Background Briefing

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Azerbaijan’s October 2003 presidential elections brought on a wave of repression that has had a lasting, negative impact on freedom of the media. Immediately following the elections, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called the elections results “falsified”1 and “fraudulent.”2  The elections were followed by arrests and dismissals of political opposition members throughout the country.3 From the beginning of the election campaign, the government increased pressure on independent and opposition media representatives attempting to cover election-related events. Journalists were harassed and beaten, and media outlets put under increasing financial and other pressures. No police or security agents have been held responsible for these abuses. Moreover, since the elections, some print media have been forced to suspend publications, while others have had drops in circulations due to financial pressures and government-imposed restrictions. During the election and its aftermath, nominally independent television showed an overwhelming pro-government bias, and the future of an independent public television station remains uncertain.

This briefing paper describes government-imposed restrictions on freedom of the media in Azerbaijan following a general deterioration in the human rights situation since the 2003 presidential election. These include continuing impunity for police violence against journalists, crippling fines in civil defamation suits, and the government’s ability to manipulate resources to pressure media outlets. It places the current problems with freedom of media in the context of a continuously difficult media environment for independent and opposition affiliated media since the government lifted censorship six years ago. It is based on interviews with journalists, editors, and government officials in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, during a February-March 2004 field mission. Human Rights Watch urges the Azerbaijani government to hold accountable those law enforcement agents responsible for the beating of journalists, to repeal criminal libel laws, and to establish a monetary cap on damages in civil defamation suits. Human Rights Watch urges the international community to work with the government of Azerbaijan to bring about these changes.

[1] “Functioning of Democratic Institutions in Azerbaijan,” Report of the Committee on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe, paragraph 32, Document 10030, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, January 12, 2004.

[2] “Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Election 15 October 2003 OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Report,” p.2, OSCE, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Warsaw, November 12, 2003.

[3] For a full description of these events, see Human Rights Watch “Crushing Dissent: Repression, Violence and Azerbaijan’s Elections,” Human Rights Watch Report, January 2004, Volume 16, No. 1(D), [online] (retrieved August 2, 2004).

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