.

IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately restore the broadcast of ANS TV channel, to release all their critics from prison, to put an end to pressure on independent media and alternative voices, and to ensure that independent institutions of civil society can function freely.

IRFS calls on the Committee of Ministers and the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe to assess the current critical situation and to take all possible disciplinary action in relation to the authorities of Azerbaijan. IRFS asks the international community to remain alert to gross human rights violations in Azerbaijan, actions which are in breach of Baku’s undertakings as part of the OSCE, the UN and the Council of Europe. The international community must exert the necessary pressure on the government in order to ensure that human rights are respected.

IRFS believes that Western countries should start to seriously consider potential sanctions, such as freezing illegally acquired assets and imposing restrictions on the free movement of members of the ruling elite. Abuse of power and self-enrichment among top officials are the main drivers of repression of the regime’s critics.