While the law provides for freedom of speech and press and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government often did not respect these rights. The government continued to limit freedom of speech and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. NGOs considered at least 12 journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. In the context of what NGOs and others widely described as a government crackdown, including criminal investigations of human rights NGOs, one of the country’s two leading media rights organizations ceased operations in August, and its director went into hiding. The other organization significantly limited its activities.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for freedom of speech, but government restrictions intensified regarding subjects considered politically sensitive. Citing unfounded criminal charges against at least 50 independent and opposition political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders over the previous two and one-half years--including 11 arrests since May alone--and recent restrictive laws, Human Rights Watch reported on September 29 that repression of independent voices had reached “crisis levels.” The incarceration of persons who attempted to exercise freedom of speech raised concerns about authorities’ use of the judicial system to punish dissent. In addition the government attempted to impede criticism by monitoring political and civil society meetings.
Press Freedoms: A number of opposition and independent print and online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies. Newspaper circulation rates remained low, not surpassing 5,000 in most cases. Credible reports indicated that opposition newspapers were available outside Baku only in limited numbers due to the refusal of a number of distributors to carry them.
Foreign broadcasters, including Voice of America, RFE/RL, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies. In a December 3 article, Presidential Administration Head Ramiz Mehdiyev accused RFE/RL staff of subversive activity. On December 26, police raided and then closed RFE/RL’s Baku bureau. During the raid police broke open a safe and confiscated financial documents, computers, and hard drives. Authorities interrogated Baku-based staff over the weekend of December 27-28, forcibly taking some from their homes, and in at least one case, did not allow an employee to fully dress before departing his house, according to RFE/RL. Police subsequently questioned regional correspondents.
Local NGOs considered at least 12 journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. For example, on April 19, authorities arrested Zerkalo journalist Rauf Mirkadirov following his deportation from Turkey and subsequently sentenced him to pretrial detention for alleged espionage and treason. Authorities accused Mirkadirov of spying while involved in activities promoting the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In another case, on May 15, authorities sentenced independent Bizim Yol journalist, editor of independent news website Moderator, and human rights NGO head Parviz Hashimli to eight years in prison for alleged weapons smuggling. Both media outlets were known for coverage of corruption and human rights abuses.
On December 5, authorities arrested independent journalist Khadija Ismayilova--well known for her reporting on corruption and for her human rights advocacy--and sentenced her to two months pretrial detention for allegedly inciting an individual to attempt suicide. Two days before her arrest, in a December 3 article, Presidential Administration Head Ramiz Mehdiyev accused journalists, including Ismayilova, of working against the government. Authorities imposed a travel ban on her in October, upon her return from the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the OSCE. Amnesty International considered Ismayilova a prisoner of conscience, and a number of international journalists’ and human rights organizations called for her release.
Authorities also exerted intense pressure on the country’s leading media rights advocates and organizations during the year. Internationally renowned media freedom advocate Emin Huseynov, the chair of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), went into hiding in mid-August in fear of arrest, following the detentions of three other prominent human rights advocates between late July and early August. Government harassment of the IRFS and the Media Rights Institute (MRI) resulted in the closure of the former in August and significant limitations on the latter’s ability to operate. For example, government officials confiscated IRFS office equipment on August 8 and sealed the office on August 11. The OSCE representative on freedom of the media and other international media freedom advocates criticized the intensifying harassment of media freedom activists and organizations, including the IRFS and its chair, MRI, and MRI director Rashid Hajili. According to a November 24 statement by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, Huseynov suffered from high blood pressure and an old spinal injury caused by police, leading doctors who examined him to predict that he would not survive an Azerbaijani prison if incarcerated.
Violence and Harassment: Local observers reported 64 physical assaults on journalists during the year. The attacks mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and Yeni Musavat newspapers, the Turan Information Agency, and Obyektiv Television.
In one example, on August 21, Turan journalist and Democracy and NGO Development Resource Center director Ilgar Nasibov was found beaten and unconscious in his office in the exclave of Nakhchivan. Nasibov reported that multiple perpetrators were involved, but authorities arrested just one individual, Farid Asgarov. Progovernment media claimed the attack stemmed from a drunken fight between friends. On September 4, police opened a criminal case against Asgarov on the charge of “intentional infliction of minor bodily harm.” On September 20, police filed the same charge against Nasibov. On November 4 and 5, however, a Nakhchivan court dismissed the charges against both Asgarov and Nasibov. The attack on Nasibov generated international outrage, with AI and others attributing the assault to Nasibov’s human rights activism and criticism of local government officials. AI and other observers noted Nasibov had been attacked several times in the past with impunity.
The government used the media to harass and discredit those with dissenting views. For example, in July authorities circulated a sexually explicit video online of a woman they claimed was opposition Popular Front Party activist Kamala Khalilova. Khalilova reported authorities repeatedly pressed her to stop her opposition activism and stated she believed authorities released the video in an attempt to smear her public image.
There were reports that police and security officers harassed and in some cases physically harmed journalists trying to cover protests. During a February protest at Baku State University, for example, a security official attacked Voice of America journalist Taptig Farhadoglu, who consequently required extensive surgery. On December 29, a Baku appeals court upheld an earlier dismissal of Farhadoglu’s complaint that authorities failed to initiate criminal proceedings against his attacker. Lower court judges had ruled the case could not move forward due to a lack of witnesses.
There were no indications authorities held any police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists in recent years.
Journalists and media rights leaders continued to call for an investigation into the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani had issued a fatwa, and into the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.
Authorities at times harassed journalists in social and print media for their work. Journalist Arzu Geybullayeva, for example, was subjected to an intimidation campaign for her work with the Istanbul-based Armenian newspaper Agos. Following an interview with Azerbaijani news site modern.az, Geybullayeva faced social media threats and a series of hostile articles in Azerbaijani media accusing her of treason for working with Armenians.
Lawsuits suspected of being politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. During the year 59 court cases reportedly were initiated against journalists or media outlets, with plaintiffs demanding 2.5 million manat ($3.1 million) in compensation; courts ultimately imposed 180,000 manat ($225,000) in fines.
The majority of independent and opposition newspapers remained in a precarious financial situation and continued to have problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines. Most relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing. The opposition newspaper Azadliq, long under pressure, ceased publication briefly in late July and early August due to financial problems but resumed production after paying a third of its outstanding debts to its publishing house. On May 31, the respected independent newspaper Zerkalo ceased publishing due to financial hardships linked to political pressure from authorities.
The government prohibited some state libraries from subscribing to opposition and independent newspapers, prevented state businesses from buying advertising in opposition newspapers, and pressured private businesses not to advertise in them. As a result paid advertising was largely absent in opposition media. Political commentators noted these practices reduced the wages that opposition and independent outlets could pay to their journalists, which allowed progovernment outlets to hire away quality staff. In addition international media monitoring reports indicated that intimidation by Ministry of Taxes officials further limited the independence of the media.
According to local observers, local authorities demolished newspaper kiosks and further banned all sales of printed materials in metro stations, resulting in a continued decrease in the distribution of opposition and independent newspapers. Observers reported that the kiosks built to replace them distributed a small number of progovernment newspapers and served more as convenience stores than newsstands.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive out of fear of government retaliation.
The National Television and Radio Council requires that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast entire news programs of foreign origin.
Libel Laws/National Security: Libel is a criminal offense. The law allows for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel. Defamation is also prohibited and is punishable by fines ranging from 100 to 1,000 manat ($125 to $1,250) and imprisonment for six months to three years.
The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but it required internet service providers to be licensed and have formal agreements with the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies. According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 70 percent of the country’s population used the internet during the year.
The law imposes criminal penalties for libel and insult on the internet.
There were strong indications that the government monitored the internet communications of democracy activists. For example, many youth activists detained or jailed during the year frequently posted criticism of alleged government corruption and human rights abuses online. In addition to the sentencing of Omar Mammadov authorities convicted two other Facebook activists, Elsevar Mursalli and Abdul Abilov, of drug possession and sentenced them on April 2 and May 27, respectively, to five and five and one-half years in prison. On July 3, an appeals court reduced Mursalli’s sentence to two years after he declared his support for the president. Mursalli was pardoned and released on October 17. In its annual report for 2013, Freedom on the Net, Freedom House acknowledged the absence of major technical restrictions but observed that “those who speak out on the internet are more likely to face intimidation, threats, and fines from the state.”
Freedom House also reported an increase in attacks on opposition websites between 2012 and 2013. There were occasional reports of denial of service attacks on opposition and some independent advocacy NGO websites. For example, the websites of opposition newspaper Azadliq, news portal site Contact.az, and RFE/RL suffered denial of service attacks, as did that of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety. In the exclave of Nakhchivan, website blockages were reportedly more common.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom.
Some domestic observers continued to raise concerns that the government’s selection of participants for state-sponsored study abroad programs was biased and took political affiliation into account. The government denied the allegation and claimed its selection process was transparent.
Opposition party members continued to report difficulties in finding jobs teaching at schools and universities. Authorities fired most known opposition party members teaching in state educational institutions in previous years. NGOs reported that local executive authorities occasionally prevented the expression of minority cultures, for example, by prohibiting cultural events.