On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) held a conference on the state of freedom of speech in Azerbaijan.

The discussion was attended by journalists, public figures, and media experts.

The speakers discussed the situation with freedom of speech and touched upon the issue of pressure on independent journalists, bloggers, and activists.

Among the speakers were Director of the Turan News Agency Mehman Aliyev, member of the National Council of Democratic Forces, publicist Tofig Yagublu, blogger Mehman Huseynov, political activist and writer Ilkin Rustmzadeh, Executive Director of the IRFS Emin Huseynov, journalist Chingiz Sultansoy, TV presenter Sevinj Osmangizi, economic expert Gubad Ibadoglu, human rights activist Avtandil Mammadov, and others.

“A society without a free press definitely cannot be free,” Tofig Yagublu, a publicist and former prisoner of conscience, said in his speech. “One can give the example of Russia. There is no freedom of speech in the country, and dictator Putin, taking advantage of this, dragged his people into the war and created serious problems for the whole world.”

Chingiz Sultansoy, a journalist living in exile abroad, noted that the main problem of the country was the low quality of education and the low activity of society. “The authorities, taking advantage of the passivity of the population, are increasing the pressure on the press and society. Journalists and activists in exile need to be more active. If Ukraine wins the war and Putin is forced to leave power, a wave of democratization will begin in the world that will vitally need more freedom of the press.”

Journalist Avtandil Mammadov touched upon the issue of pressure on journalists in exile. According to him, in recent years, pressure on journalists outside the country has increased, cases of attempts on the lives of exiled critics, as well as attempts to use structures such as Interpol to force the extradition of irreconcilable voices to Azerbaijan, have become more frequent.

Investigative journalist Mehman Huseynov also noted that the situation with freedom of speech in Azerbaijan had reached a critical state. “In recent months, there have been increasing threats against employees of the Sancaq anti-corruption investigative project. Our investigative journalists, including myself, are illegally required to stop anti-corruption investigations, especially after the start of the war in Ukraine.”

Writer Ilkin Rustamzadeh expressed his concern about low-quality propaganda on social networks, which seriously harmed the formation and development of critical thinking among the younger generation. “In this sense, TikTok creates a serious problem, where mostly low-quality, meaningless materials are posted. The Azerbaijani authorities are interested in the low level and lack of education of the population, especially the youth.”

Director of Turan Agency Mehman Aliyev: “The government, as in previous years, continues systematic activities to eradicate freedom of the press. In recent years, policy in this direction has yielded depressing results.” According to M. Aliyev, the new repressive media law adopted at the end of 2021 should be considered the most serious threat. “The authorities show that they are not interested in creating a normal atmosphere of cooperation with society. International organizations also avoid cooperation with independent media and journalistic organizations and in most cases are complicit in the imitation of the information society reform in Azerbaijan, which is carried out within the limited boundaries predetermined by the Azerbaijani government.”

Economist Gubad Ibadoglu emphasized that today the authorities in the country had an almost complete monopoly over information. “This has a negative effect on the free press and contributes to the corrupt arbitrariness of those in power. The lack of an independent judiciary also severely limits freedom of information and the press. The decrease in the number of free media and independent journalists from year to year leads to a flourishing development of corruption.” G. Ibadoglu is also surprised that some international organizations, instead of criticism, unreasonably and sometimes publicly point to positive developments in the fight against corruption, while in reality there is a complete regression and the situation is getting worse every day.

Journalist Sevinj Osmangizi: “The laws adopted in Russia on the prohibition of the use of certain expressions during hostilities are seriously discussed in the world. However, the Law on Media adopted in Azerbaijan can be considered a more serious step toward the suppression of media freedom. Despite this, the world community did not react properly. We’ll be able to see the full effect of this law already in the second half of this year. As never before, the independent media have a historical responsibility in preserving and developing the socio-political consciousness and critical thinking of the country’s population.”

Human rights activists and journalist Emin Huseynov added that at the root of the problem raised by the speakers was the lack of an effective state administration that had crushed the judiciary and legislative power. “Obviously, the main source of the country’s problems is corruption and kleptocrats in power, who, by destroying the free press, independent NGOs, and democratic institutions, are trying to hide their illegal enrichment. Continuing to remain in power for many years, government officials constantly remain unaccountable to the main and only source of power – the people of Azerbaijan. Independent media and investigative journalists exposing corruption will become the main target of the Azerbaijani authorities in the coming months and years. So, I propose to jointly hold the next public discussions on this important topic on July 22, 2022, the National Press Day of Azerbaijan,” E. Huseynov summarized.

The discussions were broadcast live and are available for detailed information.

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