Reporters Without Borders (RSF) will testify for the defence in the Azerbaijani government’s lawsuit against French broadcast journalists Elise Lucet and Laurent Richard, which a court in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre will begin hearing tomorrow.
The two journalists are accused of defaming the Azerbaijani government by referring to it as a “dictatorship” in 2015, when it received a visit from the French president.
RSF regards the lawsuit as an act of intimidation highlighting the Azerbaijani government’s contempt for free speech. Not content with eradicating all pluralism at home, the regime is now targeting its critics abroad.
Introducing a “Cash Investigation” programme about the background to the presidential trip on the France 2 TV channel in September 2015, Lucet described Azerbaijan as “one of the world’s harshest dictatorships.”
In a radio programme, Richard referred to Azerbaijan as a “dictatorship” and its president as a “despot.” He was previously arrested at the end of his reporting trip to Azerbaijan in May 2014 and his equipment was seized.
Trying to intimidate journalists in France
The head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, Johann Bihr, Azerbaijani journalist Agil Khalil and husband-and-wife human rights defenders Leyla Yunus et Arif Yunus will all testify in defence of the two French journalists.
Khalil fled to France in 2008 after escaping several murder attempts in Azerbaijan. Leyla and Arif Yunus fled to the Netherlands after being imprisoned for 18 months despite being in very poor health.
“By suing two French journalists who just used their right to free speech, the Azerbaijani government is demonstrating its complete inability to tolerate criticism,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.
“We must not let Baku export its censorship to France. We call on as many media outlets as possible to come and cover this attack on their freedoms by a foreign government. We will definitely be there to ensure that the world sees the true face of President Ilham Aliyev’s regime.”
As far as RSF knows, this is the first time that a foreign government has brought a defamation suit against journalists before a French court. Lola Karimova, the Uzbek president’s daughter, was acting as a private individual when she sued the French news website Rue89 in 2011 for calling her a “dictator’s daughter” who was helping to “launder her country’s image.”
The Aliyev regime’s true face
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. For the past three years, its authorities have systematically eliminated what remained of media independence. In 2014, they throttled the newspaper Zerkalo economically and forcibly closed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Baku bureau.
Crippled by its financial director’s arrest in 2016, the last opposition newspaper, Azadlig, has stopped publishing, and its leading journalists have been forced to flee abroad.
The Turan news agency, the country’s last independent media outlet, became the latest victim in August of this year. Its director has been jailed and its bank accounts have been frozen, forcing it to suspend all activities. Access to all the main independent news websites is blocked.
At least 16 journalists, bloggers and media workers are currently imprisoned in connection with the provision of news and information – usually on trumped-up charges. This means that Azerbaijan is second only to Turkey in Europe in the number of media personnel detained. Beatings, blackmail and bribes are also used to silence the few remaining critics.
Dozens of journalists have fled the country in recent years to escape the crackdown. By persecuting their relatives, the government even manages to put pressure on those, such as Ganimat Zahid and Emin Milli, who continue to work as journalists after fleeing abroad. The main media support NGOs were shut down in 2014.
Aliyev, who succeeded his father as president in 2003, is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators. He was “reelected” with nearly 85% of the votes in a 2013 poll that was criticized by the OSCE. The results were “leaked” on the eve of the voting.
A September 2016 referendum reinforced his powers and, on 21 February of this year, his wife was appointed first vice-president, becoming Azerbaijan second most important official.