Azerbaijan: freedom of movement for journalists in Karabakh must be guaranteed
Police violence, restricted freedom of movement, repression of freedom of expression, over-regulation by the new state media agency… Azerbaijani journalists face a particularly hostile working environment. The subject was addressed during the Shusha Global Media Forum, on 22-23 July, in the Karabakh region. The International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ-EFJ) took part in the Forum to support the work of independent Azerbaijani journalists and to back their affiliate, the Azerbaijan Union of Journalists, JuHI.
During the session of the Forum dedicated to the safety of journalists, IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger recalled the absolute necessity for the United Nations to adopt in the coming months the Convention on the Protection and Safety of Journalists, which will put an end to the impunity that protects the murderers of journalists. He also called on the Azerbaijani government to sign it, something it has not done yet.
“At the Forum, the Azerbaijani authorities repeatedly undertook to improve media freedom and journalists’ working conditions. We therefore expect them to make serious efforts, given the poor state of media freedom in the country,” commented Ricardo Gutiérrez, EFJ General Secretary.
The alerts concerning Azerbaijan on the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism highlight a worrying situation:
- 2 cases of impunity for murders of journalists (Elmar Huseynov and Rafiq Tagi);
- 6 journalists and bloggers currently in prison;
- 35 cases of arbitrary detention of journalists, including recent cases in Söyüdlü.
Anthony Bellanger called on the Azerbaijan authorities, the Armenian authorities and the Russian peacekeepers to ensure the freedom of movement of journalists in the Karabakh region. “In Azerbaijan, journalists have to request special authorisations from the presidential administration to travel to Karabakh, authorisations that are rarely granted “for security reasons”, according to the government in charge. However, whether in Ukraine today or in Iraq or Syria a few years ago, journalists were able to fulfill their mission to inform without excessive restrictions”.
“Preventing journalists from circulating means preventing them from working, so they have to take even more risks”, added Bellanger. “Yesterday, together with the EFJ GS and the President of JuHI, as journalists, we tried to reach Khankendi / Stepanakert, a town located 10 km from Shusha, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians. The town is under blockade, in a region under control of Russian peacekeepers. But it was the Azerbaijani army that prevented us from crossing, in accordance with government orders.”
The IFJ and EFJ representatives met with several journalists in Baku, who all confirmed the alarming situation: restricted freedom of movement, unjustified police violence, repression of freedom of expression, over-regulation by the new State Media Agency, which has set up a media registry and a journalists’ registry.
The Media Registry became operational on 14 October 2022. On 30 January 2023, 37 Azerbaijani journalists and media experts published a statement according to which the State Media Agency refused to include veteran media outlets in the Media Registry and issued ‘warnings’ to dozens of media outlets and journalists. According to the statement, given the ambiguity around the registration, media that are unregistered, risk closure. On 6 February 2023, the State Media Agency’s executive director, Ahmet Ismayilov, said that media outlets that failed to register before 13 April 2023 would not be able to operate in Azerbaijan.
The IFJ and EFJ call on the authorities to suspend the ongoing process of registration of media outlets and journalists by the state agency. Given that it is not up to a state agency to decide who is a journalist or not, the federations are calling for a review of these procedures with a view to entrusting this regulation to a body that is totally independent of the state and that includes representative organisations of journalists and employers in the media sector.
IFJ and EFJ are also calling on the authorities to open talks with JuHI in order to make progress on the outstanding issues: the impunity cases; the imprisoned journalists and bloggers; the violence against journalists, as it recently occurred in Söyüdlü; the freedom of movement for journalists in the Karabakh region.
The IFJ and EFJ strongly support any initiative from journalists’ organisations and press councils in Azerbaijan and Armenia to promote ethical journalism in both countries.