IRFS Chair addresses UN Member States at the UPR pre-session

March 27th, 2013

Transcript

Wednesday, March 27, 10.50- 11.00 GMT +1, Geneva

Hello everybody. My name is Emin Huseynov and I am a chairman of the Azerbaijani freedom of expression watchdog, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, or IRFS. It is an honor to be here at this event with a group of colleagues whose work I respect and admire.

I want to thank people at the UN for their long-lasting commitment to freedom of expression and human rights.

Today we have two options. One option is that – as happens with so many days and meetings – we can say important things about how human rights are important, about what needs to be done to promote and protect them.

We can go back to business as usual. Or, we can act.

It is great that the UN have acted – and we welcome the recent resolution on the human rights defenders. And now, with the upcoming UPR review, we can accelerate our action.

Today, we face enormous challenges as Azerbaijan’s freedom of expression record has deteriorated since the last UPR review. IRFS has contributed largely to the joint NGO submission to the UPR of Azerbaijan; and today my focus is the continued crackdown on  freedom of expression.

The government has failed to implement the number of recommendations it accepted during the first circle of UPR.  Of particular concern are:

  • Failure to protect the right to life of journalists
  • Impunity for violence against journalists
  • Violations of the right to private life
  • Politically motivated arrests and imprisonment
  • Legislative restrictions on freedom of expression
  • State control over the media

Put simply, instead of taking “effective measures to ensure the full realization of the right to freedom of expression” or “Putting in place further measures to ensure respect for freedom of expression and of the media” as suggested in accepted recommendation 15 made by Poland and Ireland respectively, the Azerbaijani government has exercised tight control over all forms of expression.

Since we are time-crunched I would limit my presentation to the top five burning issues.

Issue One: A crisis of impunity for violence against the journalists.

It is increasingly difficult, in fact nearly impossible, for journalists and media workers who have suffered serious violations of their human rights to receive justice and accountability.

With regards to recommendation 16 made by Norway, instead of “effectively investigating and prosecuting crimes and violations against journalists and human rights defenders” and punishing those responsible, the Azerbaijani government has instead fostered the development of a climate of fear for journalists and impunity for those who wish to silence critical voices.

Eight years on, the murder of outspoken journalist Elmar Huseynov goes unsolved.

Since Huseynov’s murder, there have been more than 200 attacks against journalists in Azerbaijan, including another murder–  in November 2011, prominent writer and journalist Rafig Tagi was attacked in the street near his home by an unknown assailant who stabbed him seven times. Following surgery, Tagi had appeared to be in recovery, but he then died four days after the attack under circumstances the local media community considered suspicious.

While those behind journalists brutal killing remain free all journalists are forced to work in the shadow of fear.

Issue Two: Violations of the right to private life of journalists

Another tactic is the use of photographs and films of a sexual nature in an attempt to silence critical voices. For instance, female investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was targeted when a sex video of her filmed by hidden camera was posted to the Internet. One year on, the Azerbaijani authorities have failed to seriously investigate the violations of privacy in Ismayilova case, and no one has been brought to justice.

Issue Three: Restriction on access to information

In 2005, Azerbaijan ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption[1], thereby undertaking the obligation to take measures to enhance transparency in its public administration.

Azerbaijan is the participating state in the Open Governance Partnership (OGP)[2]—in September 2012, the national action plan  on OGP was adopted.

Instead of toeing the line here, the government adopted a series of amendments to the Law on the Right to Obtain Information, the Law on the State Registration of Legal Entities, and the Law on Commercial Secrets.

The amendments permit commercial entities to keep their registration information secret, including information about their ownership and structure. These amendments contradict international standards for freedom of information and will make it more difficult for journalists to investigate and report on corruption.[3]

Issue Four: Defamation lawsuits

As for recommendation 14 made by Netherlands, Lithuania and Ireland  vis-à-vis criminal legislation on defamation, Defamation[4] and insult[5] are still considered specific crimes in the Criminal Code. Furthermore, humiliation of the honor and dignity of the Azerbaijani president is also criminalized, carrying a penalty of up to two years of imprisonment.[6]

Highly critical newspapers are the most frequent targets of defamation lawsuits, many of which are based on complaints filed by public officials.

Burning issue Five: Azerbaijani Media in a chokehold

The government has failed to expand “media freedoms, particularly access to broadcast media”, as per rejected recommendation 17 put forward by Canada and UK. The fact that government of Azerbaijan rejected this recommendation is telling example of the lack of political will to ensure freedom of the media.

The same goes for the recommendations to “Ensure that cases of alleged violence against, and wrongful imprisonment of members of the media are fully investigated” (made by Ireland);  and to “Bring rules on broadcasting in compliance with relevant provisions of ICCPR, releasing persons held in prisons for their political views and adopt safeguards against arbitrary or politically motivated detention and trials including through ensuring full independence and transparency of judiciary (made by Czech Republic). These recommendations have also been rejected by the government.

While there are several television stations with national coverage in Azerbaijan, citizens have very limited access to diverse political views in the broadcast media. The seven journalists are currently in detention or in prison on politically motivated charges in connection with freedom of expression.

In general, the media environment has deteriorated in the last few years, with detentions, defamation lawsuits and other forms of pressure on journalists constraining freedom of the media and creating an atmosphere that is not conducive to the freedom of ideas inherent in a democratic system.

Conclusion

The overall environment in which the Azerbaijani media currently operates prevents it from holding those in power to account, and from providing citizens with quality independent news reporting. When the media is unable to fulfill such intrinsic functions, society cannot properly voice its concerns or canalize its discontent through peaceful, institutionalized means. Until this fundamental right is guaranteed, a more democratic Azerbaijan remains a distant prospect.

There is only one way for us to go. It is to act, to unite our resources and efforts and take these to a new level. We call on the UN member states to put forward the following recommendations vis-à-vis freedom of expression and freedom of the media:

Put a stop to violence and other forms of pressure against journalists

  • End all forms of impunity for those who attack or kill journalists and ensure that all cases of violence against journalists are resolved and all guilty parties are punished in accordance with the law.

Cease the use of detention to silence critical voices:

  • Immediately release the currently detained and imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders and activists behind bars in connection with exercising their right to freedom of expression.
  • Drop the charges against journalists and activists who face jail time in connection with exercising their right to freedom of expression.

 Improve media legislation and policies

  • Remove defamation provisions from the Criminal Code.
  • Reverse the ban prohibiting foreign broadcasters from accessing national frequencies.
  • Withdraw the recent restrictive amendments to freedom of information legislation aimed at limiting the activities of journalists and media outlets.
  • Set up an independent broadcasting regulatory body to ensure the fair and transparent distribution of television and radio frequencies through a simplified licensing procedure.
  • Ensure that the public service broadcaster, Ictimai, complies with international standards for public service broadcasting and provides balanced and varied programming for all sectors of the population.

We are ready to bring our abilities, our hard work, and our experience to bear in partnership with the UN member states, to continue promoting freedom of expression and free media in Azerbaijan and throughout the region.

Thank you.


[1] UNCAC Signature and Ratification Status as of July 12, 2012.  http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/treaties/CAC/signatories.html

[2] Country Commitments: Azerbaijan. http://www.opengovpartnership.org/countries/azerbaijan

[4]Article 147.1 of the Criminal Code states: “Slander is distribution of obviously false information which discredits the honor and dignity of any person, or undermines his reputation publicly or through a mass media outlet, is punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to six months.” Article 147.2 of the Criminal Code follows: “Slander, which is connected with an accusation of committing a serious or especially serious crime, is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years.”

[5]Article 148 of the Criminal Code states: “Insult is deliberate humiliation of the honor and dignity of a person, expressed in indecent form in a public statement, publicly or a product shown in the mass media, is punishable by imprisonment for up to six months.”

[6]Article 323.1 of the Criminal Code, which is specific to humiliation of the honor and dignity of the President, states: “Humiliation of the honor and dignity of the President of the Azerbaijani Republic in a public statement, a publicly shown product, or in the mass media, is punishable by imprisonment for up to two years.” Article 323.2 follows: “The same acts connected to an accusation of committing a minor serious or very serious crime, are punishable by imprisonment for up to five years.”