One of Azerbaijan’s leading independent newspapers, the Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror), has been forced to stop publishing because government control of the advertising market and distribution networks has deprived it of the income it needs to keep operating.
Broadcasting was already under complete state control and now the independent print media are in the process of collapse as a result of the economic vice that the government is tightening around them. Zerkalo started publishing weekly instead daily in April because of its financial losses. Editor-in-chief Elchin Shikhly finally announced on 31 May that it would cease to produce a print edition altogether. It is still publishing online but staff are no longer being paid. Independent media nowadays have very limited access to advertisers as the state controls and manipulates the advertising market. At the same time, a series of changes to the press distribution network have drastically restricted their distribution and therefore their income from sales. Street vendors were banned in Baku in 2011 on the grounds that they were obstructing traffic. The state-owned Gasid distribution network’s newsstands were gradually eliminated in 2012 or replaced by a new network of shops from which independent newspapers are for the most part excluded. Finally, selling newspapers in the metro was banned in 2013. “The economic difficulties that Zerkalo has been facing are the result of the government’s implementation of an insidious censorship strategy,” said Johann Bihr, the head the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Government manipulation is now bearing fruit and media pluralism is all but eradicated in Azerbaijan. We call on the authorities to reform the distribution system without delay and to stop manipulating the advertising market so that media diversity is guaranteed.” According to Emin Huseynov, the head of the Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety (IRFS), many independent publications in Azerbaijan are facing financial problems. The leading one, the opposition newspaper Azadlig, is collapsing under the impact of astronomical damages awards and temporarily suspended publication in November. In a country of 9 million inhabitants, the number of independent publications can be counted on the fingers on one hand. Given the government-orchestrated destruction of media pluralism, President Ilham Aliyev’s frequent pardons for detainees should fool no one. Two journalists, Fwad Huseynov and Faramaz Allakhverdyev, were among the 171 detainees pardoned on 26 May but at least eight other journalists are still held in connection with their work and other news providers are being arrested and tried. The latest victims include Zerkalo’s well-known Turkey correspondent Rauf Mirkadyrov, who has been in pre-trial detention on trumped-up spying charges since 18 April. Ranked 160th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Azerbaijan assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers on 14 May. It is the most repressive of the organization’s 47 member states, which is supposed to guarantee respect for human rights in the region.