“The official justification for this unfortunate decision is that a 2002 Azerbaijani law restricts such frequencies to local broadcasters. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, sent a letter on November 24, co-signed by Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin Cardin and Ranking Minority Member Christopher Smith, to President Ilham Aliev in which we urged him to reconsider. We pointed out that keeping Congressionally-funded RFE/RL and VOA off the FM airwaves was an unwise and unfriendly move and that ending these programs was a poor way to start a relationship with incoming President Barack Obama. But Baku did not budge. Nor, might I add, have we even received the courtesy of a reply since November.
“In fact, there are grounds for even graver concerns. Baku had pledged that only FM broadcasts would be ended. On January 6, however, Azerbaijani authorities tried to close down RFE/RL’s Internet operation – which they had said would not be touched.
“It is difficult to see these actions in any light other than a desire to restrict information available to the public. As the State Department said on December 30, “These media organizations play a crucial role in supporting democratic debate and the free exchange of ideas and information. This decision, if carried out, will represent a serious setback to freedom of speech, and retard democratic reform in Azerbaijan.”
“I concur completely. Azerbaijan’s record on media freedom was poor before this, with heavy state influence on the airwaves, three journalists in jail and frequent criticism by the OSCE, Council of Europe and freedom of speech advocates. Now, Azerbaijanis without access to cable or the Internet – which means most of the listening audience – are cut off from objective, impartial sources of information.
“Azerbaijani relations with the United States will surely be negatively affected by this decision. I regret that when President Ilham Aliev eventually meets President Barack Obama, they will have to spend time discussing why Baku has shut down U.S.-funded radio stations, instead of exploring ways to deepen the relationship between our countries.
“The Helsinki Commission intends to examine U.S. international broadcasting in a future hearing and discuss ways of ensuring the continuance of this vital service. Meanwhile, it is my hope that President Aliev will find a way to keep RFE/RL and VOA on the air.”
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is a U.S. Government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Commission consists of nine members from the United States Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.