Reporters Without Borders (RSF) again calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to stop curtailing media freedom after they arrested three journalists and blocked two leading news websites in the space of a few days and tightened the already draconian legal provisions regulating online free speech.
The first of the three independent journalists to be detained in recent days was Afgan Sadykhov, who was arrested on 22 November in the southeastern city of Jalilabad, where he edits a website (Azel.tv) specializing in public infrastructural issues in the region.
He has been charged with “aggravated assault” in connection with an incident shortly before his arrest, when he was summoned by local officials and, on arriving at the meeting place, was attacked and punched by a woman who then filed a complaint against him. His mother says that the police tortured him and that her requests to visit him have been ignored.
A similar pretext was used to arrest Teymur Kerimov, a journalist with the Kanal 13 website, who was arrested near the central city of Barda on 25 November while doing a report about water supply problems in a village for refugees from the troubled Nagorno-Karabakh region.
An unidentified man began to harass Kerimov’s interviewees, telling them to “not speak to opposition journalists” and “not criticize the government,” and finally insulted and manhandled Kerimov.
Kerimov was then escorted to a nearby police station where the same man accused him of insulting him and hitting him. When questioned, local officials corroborated the man’s account. The police finally released Kerimov after holding him for ten hours and taking his interview recordings. He says he is now the subject of a criminal assault investigation.
Zamin Gadji, an opposition journalist with the newspaper Yeni Musavat, was summoned to a Baku police station on 28 November over a Facebook post in which he deplored the failure to solve four prominent murders – those of historian Ziya Bunyadov in 1996, air force commander Rail Rzayev in 2009, journalist Elmar Huseynov in 2005 and writer Rafig Tagi in 2011 – and asked, “How can we talk of government stability in this country if murders go unpunished.”
The police accused him of “casting doubt on the country’s social and political stability” and asked him to delete the post, which he refused to do. He was eventually released a few hours later.
Trumped-up assault charges are often used to imprison outspoken journalists in Azerbaijan. Seymour Khazi, who worked for the daily Azadlig and the exile TV programme “Azerbaycan Saati,” has been jailed on such charges since August 2015. Ganimat Zahid, the editor of Azadlig and producer of “Azerbaycan Saati,” was held for two and a half years, from 2007 to 2010, for an alleged attack on a woman.
“The Azerbaijani authorities are so confident that they do not even take the trouble to vary their harassment methods,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at RSF.
“We condemn the harassment of Afgan Sadykhov, Teymur Kerimov and Zamin Gadji, the latest victims of this constant persecution. The international community must stop allowing the Azerbaijani regime to act with impunity and ask it to address its systematic violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Ever tighter Internet control
Access to the websites of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VoA) were blocked in Azerbaijan between 28 November and 2 December, when Ilham Aliyev met with an American official. These leading sites had been among the few sources of news and information critical of the government still available within the country.
Local FM retransmission of the broadcasts of RFE/RL and VoA has been banned since 2009. The authorities closed the RFE/RL bureau in Baku in 2014 and began a criminal investigation against its employees.
Two legislative amendments increasing the penalties for online defamation and insults were adopted by parliament on 29 November. With use of pseudonyms henceforth regarded as an aggravating factor, offenders will now face the possibility of a fine of 1,000 to 1500 manat (540 to 810 euros – more than six times the minimum monthly wage of 130 euros).
They could also be sentenced to between 360 and 380 hours of public service, the deduction of part of their salary or between one and two years in prison. If the president is insulted, the maximum jail term is three years.
Azerbaijan is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index. The President Ilham Aliyev is included in the list of predators of press freedom.