Media regulator must level the playing field

April 11th, 2013

Statement

The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) condemns the recent decision of the National Television and Radio Council (NTRC) to grant, on a non-competitive basis, a 6-year broadcasting license to the Intelligent Transport Management Center of the Transport Ministry.

The lack of transparency in distribution of broadcasting licenses a significant blow to the media pluralism in the country. IRFS therefore calls upon the NTRC to immediately revoke its decision and ensure fair and transparency distribution of broadcasting licenses.

“The NTRC’s decision on 107.7 MHz frequency band – which appears politically motivated – is another indication of the deterioration of media freedom and pluralism in Azerbaijan since its accession to the Council of Europe” said Emin Huseynov, IRFS Chairman and CEO.  He went on: “It shows the expansive licensing power of the NTRC in practice and how the government is not willing to fulfill its obligations before the Council of Europe”

The decision to grant a six year special permit (license) to the Intelligent Transport Management Center on a non-competitive basis for broadcasting radio on 107.7 MHz frequency band is in direct contradiction to the PACE Resolution 1456 (2005) that urges Azerbaijan to “speed up the privatisation of AzTV1 and ensure a transparent and fair procedure, make provisions for eventual full privatisation and, in the meantime, give it a public service remit ensuring balanced, unbiased news coverage and guaranteeing the opposition’s right to media access”.

Instead, since accession to the Council of Europe, Azerbaijani set up two more state broadcasters, Idman (Sports) TV and Medeniyyet (Culture) TV, in blatant violation of the national law on TV and Radio Broadcasting and international legal framework.

Furthermore, IRFS is dismayed that ownership transparency has been a neglected issue amid the frequent and intense debates on the challenges for media freedom.

The State Oil Company of AzerbaijanRepublic has in fact bought the ATV International channel from private broadcaster ATV, and rebranded it as Caspian International Broadcasting Company, which under its new name got a 6-year satellite TV license from the NTRC. SOCAR gave the right to administer the new channel to the SOCAR Media Public Union. This is a proof that the funding for broadcast of the new channel will be guaranteed by the state.

Because the government exercises full control over the broadcast licenses via the NTRC, the licensing of broadcast media outlets remains highly political, biased, and non-transparent. The NTRC consists of seven acting members appointed directly by the president and is fully funded from the state budget.

The nine national channels work in a top-down manner, with one-way communication between the state and citizens. News coverage on these channels is closely coordinated with the president’s office, so that coverage is similar from one channel to the next. This form of control is by no means coercive, as the top television managers are among the country’s political elite and are the willing partners of the ruling regime.

IRFS calls on the government to respect its obligations before the international organizations and most importantly, the people of Azerbaijan, and take the following immediate steps to address deteriorating situation in the broadcast media sector:

  • 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 transparency in media-ownership structures by developing legal and regulatory safeguards against excessive concentration of ownership. Both media regulators and ordinary citizens must have access to information about who owns – and influences – what.
  • Reverse the ban prohibiting foreign entities from broadcasting on national frequencies, including the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
  • Promote the development of public service broadcasting that is in the interest of the public and is independent of government interests.