Respect for press freedom must condition relations with Azerbaijan

As Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev continues a European charm offensive with a two-day visit to Paris while simultaneously conducting a new crackdown on his country’s last independent journalists, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on European leaders to condition relations with Azerbaijan on respect for press freedom.

Aliyev, who will lunch with President Emmanuel Macron tomorrow, the second day of his visit, was already in Brussels last week to conclude the negotiation of the EU-Azerbaijan “Partnership Priorities,” an agreement that includes no specific requirement to respect human rights, contrary to the European Parliament’s demand in a 4 July resolution.

Another crackdown on the last independent journalists is meanwhile under way in Azerbaijan, which is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

“President Aliyev continues his charm offensive in Europe although the level of press freedom violations in his country has never been so high,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“It is high time that Europe’s leaders conditioned the development of their relations with Azerbaijan on respect for its international obligations as regards fundamental rights. The immediate release of unjustly detained journalists and an end to the harassment of independent media outlets should be high on the list of these conditions.”

Freed then reimprisoned

The government continues to harass the remaining independent journalists although it has complete control over the media landscape.

The latest victims include Afgan Sadygov, the editor of the news website in the southeastern town of Jalilabad. Released in May, after 18 months in prison on a trumped-up charge, he was very active on social networks and announced that he was going to resume his reporting, but he was arrested again less than two months later, on 6 July.

After looking for him for five days, his family and his lawyers finally discovered that he had been sentenced to 30 days in detention on charges of “obscenities in public” and “resisting the police.”

He was convicted in connection with events that allegedly took place on 7 July, the day after his arrest. Despite this patent absurdity, the judge rejected the defence’s request for examination of surveillance camera recordings.

Gagging the last critics

Another offensive against the last sources of criticism was triggered by tragic events in the western city of Ganja, where the attempted murder of the mayor on 3 July led to rioting in which two policemen were killed on 10 July. Four news websites were immediately blocked on the orders of the prosecutor-general’s office without reference to the courts.

They include, a site that supports the opposition party Musavat and covers human rights violations, election fraud and corruption cases. Its editor, Mustafa Hajibeyli, was interrogated for five consecutive days after being summoned by the prosecutor-general’s office for questioning as a witness on 9 July. Several other employees were summoned for questioning on 14 July.

The authorities had already blocked access to the leading independent news sites since March 2017. They have also throttled all of the most outspoken media outlets financially or closed them by force, and have criminalized the activities of NGOs that support the media. At least eleven journalists and two bloggers are currently detained in connection with their reporting. And, not content with eliminating all media pluralism at home, Aliyev no longer hesitates to pursue his media critics after they have fled abroad.

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Updated on 19.07.2018