Media watchdog organizations are expressing alarm about restrictions placed on foreign news broadcasts in Azerbaijan, and recent attention focused by the government on independent television company ANS. Some local analysts contend that the crackdown suggests that the government wants to take over the broadcaster. A government source, however, has dismissed the charges.
International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has urged the Azerbaijani government not to implement a recent decision by the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council (NTRBC) that calls on ANS and other broadcast companies to acquire a license to re-broadcast programs from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Voice of America. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight Archive.]
"This decision is targeted at international media whose independence the Azeri government seems to fear," the organization said in an October 17 statement. "The National Council for Television and Radio is unfortunately under the control of the political authorities, who seem to want to limit the influence of western media, above all."
Reporters Without Borders noted that the decision does not affect Russian or Turkish media, which are less critical of the government. NTRBC Chairman Nusiravan Maharramli, however, told the newspaper Ekho in an interview published on October 21 that similar restrictions would soon be applied to Russian television broadcasts as well.
"Even if there is an interstate agreement on the broadcasting of Russian TV channels, they ought to get a license from us because it is the main legal broadcasting document," Maharramli said, referring to RTR Planeta and Russia's Channel One. "The issue of their future broadcasts in Azerbaijan will be discussed, but we intend to bring all processes in the country's TV and radio sphere in line with international standards."
In early October, NTRBC told the heads of ANS TV and Radio, Antenn FM and state radio -- all popular news outlets -- that re-broadcasting foreign news material is illegal and punishable by "severe sanctions." The Council maintains that obtaining a special broadcasting license is required before distributing any broadcasts produced by foreign-owned media outlets.
Media laws, however, appear to suggest otherwise. Article 14 of the Law on Mass Media states that such a licence is required only if a media outlet broadcasts solely foreign television programs. The radio and television stations affected by the NTRBC decision retransmit foreign broadcasts for between 30 to 45 minutes a day, according to media estimates. ANS has operated without any official license since 2003.
Firdevs Robinson, editor of the BBC World Service's Central Asia and Caucasus Service, told Reporters Without Borders that the BBC had been broadcasting in Azerbaijan since the mid-1990s and had never needed its own licence. "We respect Azeri law and we will try to meet our legal obligations," she said in the organization's statement. "We hope the implementation of this decision will not result in our programmes [sic] being interrupted. If it does, it could be seen as another example of harassment of independent media in Azerbaijan."
Local media have suggested that the NTRBC's real goal is to cut off all news broadcasts from outside the country that provide alternative information to that supplied by pro-government broadcasters about Azerbaijan. Maharramli emphasized, however, that "closure of foreign channels in this country is out of the question."
The 15-year-old privately owned company ANS Group stands at the center of this controversy. The company's television and radio operations are considered among the most outspoken independent sources of news in the country. The television channel is estimated to have a few million viewers, though precise statistics are not known.
In a recent interview with the ANS television program "Point of View," ANS co-founder and vice-president Mir Shahin Agayev stated that "the processes around ANS" are "rooted in the autumn of 2005," during the campaign for Azerbaijan's November 2005 parliamentary elections.
During the campaign, the NTRBC closed the ANS radio station in the mountain town of Sheki, a popular tourist destination. The station reopened after reported intercession by the US Embassy and international organizations. Soon afterwards, Agayev charged, a smear campaign started against ANS in various newspapers. In March of this year, the Ministry of Taxes began an inspection of all companies in the ANS Group. The ministry claims that the company owes 31,000 manats (about $35,000) for various tax violations.
"[T]here is a certain link [between these events]. From the outside, it looks like an order, but I do not know whose order," Agayev commented. "I would say that there are persons who want to weaken ANS or discredit it." A court has since rejected the company's claim that the ministry's findings are invalid. ANS itself maintains that an audit by Ernst & Young and local companies found no evidence of wrongdoing, ANS Group President Vahid Mustafayev told Day.az in an October 11 interview. The company intends to appeal the court decision.
Pro-opposition political analyst Rasim Musabekov believes that the commotion over taxes and a special broadcast license indicates that the government wants to take control of ANS to eliminate dissenting voices from electronic media. "Azerbaijan's political power fears electronic media organizations which are out of its control. Therefore, they want to get rid of alternative mass media or take them under its control. They follow the path of Russia," said Musabekov, citing the example of the Russian television company NTV, an occasionally outspoken government critic, which later became a state-controlled broadcaster.
Independent television critic Zeynal Mammadli agrees that the government wants to stamp out ANS as an alternative source of information, but contends that financial motives also drive the government's steps. "[A]ll other TV channels are owned by people close to the government and it is not ruled out that this pressure is part of unfair market competition," Mammadli said. "By changing the owners of ANS, they want to seize a profitable channel and to establish a monopoly in the TV market." According to ANS, the company paid $2 million in taxes to the government in 2005.
The government, for its part, dismisses any suggestion of ulterior motives in its push for special re-broadcasting licenses. "All this is an unjust accusation against the government," a representative of President Ilham Aliyev's administration who asked to remain anonymous told EurasiaNet in response to the charges that officials want to take over ANS.
Despite the outcry over ANS, one international organization says that it sees signs of progress in media relations with the government. A presidential pardon for two newspaper journalists, Sahin Agabayli and Samir Adigozalov, who were sentenced to one-year prison terms for slander "is the manifestation of political will to improve the attitude of the authorities toward the press," said Maurizio Pavesi, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission in Baku. "We hope to see more responsibility and journalistic professionalism in future balanced with patience to criticism on the part of officials," Turan news agency reported Pavesi as saying.
Mina Muradova and Khazri Bakinsky are freelance reporters in Baku.