© Official Website of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

© Official Website of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

This week, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev gifted some 250 free apartments to the country’s journalists. In return, the Press Council, a local media organization, awarded him the title of a “friend of journalists,” his third since 2013. Although at the ceremony Aliyev touted that “all freedoms, including freedom of speech are ensured in Azerbaijan,” in practice nothing could be further from the truth.

Azerbaijan has a long record of state antagonism toward independent and opposition media. In the last three years, the authorities have undertaken a vicious crackdown on the media, imprisoning independent and opposition journalists in retaliation for critical reporting. At least eight journalists and bloggers are currently in prison on politically motivated charges. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 among 180 countries for press freedom.

Ironically, the day before the award ceremony, a district prosecutor requested four-and-a-half years imprisonment for Faig Amirli, financial director of the already closed pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, on dubious tax-related charges. And in March, a Baku court sentenced one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, Mehman Huseynov, to two years in prison for allegedly defaming police, in response to his brave public denouncement of the police abuses he suffered earlier. In May, authorities arrested two more journalists, Aziz Orujov and Nijat Amiraslanov, on spurious administrative and criminal charges ranging from resisting police to illegal entrepreneurship. Also in May, Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist living in exile in Georgia, vanished from the center of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, and in less than 24 hours resurfaced in Azerbaijani border police custody, facing fabricated charges of illegal border crossing, smuggling, and violently resisting authorities.

Besides jailing critical journalists, Azerbaijani authorities permanently block websites of some major media outlets critical of the government, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Azadlig newspaper, and Meydan TV, and have proposed new legislative changes to tighten control over online media.

In Azerbaijan, Aliyev can get any local award he wants. But, he has to do much more than give free apartments to prove he is a true friend to journalists. Releasing those who are in prison on spurious criminal charges would be a good start.