Persecution of Azerbaijan’s last independent media outlet
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the Azerbaijani government’s use of tax evasion allegations to harass the Baku-based Turan news agency, the last independent media outlet still operating within the country.
Turan reported yesterday that the tax authorities accuse the news agency of under-declaring profits since 2014 and are demanding more than 37,000 manats (18,000 euros) in back taxes and other charges. They began a criminal investigation on 7 August and sent a tax inspector to Turan’s offices the next day to begin an audit.
Turan denies the allegations and has referred the matter to a Baku economic administrative court, pointing to many irregularities in the investigation including the fact that the tax authorities omitted to mention a recent audit in response to similar allegations, one that exonerated Turan.
“It was just a matter of time before the authorities targeted the last independent media outlet still operating in Azerbaijan,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“These proceedings are designed to cripple a respected news agency financially. We call on the authorities to end this systematic harassment of the last independent media voices and to drop the investigation into Turan.”
Created in May 1990 by a group of journalists who did not want to work for the state media, Turan was one the Soviet Union’s very first independent news agencies and produces dispatches in three languages – Azerbaijani, English and Russian.
Thanks to the professionalism of its reporters, who dare to cover the most sensitive subjects, it is an essential news source in a country whose president, Ilham Aliyev, is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators. It was nominated for RSF’s Press Freedom Prize in 2014.
The Azerbaijani authorities have gone all out to eliminate media pluralism in recent years. As a result of being throttled financially, the daily newspaper Zerkalo was forced to stop publishing in May 2014, while Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Baku bureau was forcibly closed at the end of 2014.
The last opposition newspaper, Azadlig, was forced to stop producing a print edition in September 2016. Its senior staff have had to flee the country and its financial director, Faiq Amirov, was sentenced last month to three and a half years in prison on trumped up charges. The leading independent news websites are all blocked.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.