As concerns continue about the Azerbaijani government's tolerance for media criticism, a series of independent television stations have attempted to set up broadcast operations outside Azerbaijani borders.
Some local observers contend that the recent decision to revoke and then to reinstate the broadcast license for independent television and radio company ANS, as well as the eviction of pro-opposition media outlets from their Baku offices, means that independent media cannot operate securely in Azerbaijan. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But the denials have done little to calm jitters among media not associated with the government. Instead, many journalists, non-governmental organization and opposition members are focusing on operations beyond the control of the Azerbaijani regulatory authorities.
So far, however, a variety of bureaucratic, financial and political obstacles have prevented most of these stations, which rely on satellite links to broadcast to Azerbaijan, from making a huge impact.
To date, Gunaz TV, based in Chicago, is the closest any of these operations have come to being a success story. The satellite television station, started in April 2005 by Chicago businessman Ahmad Obali, an ethnic Azeri from Iran, focuses mostly on human rights issues in Iran; start-up capital came from donations by human rights activists and Iranian Azerbaijanis living in the US and Canada.
The operation runs on a shoestring budget of roughly $400,000 per year. Obali himself, a film school graduate, acts as technician, anchor and commentator. Volunteers provide much of the additional work. Obali denies what he claims are Iranian propaganda reports that the station is funded by the United States Department of State.
The programs are highly critical of the Iranian government and outspoken about discrimination against non-Iranian ethnic groups in Iran. Gunaz TV owner Obali says the broadcasts are meant to serve as a voice for an audience whose interests are not served by other broadcasters. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The US government funds TV and radio channels in Persian that do not address the human rights issues related to minority rights," Obali said. "They ignore cases of Azerbaijani political prisoners and never provide news related to the biggest community in Iran. We have to take care of ourselves."
Canada-based human rights activist Fakhteh Zamani, a frequent Gunaz TV guest, claims that "a number of people" in Iran have been arrested for watching the station's satellite broadcasts or telephoning the station during call-in programs.
Yet despite an Iranian ban on privately owned satellite dishes, Obali says that the station receives phone calls "from almost every city where Azerbaijanis live," including Tehran, Tabriz, Zenjan, Ardebil, Urmiye, Sarab and Mishkin.
The reported arrests of callers, however, have prompted the station to have calls from Iran directed first to Europe before going to the US, Obali said.
The station affirms, however, that it stops short of targeting the Azerbaijani government in Baku. "We don't want to be involved in politics in northern Azerbaijan," Obali said. "We have to take care of ourselves."
Not so with one other station, Azadlig TV (Freedom TV), a pro-opposition station which broadcasts from Germany to Azerbaijan. Station representatives would not disclose Azadlig TV's ownership structure or sources of financing. Azerbaijani media, however, have claimed that the station belongs to Rasul Guliyev, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan now living in political asylum in the United States.
During Azazliq TV's brief broadcast life from September to October 2005, amidst Azerbaijan's parliamentary election campaign -- the station was highly critical of the Azerbaijani government, a fact that station representatives claim led to the cut-off of their satellite link by Turksat, Turkey's state-owned satellite operator which provides services to many Azerbaijani homes. Azadlig's signal was finally cut in the middle of a program featuring opposition leaders Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Guliyev, who the Azerbaijani government later accused of plotting a coup against President Ilham Aliyev. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The host of that program, Mirza Khazar, a former head of Radio Liberty's Azerbaijani service and one of Azerbaijan's most prominent radio personalities, claims that the Azerbaijani government is to blame for Azadlig TV going off the air. "[It was] probably due to political pressure by the Azerbaijani government on Turksat," he commented.
Chicago-based Gunaz TV makes similar claims, saying that Turksat stopped their station's broadcast after the Iranian government brought pressure to bear. The broadcaster now relies on American satellite service Telestar, and also uses web broadcasts.
TurkSat could not be reached for comment.
The Internet has also proven a more reliable medium for Khazar, whose earlier attempts to open a radio channel and newspaper in Azerbaijan both failed. The radio journalist, now living in Germany, claims that he was warned by individuals in the Azerbaijani government to give up these efforts. Instead, he now runs a web-based radio project called "mirzexezerinsesi.net" (Voice of Mirza Khazar), which provides a 90-minute pre-recorded radio program daily.
One of the better known attempts to start an independent satellite broadcast occurred in 2005, on the eve of Azerbaijan's parliamentary campaign. Yeni TV, the brainchild of a group of media professionals, lawyers and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, however, failed to secure the necessary $1.5 million per year in funding estimated needed for satellite broadcasting from Prague to Azerbaijan. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Eldar Namazov, an opposition leader and head of the For Azerbaijan public forum, says that the group is now eager to resume work on the project. "All channels are under the government's control," Namazov commented. "The only channel which used to provide some alternative information, some diversity of views . . . was ANS. But now that ANS is under threat of being off the air every moment, they have to be careful in their broadcasts. So now there is no pluralism on the air," Namazov said.
Yeni TV's problems ran the gamut. After the Azerbaijani justice ministry refused to register the channel as a legal entity, the company was registered in Prague. Talks with Czech regulators about a broadcast license, however, led to nothing, Namazov said, after the channel's founders became distracted by Azerbaijan's 2005 parliamentary elections and failed to find adequate start-up capital.
The project's inability to show that it could generate enough income to become a self-sustaining operation dissuaded international donors from investing in Yeni TV, noted Namazov. But Azerbaijan's political landscape also played a role, he charged. "[International donors] also want to be sure that the broadcast will not be stopped due to political reasons one day, as has happened before with other channels," he said.
Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku