We are writing to express our deep concern about the rapidly deteriorating environment for independent media in Azerbaijan. We urge you to take steps to end impunity for violence against journalists and ensure that Azerbaijan complies with its international commitments to freedom of expression and the press.
Vibrant public discourse based on freedom of expression and a diversity of views, provided through diverse sources of information, is a cornerstone of any democracy. It is hard to underestimate the role of independent media in ensuring a free and fair vote. We are deeply concerned that current restrictions on freedom of the press and of expression, if allowed to continue, will prevent free and fair elections in 2008.
We are particularly alarmed by violent attacks against members of the opposition press, which are often perpetrated in public and in broad daylight, but which rarely result in thorough investigations or perpetrators being held accountable. Other matters of concern include a dramatic increase in criminal defamation charges being brought against journalists by public officials, impediments to ANS TV’s license renewal, resulting in a brief suspension of its broadcasting, as well as the eviction of opposition Azadlig paper from its office premises, and the temporary closure of Realni Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan, two of Azerbajan’s most read publications.
Violent Attacks and Threats against Journalists
Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of threats and violent attacks by anonymous assailants against Azeri journalists. Many journalists interviewed by Human Rights Watch believe that they were attacked or threatened because of articles they had written that were critical of government officials. In most cases, journalists report that their assailants made reference to their reporting during the attack.
Nijat Huseinov, an opposition journalist for the Azadlig newspaper, was attacked by four unknown assailants on December 25, 2006. Huseinov had received numerous threatening phone calls at the end of November, during which an anonymous caller made reference to his articles exposing corruption among high-ranking government officials. The attack took place in broad daylight—around 11:30 a.m.—while Huseinov was on his way to the office. He told Human Rights Watch:
I had to go down the stairs before reaching the bus stop, when I saw two young, sporty men standing there. One of them approached me from the right and another from the left side. The one on the left side hit me with some kind of a black round object on my head and for several seconds I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. When I came back to my senses, I saw that there were four of them beating me, mostly hitting me on my head and stomach... One of them tried to pick me up and in the process cut me on my right side. Fortunately I wore a thick coat and the knife only cut the skin on my stomach, but did not go in deeper. A passer-by saw the fight and shouted, which alerted the assailants and they ran to a yellow cab waiting for them nearby.
The passer-by assisted Huseinov to walk home and called an ambulance. Huseinov was hospitalized for over three weeks with a stab wound and a serious concussion. He was released on January 18. Police took an initial statement from Huseinov during his first day in the hospital. At that time, Huseinov reportedly told the police about the attck, as well as the threatening phone calls that had preceded it, and gave the police information regarding the identity of the caller. After approximately two weeks, Huseinov became disappointed with the lack of police action and decided to write an open letter to the minister of interior requesting that he personally supervise the investigation. Huseinov believes that as a result of his letter he was questioned again on January 15 in the Baku city police station and assisted in making a sketch of the two assailants. However, as of this writing, the assailants remained at large.
A day earlier, on December 24, Ali Orujev, press secretary of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (ANIP), was attacked by assailants who explicitly referred to his journalistic work. Orujev told Human Rights Watch that the incident happened around 5 p.m., when an unidentified car blocked him in the street as he was heading home from work. The driver got out of the car and started shouting at him and said that he “should not be writing critical articles against the authorities.” Orujev explained:
Then [the driver] called somebody on his cell phone and several minutes later four more young men came. They surrounded me but since it was my neighborhood and people started assembling when they heard the noise, they could not beat me there. I just left and walked home, as it was very close. When I entered the yard of my place, the assailants came after me and started mercilessly beating me. On hearing the noise, my neighbors shouted and came to help. The assailants ran.
Orujev reported the incident to the Binagadi Police Station No. 7, and went to the hospital for an examination, which documented a minor head injury and numerous bruises to his body. Orujev told Human Rights Watch that he later found out the identity of one of the assailants and notified the police. To date, no one has been arrested in the case. Orujev withdrew his complaint from the police on December 31 for reasons that are unclear.
Fikret Huseinly, a journalist for Azadlig, was attacked on March 5, 2006, after he had written several articles accusing senior government officials of taking bribes. Prior to the attack, Huseinly had received numerous threatening phone calls to his office and cell phones, during which the caller demanded that he stop writing articles that are critical of the government. Huseinly told Human Rights Watch:
It was around 10 p.m., when somebody approached me from behind and hit me on the head. I lost consciousness... When I came to my senses I was on the ground, tied, and somebody was holding a knife against my throat. When [one of the] assailants saw me regaining the consciousness, he stabbed me under the chin. When they saw me choking in my blood, one of them said that I was dying and they should leave. When they started running, I saw that there were three of them leaving in a Zhiguli car.
Huseinly was assisted by passers-by, who put him in a cab and took him to the Musa Nagiyev Hospital. In addition to the knife wound for which he received stitches, Huseinly also reported that he had three broken fingers and lost 11 teeth as a result of the attack. Doctors also told him that he had been injected with something in his right arm, apparently while he was unconscious.
Huseinly told Human Rights Watch that Baku’s Sabailsky Rayon police investigators have interrogated him twice regarding the attack, but to his knowledge, no suspects have been apprehended.
In addition to these troubling examples of violent attacks against journalists, Human Rights Watch is also concerned that opposition and/or independent journalists often receive threatening phone calls or other threats after publishing critical articles about the government. In most of the cases described above, journalists reported receiving threatening phone calls prior to the attack demanding that they stop their critical journalistic activities. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned at what appears to be widespread impunity for such threats, even when there is evidence pointing to the identity of the caller.
Journalists in Azerbaijan have also been kidnapped or threatened with kidnapping apparently as a result of their critical reporting.
On May 19, 2006, Bahaddin Haziyev, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Bizim Yol, was kidnapped by several unidentified men while driving home from his office. He was seriously injured during the attack. Haziyev told Human Rights Watch:
These men stuffed me into their car, handcuffed me, put a sack on my head and drove for about 15-20 minutes. All the time they were insulting me, beating me, and demanding that I stop writing articles that are critical of the authorities... They dragged me out of the car and continued to assault me for about another 30 minutes... then we drove again. One of them called on the phone and reported that all was done as planned... they dropped me off in the suburbs of Baku, near the lake, still tied up and with my head covered; they took my cell phone. Blindfolded I tried to walk to the road to stop the car, but in vain. All of a sudden I heard dogs barking and I was attacked by them. I remembered that if seated the dogs might not bite, so I sat down and froze. It was only after 20-30 minutes that the dogs left me... I felt a car was driving my direction and I tried to stand up to stop it, but I could not and the car just ran over my legs. Then it stopped, and I could hear the same voice that previously reported on the phone.
Haziyev was not found until the next morning when passers-by saw him and alerted the police. He was hospitalized with numerous bodily injures, including seven fractures to his left leg. When Human Rights Watch visited him in December 2006, Haziyev could still not walk. He told Human Rights Watch that the police questioned him about the attack shortly after he entered the hospital, but he has not heard from them since. To date, Haziyev’s assailants have not been identified.
Eynulla Fatullayev, editor-in-chief of Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan, was forced to suspend publication of both papers on October 1, 2006, after his father was kidnapped. The kidnappers threatened to kill Fatullayev, as well as his father, if Fatullayev continued to publish the papers. The kidnapping had been preceded by numerous phone threats against Fatullayev and his family. He told Human Rights Watch:
Starting on September 27 , I personally, my family, and the paper’s commercial director got frequent phone calls warning us to stop writing critical articles against the Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, or they were going to kill me like Elmar Husseinov [investigative journalist, murdered on March 2, 2005]... They called my mother and threatened to murder the entire family if I did not stop writing.... On September 31, several unidentified, armed people kidnapped my father, blindfolded him, and took him to some kind of a country house. I received a phone call demanding that I stop publication of my newspapers or I would loose my father... The next morning I announced the closure of the papers. Only then my father was released.
According to Fatullayev, he had reported the threatening phone calls to law enforcement agencies and even provided the numbers from which he had been receiving the calls, but no one was arrested in the case. Over two months later, in December 2006, Fatullayev decided to renew publication of the two newspapers, but acknowledged that he did so at his own peril since the kidnappers had not been identified or punished.
There has been a dramatic increase in defamation charges being brought against journalists by state officials. Ganimed Zahidov, the editor-in-chief of Azadlig, told Human Rights Watch that over a dozen lawsuits were filed against his newspaper in 2006 alone. The paper was repeatedly charged with libel and/or insulting the personal honor and dignity of government officials, and was fined over $300,000. A number of journalists, including Shahin Agabayli, the editor-in-chief of Milli Yol, and Fikret Faramazoglu, editor-in-chief of 24 Saat, have received harsh sentences, including imprisonment, for libel convictions. Agabayli was pardoned after serving 7 months of his 12-month prison sentence. Others, including Eynulla Fatullayev, editor-in-chief of Realny Azerbaijan, and Zardusht Alizade, Baku-based political analyst, have received high fines. As this letter was finalized, Human Rights Watch learned that Faramaz Novruzoglu and Serdar Alibeyli, both journalists with Nota Bene newspaper, were sentenced on January 30, 2007 to two years of imprisonment and a year and a half of labor work respectively. The libel charges against them were brought by the minister of Interior and the head of the State Committee on Diaspora Work.
Criminal penalties for libel are a disproportionate government response, particularly to speech about issues of public interest or public figures. Additionally, in these cases, the law appears to be applied in a discriminatory manner against independent or opposition journalists. Such a drastic increase of criminal and civil defamation charges have a chilling effect on the independence of the media. While independent, opposition, and pro-government media alike in Azerbaijan have been known to publish personal insults, the vast majority of defamation charges are brought by government officials against opposition media.
Mirza Sakit Zahidov, an Azadlig reporter and prominent satirist, was detained by officials on June 23, 2006, on what appear to be politically motivated and wholly spurious charges of drug possession. Azerbaijan’s Court for Grave Crimes sentenced Zahidov to three years of imprisonment on October 4, and the Appeals Court upheld the decision on December 15, 2006. Local and international observers believed that Zahidov was convicted in an attempt to silence him for newspaper columns and poems he wrote criticizing government officials.
Threats of Closure
Human Rights Watch is also concerned that the opposition media in Azerbaijan has been threatened with closure and/or eviction from their offices.
On November 24, 2006, Azerbaijan’s most popular and longest-running independent television channel, ANS, was unexpectedly closed down after the National Television and Radio Broadcast Council (NTRBC) decided not to extend the channel’s broadcast license. ANS leadership told Human Rights Watch that for several years they had repeatedly applied for a renewal of their broadcast license, but all of their applications had been denied.
On November 24, shortly after the NTRBC issued its decision, officials from the Ministry of Communication together with police entered the company’s headquarters and turned off and sealed all of its broadcasting equipments. ANS equipment was confiscated, and the accreditation for all of ANS’s journalists was annulled. As one ANS representative reported:
At 11 a.m. on November 24, the National Television and Radio Broadcast Council notified us about the decision not to extend our license and already at 3 p.m. police came, took away the transmitters, opened police points here and guarded the broadcasting room round the clock so that we would not air.
The closure of ANS came after the station had been subjected to a year-round tax inspection and had been fined $500,000 allegedly for tax evasion. According to a senior manager of ANS, “we see this fine as pressure upon us, as there were no legal grounds for such penalties.”
NTRBC allowed ANS to renew its broadcast on December 12, on the condition that the station participates in a tender on its own frequencies. ANS Vice-President Seyfulla Mustafayev told Human Rights Watch that this will be the first ever tender of a broadcast frequency in Azerbaijan’s history and expressed concern that the outcome is highly uncertain. Human Rights Watch also learned that ANS has been unsuccessfully applying for renewal of its rental contract with the State Institute of Zoology, where its headquarters are located, for the past 6 months, making it also vulnerable to eviction.
The same day that ANS was closed down, police evicted Azadlig, an opposition paper, together with the newspaper Bizim Yol and Turan News Agency, from the state-owned building where they had their offices in the center of Baku. Azadlig’s eviction was ordered by Azerbaijan’s No. 1 Economic Court on the request of the State Property Agency. The official reason was because of a rent dispute. The eviction order was executed immediately after the verdict, and the tenants were forced to move to new premises assigned to them by the government. Azadlig editor-in-chief, Ganimat Zahidov, told Human Rights Watch that the eviction was politically motivated because of the nature of the paper’s political reporting.
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As the above cases indicate, there is a growing environment of state hostility toward independent and opposition media and that raises serious concern about the security of independent journalists in Azerbaijan. What is more, there is widespread impunity for such attacks. We urge you to ensure that there is no government pressure on Azerbaijan’s independent media outlets and that journalists can work in safety, and to task the appropriate government ministries to take the necessary steps to promptly investigate all reports of violence or threats against journalists and hold all perpetrators accountable. We would welcome information on the steps you take to send a clear signal to all government institutions that you will not tolerate impunity for such attacks. We would also be interested in receiving information about the extent to which the perpetrators have been identified, charged, and convicted in any of the cases documented in this letter, as well as details about the sentences given.
As described above, government officials have also made use of criminal libel laws and other politically motivated criminal charges to punish journalists for criticism of government policies or officials, and in such cases journalists rarely obtain a fair hearing before an impartial tribunal. In several cases the charges have resulted in the permanent closure of independent media outlets. We urge you to announce a legal moratorium on criminal lawsuits against journalists and meanwhile initiate legislative amendments transferring the libel, defamation, and verbal insult provisions from the Criminal Code to the Civil Law domain. The Civil Code should also be amended to establish a reasonable monetary cap on damages in civil defamation suits.
We also call on you to ensure that no additional administrative obstacles are created for ANS or other such broadcasters in their quest for a broadcast license and that all regulations related to broadcast licensing are applied in a manner that ensures media diversity in Azerbaijan.
If government hostility toward independent and opposition media is allowed to continue, the 2008 elections are likely to be hampered by the same serious flaws that have been the hallmark of most recent elections in Azerbaijan.
Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.
Europe and Central Asia division
Human Rights Watch