With the November 7 parliamentary vote fast approaching in Azerbaijan, election officials and pro-government media outlets appear to be taking aim at two of the country’s best-known pro-opposition newspapers.
Civil rights watchdogs contend that the opposition outlets are being harassed as part of a crackdown on criticism of Azerbaijan’s government. The governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) is widely expected to retain its solid hold over the legislature in the upcoming vote.
The attack kicked off on October 25 when Lider (Leader) TV broadcast a video clip that showed a sexual act involving an editor from the Azadlig newspaper, a publication with close ties to the opposition. The clip, which had been available earlier on social media networks, RFE/RL reported, was entitled “The Naked Truth of the Opposition.”
A few weeks later, on November 1, Central Election Commission (CEC) Chair Mazahir Panahov called for the “punishment” of both Azadlig and Yeni Musavat Gazeti, a publication with close ties to the opposition Yeni Musavat Party, for allegedly publishing unfair stories on the elections. Panahov charged that the articles were “illegal” since neither newspaper is registered as a party organ.
He went on to denounce parliamentary candidates, who, he claimed, have used their allotted four minutes of TV airtime to call for “undermining the government.”
With a combined circulation of about 11,000, Azadliq and Yeni Musavat are far from being big media players. But given Azerbaijani mainstream media’s largely pro-government slant, the two newspapers are prominent conduits for the expression alternative viewpoints.
Human Rights Watch Caucasus researcher Giorgi Gogia, who compiled an October 26 Human Rights Watch report, titled “Beaten, Blacklisted, and Behind Bars: The Vanishing Space for Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan,” called the CEC statements about the publications “ridiculous.”
"To single out Azadliq and Yeni Musavat is a political move directed against the opposition newspapers in the country,” Gogia argued.
The CEC did not respond to EurasiaNet.org’s request for comment.
In an emailed statement to EurasiaNet.org, Azadliq Editor-in-Chief Sujaddin Sharifov dismissed the CEC’s allegations. “We didn’t publish campaigning materials in our newspaper,” wrote Sharifov, who maintains that his newspaper has focused on covering the election process itself.
Rasul Jafarov, the deputy chairperson of the Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety, concurred that the CEC statement was unjustified. While “the principle of balance was not followed” in Azadlig and Yeni Musavat’s election coverage, newspapers that support the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party have hyped positive coverage for YAP candidates without similar reprimands, he noted. [Editor’s Note: The Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety receives funding from the Open Society Foundation-Azerbaijan, which is part of the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Institute, which is also part of the foundations network].
Jafarov said the CEC’s media group should instead focus on the “black smear” placed on Azadlig’s reputation by the broadcast of the Lider TV sex tape – a broadcast that, in relatively conservative Azerbaijan, is widely seen as intended to secure voter sympathies for the governing party. “They don’t reach many people, but [the governing party] is afraid of this whole process,” Jafarov claimed, referring to the upcoming elections. “It's difficult to know why exactly they do that, but they see this as a threat.”
The National TV and Radio Council plans to discuss the Lider TV broadcast, an unidentified source at the council told the Turan news agency.
Assessments by local and international monitors all paint a grim picture for public information in Azerbaijan. Advocates say that with television broadcasting directly or indirectly controlled by the YAP, there is little room for public discourse about the elections.
A report released by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights election monitoring group agreed with this assessment. The October 29 report noted that while a few outlets do provide opportunities for political discussion, opposition candidate coverage was “very limited.”
Internet media still has relatively low penetration in Azerbaijan and FM broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corp., Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were banned in 2009.