Dear President Aliev,
I am writing to express profound concern about the government’s effective closure of Realni Azerbaijan and Gundalik Azerbaijan, the two largest-circulation newspapers in Azerbaijan. Their closure represents a significant blow against independent and opposition media that reflects the growing government hostility toward freedom of expression and the press.
On May 22, 2007, Realni Azerbaijan and Gundalik Azerbaijan had to stop publishing after Emergency Ministry and Security Ministry personnel evicted the papers’ staff from their premises, confiscated their computer hard drives, and sealed the office shut. This was the latest in a series of attempts to pressure Eynulla Fatullayev, the founder of both papers and outspoken editor-in-chief of the Realni Azerbaijan, into closing them. Fatullayev was forced to suspend publication of his papers on October 1, 2006 for two months, after his father was kidnapped by unknown persons who demanded that he cease publishing. Six months later Fatullayev was prosecuted on politically motivated charges of “criminal libel” and “insult” sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Fatullayev’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that May 22, 2007, the Sabailsky District Court issued a search warrant for the papers’ office and Fatullayev’s apartment on the grounds that there was a possible threat of a terrorist act. The same day a National Security Ministry spokesperson stated that Fatullayev faced a new charge of making a terrorist threat. While the substance of terrorism charge is unclear, the circumstances surrounding the prosecution of Fatullayev and the closure of Realni Azerbaijan and Gundalik Azerbaijan indicate that these charges are being pursued to further intimidate the independent and opposition media in Azerbaijan.
The closure of Realni Azerbaijan and Gundalik Azerbaijan comes amid the growing government hostility toward independent and opposition media in the country. The authorities have prosecuted and imprisoned seven journalists in Azerbaijan in less than a year’s time, mostly for criminal libel and “insult” charges. In addition, there are numerous cases of violence and threat of violence against journalists, often committed with impunity. Human Rights Watch brought these cases to your attention in a February 9, 2007 letter.
Vibrant public discourse, based on freedom of expression and provided through diverse sources of information, is a cornerstone of any democracy. The current crackdown on independent and opposition media violates Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression and jeopardizes its democratic development. I urge you to take urgent steps to allow the resumption of the papers’ operation and ensure that Azerbaijan fulfills its international commitments to freedom of expression and the press.
Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.
Europe and Central Asia division