Azerbaijan’s government should act now to stop the deterioration of press freedom underway since the October presidential elections, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. The Azerbaijani authorities have failed to prosecute police responsible for attacks on journalists, imposed crippling damages in civil defamation suits, and manipulated resources to pressure independent or opposition media outlets.

“The political crackdown that followed last year’s election has had a lasting, harmful effect on press freedom in Azerbaijan, said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “The government can reverse this by finally acknowledging that police have used excessive force against journalists covering demonstrations, and also by capping the crippling damages often levied in defamation suits.”

Azerbaijan’s October presidential election, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called “fraudulent,” led to massive street demonstrations and excessive police violence to quell them. In the aftermath of the violence, the government then unleashed a crackdown against the political opposition and the independent and opposition media.

Rapporteurs from the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly are scheduled to arrive in Azerbaijan today to examine Azerbaijan’s compliance with its commitments and obligations to the Council of Europe.

The 18-page briefing paper, based on interviews in Azerbaijan with journalists, editors, government officials and media rights groups, details how the security forces attacked journalists during the demonstrations. While not a single security agent was held responsible, the authorities filed charges against an opposition activist who allegedly assaulted a pro-government reporter during a demonstration. A journalist for an independent wire service who was beaten by police at one of the demonstrations was subpoenaed to testify in court, but as a witness for the prosecution against opposition members accused of the post-election violence. His testimony about police severely beating him did not lead to any action against those responsible.

“Impunity for police violence against journalists gives police a green light to use violence again,” said Denber.

Among those currently on trial for organizing the street demonstrations is Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of a leading opposition newspaper, Yeni Musavat. Human Rights Watch is calling for his immediate release pending the outcome of his trial.

The Azerbaijani government abolished pre-publication censorship in 1998, but has since then imposed considerable informal restrictions on the media, which have sharpened since last year’s election. Government officials or those closely connected to the government are invariably the plaintiffs in civil defamation suits against independent or opposition media. Prohibitive fines imposed on these outlets have forced them to suspend publication, suggesting that the courts aimed primarily to cripple or close them.

Television media is overwhelmingly pro-government. The Human Rights Watch briefing paper describes how the government informally manipulates private broadcast media, newspaper-distribution networks and printing presses, and blocks access to information for journalists working for the independent press.

“Taken together, these are methods of control and intimidation, aimed at setting unreasonable restrictions on media content without resorting to formal censorship,” said Denber.

Since the election, the Azerbaijani government has taken some measures to rectify abuses against journalists. On a joint initiative with the Press Council, a nongovernmental umbrella group, it established a permanent commission to prevent and resolve conflict between media representatives and the authorities.

“The establishment of the permanent council is a welcome step, but it falls far short of what’s needed to promote a free and independent media in Azerbaijan,” said Denber.

Human Rights Watch called on the Azerbaijani government to ensure the founding of a genuinely independent public television station, abolish criminal libel, introduce caps on civil libel suits and prosecute those responsible for attacks on journalists.