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Today is UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, and Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirkadirov is in his cell in the custody of the Ministry of National Security, facing what rights group say are fantastic, trumped-up espionage charges.
May 3, 2014, Baku – On the International Press Freedom Day,a tribute to silenced writers and publications, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) calls on Azerbaijani government to immediately stop its unprecedented crackdown on independent media, and to foster an environment that respects the rights of all citizens to freedom of expression.
The call comes as one of Azerbaijan’s prominent journalists, Rauf Mirkadirov, a political commentator with the independent daily Ayna/ Zerkalo, has been arrested on fantastic charges of foreign espionage after his forced deportation from Turkey. It was right after Mirkadirov’s arrest when a squad of plainclothes police officers arrived at the office of the Ayna/ Zerkalo newspaper. They conducted a search, set upon the computers before taking them away. Taken were files that chronicled newspaper’s work for at least 15-16 years.
Press freedom in Azerbaijan is alarming, with repressive legislation and increased hostility towards critical press from the government. The country holds the regional record for locking up journalists, leaving Belarus, Russia and Uzbekistan scrabbling in the dust, with ten reporters and seven free speech activists behind bars.
Azadliq newspaper has shown the courage to report on issues which push the executive to account, despite the repercussions that they know this entails. Azadliq has undergone many attacks and their journalists have faced continuous threats. The recent refusal by the State Mass Media Support Fund to continue funding Azadliq’s project and April 30 decision of Azerbaijan Press Council on issuance of a warning to the newspaper for alleged breach of ethical rules are continuation of the government intention to render the newspaper dysfunctional. Despite this, Azadliq continues to report on government corruption and cronyism.
Human rights defenders who have sought to speak out about the crackdown on the international stage have been especially targeted. One of Azerbaijan’s most prominent human rights defenders, Leyla Yunus was detained on April 28 at Baku airport and brought to General Prosecutor office for interrogation. She was questioned by prosecutors and released after nine hours, while her husband was hospitalized in a pre-stroke condition.Her home and office were searched.
The authorities seem increasingly reluctant to improve its international rating in terms of the level of freedom the press enjoys. Ranking still very poor (156th out of 179) in the Press Freedom Index, yearly compiled by the international organization Reporters Without Borders, Azerbaijan has a notoriety as the ‘choker’ of the free press, despite of local survey results crowning the president as a friend of the press, which might be motivated by gift apartments distributed to media workers last year.
On this World Press Freedom Day, IRFS calls upon the government of Azerbaijan to recognize the vital role of a free press and take the necessary steps to create environment in which independent journalists can operate freely and without fear.IRFS calls on Azerbaijani authorities to repeal all laws and policies which criminalize and restrict the invaluable work of journalists, bloggers and free speech activists. Media have the right to, and Azerbaijan has the obligation to provide, a safe and enabling environment for their work.