update - December 19, 2001
At a meeting with the directors of the main written press media and the television on December 18, President Heidar Aliev described as an "error" the tough critics his party had uttered against the opposition press. Moreover, he apologised for the censorship to which the opposition press was subjected and expressed his regrets as for the police violence against the journalists demonstrating in favour of press freedom on December 12. Heidar Aliev has committed himself to improving the media working conditions, ordering in particular the State Editions to publish the opposition newspapers while freezing their debts for one year. "It is a great step for us, and we are correcting our mistakes, not on account of pressures from the European Counsel but thanks to changing mentalities".
December 13 2001
RSF worries about press freedom worsening
In a letter addressed, on December 13, 2001 to the President of the Republic, Heidar Aliev, Reporters sans frontières (RSF- Reporters without Borders) became alarmed at the situation of press freedom worsening these last weeks in Azerbaijan."Whereas you solemnly committed yourself on December 6, on a meeting with United States ambassador Ross Wilson, to letting independent media untroubled, the authorities keep on intimidating and threatening the press, in total contradiction with their international commitments with respect to freedom", declared Robert Ménard, general secretary of the organisation. "We demand that all pressures and aggressions against the press be stopped at once", added M. Ménard.
In the afternoon of December 12, the police assaulted and dispersed about a hundred journalists, demonstrating against the latest press freedom abuses in front of the party headquarters of president Heidar Aliev "Yeni Azerbaycan". The police seized and tore up their placards and tried to drag them into their newspaper premises Azadliq. The assaulted journalists belonged in particular to the newspapers Yeni Musavat, Hurriyet and Azadlig. Many were injured, among whom Ramiz Najafli, from the daily Azadliq, who was taken in emergency to the hospital for cerabral concussion. Rauf Arifoglu, publication manager of Yeni Musavat, Azeri Husret, president of the journalists' Union, and Elman Maliyev from Yeni Musavat have been rounded up and taken to the police station n°39, to be released thanks to the intervention of deputy Iqbal Agazade.
The journalists were demonstrating as a reaction against president Aliev's calls for the destruction of the opposition press during the second Congress of his party, and against the words of Djalal Aliev, member of the Parliament and brother of the president Heidar Aliev who had pleaded in favour of abolishing the law on political parties before the Parliament, on September 4 2001. He also eagerly accused the newspapers Yeni Musava, Hurriyet, Azadliq of libelling the Azerbaijani people, before calling for the destruction of the opposition, qualified as "enemy" of Azerbaijan. On the same day, Kerim Karimov, another deputy of the party in power "Yeni Azerbaycan" had proposed that the law on mass media be abolished to put an end to what he called "press anarchy". Further to these calls, the electricity in the private printing office of Baku where independent newspapers are edited Yeni Musavat and Hurriyet had been cut on December 6, preventing the publication of Hurriyet last issue and the impression of 2000 copies of Yeni Musavat of December 10. Besides, on the same day the district Court of Sabayil Bakou had condemned Yaqub Abbasov, founder of the weekly Ulus, and Surkhay Qojaev, in custody since July 15, to respectively, one year and two months and one year deferred sentence, before releasing them. The two journalists had been accused on July 10, 2001 of " intentional hooliganism ". They were incurring a two to five year sentence.
Besides, in the evening of December 6, Shahnaz Metlebqizi, journalist at the independent daily Yeni Musavat, had been attacked by a stranger outside the premises of her newspaper. The man, around fifty years old, had stalked her from the newspaper office until the public transportation station. All of a sudden, he had snatched the newspaper from her hands and had slashed it yelling, "we shall do the same with all of you". The assailant had hurt the journalist's head several times before fleeing. On the same evening, Shahnaz Metlebqizi had registered a complaint. Further to that assault, Rauf Arifoglu, publication manager of Yeni Musavat, had proposed all his newspaper's staff to resign, being himself "incapable of protecting them from the current regime". In protest against the attacks on journalists, Elbeyi Hassanli, Rahib Kazimli and Elshad Pashasoy, three journalists of Yeni Musavat, have started a hunger strike. On December 10, two other journalists have joined them.
RSF reminds that since Heidar Aliev's arrival in power on 1998 through elections denounced by foreign observers, the number of actually independent media has not stopped decreasing whereas assaults and roundups of journalists, as well as pressures and hindrances to their activities have multiplied.