Different forms of media regulation—which one suits Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan’s media community vigorously debated journalist’s ethics and what can and cannot be reported at the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety-organized Media Freedom and Accountability conference held on October 24 at Hyatt Hotel in Baku.Idrak Abbasov, IRFS staffer and Ayna/Zerkalo journalist reports from Baku.

Easier said than done

IRFS chair Emin Huseynov who opened the conference said the purpose is to find a way to align local practices of media self-regulation with international best practices. Easy to say, hard to do as many of the conference participants were skeptical about feasibility of self-regulation given the harsh economical and political realities Azerbaijan’s media is experiencing today.
It goes without saying that freedom and accountability must go hand in hand. The conference moderator, Program Manager for a Copenhagen-based International Media Support Gulnara Akhundova, highlighted the specificity of the situation in Azerbaijan, where self-regulation of the non-free media is going to be a great challenge.


The Council of Europe role


According Lejla Dervisagic, Program Adviser at the Media Section, Human Rights and Rule of Law within Council of Europe, the media self-regulation plays an important role in protecting the freedom of expression. A part of the Council of Europe and EU supported “Promoting freedom, professionalism and pluralism of the media in the South Caucasus and Moldova” joint program, the conference sought to raise awareness on media self-regulation amongst key media outlets on the role of journalism in shaping the norms and values of ethical society.
The Council of Europe has, for many years, promoted the idea of self-regulation of the media.  Over the years, the virtues of media self-regulation, and the vices of regulation by the State, have been discussed in many seminars and recommendations. In Azerbaijan, Council of Europe has been a pioneer in promotion of media self-regulation via roundtables, trainings and other awareness raising events.


The Azerbaijan Press Council


Unlike his colleagues, Mushfig Alasgarli, Vice Chairman of the National Press Council, a self-regulation is possible and even in place in Azerbaijan.
The self-regulation mechanism of the press in Azerbaijan has been established, and society trusts it, believes Alasgarli. The National Press Council is a successful model of media self-regulation, he said. According to Alasgarli, 499 citizens complaints sent to the Press Council within last year is a clear indicator of public trust in the Press Council’s work. In the capacity of a media-self regulation organ, the Press Council helped to avoid tens of defamation lawsuits, Alasgarli noted.
The chairmen of two major journalists unions both think quite the opposite. The Azerbaijan Journalists’ Union chair and chief editor of an independent Ayna-Zerkalo (Mirror) newspaper, Elchin Shikhli thinks quite the opposite. According to Shikhli,since the establishment of the Press Council, the situation with the media in the country has dramatically deteriorated. Shikhli does not believe it is the time to discuss media self-regulation, when media is trying to survive in the atmosphere of repression and economical restrains.
So, now the question is not about the self-regulation of the press, and self-preservation and self-defense, both from economic and political points of view. His colleague, chairman of Yeni Nesil (New Generation) Journalists Union Arif Aliyev believes the self-regulation of the press is only possible in the spirit of liberalism and minimal government regulation of the press. Aliyev reminded that advertising market of Azerbaijani print media does not exceed 2 million EUR. During the past 12 years, advertising revenue got reduced by 9 times, so did the sale of newspapers, by 45%.


Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan: everyone is free to please the government


The official government rhetoric suggests that Azerbaijani media is not ready for working in the environment when defamation is decriminalized. Director of the Turan News Agency, Mehman Aliyevdoes not believe that government has a real intention to decriminalize defamation. The government wants to exercise full control over the media, and the law is not in their interest, he said.
The conference sparked attention of the lawmakers—two of the members of Azerbaijani Parliament attended the conference.
According to Motherland Party chair MP Fazail Agamali, the media is free in Azerbaijan and the fact that the conference and open debate were taking place in the best indicator of that freedom.
There is freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, and situation is getting better and better, said Head of the Central Asian and Southern Caucasian Freedom of Expression Network Azer Hesret. Award winning journalist, Idrak Abbasov talked about ever increased pressure on the media. “There is only one freedom that exists—freedom to praise an authorities”, said Abbasov.
The representative of the Media Rights Institute, Khalid Agaliyev, agreed with Abbasov and said the government should ensure the access to information and journalists’ safety first in order to make media self-regulation work. 

As defamation is punishable by the Criminal Code, journalists are engaged in self-censorship.
Aidan White, who has been a member of the Press Council of Britain for 25 years, said that one of the conditions of media self-regulation is the transparency of media ownership and voluntary commitments to follow professional ethics.
Public Television representative Tahir Mammadov believes that the only way to move forward is to increase media professionalism.
Media self-regulation in the digital age: Freedom of expression is first
The spectrum of the debate around media self-regulation has shore up with the emergence of the digital media. Today, everyone with a modem is a potential reporter.
A central question is to what extent existing media ethics can apply to modern news media that is immediate, interactive and 24/7 –and most importantly, audience-engaging.
According to a blogger and social media expert Ali Novruzov, self-regulation might make sense for online media outlets, but cannot extend to all Internet users. He does not believe there is any need for regulation or self-regulation online
Novruzov seemed to be worried about government control over Internet. For instance, he drew the attention to the fact that the Azerbaijani government intends to purchase special software from the West for better online surveillance.
Expression Online Initiative member and IRFS Chair Emin Huseynov believes that efforts to preserve freedom of expression much more important than filtering offensive comments online.
The conference ended with a lively exchange of views among participants.

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