Helen Goodman: Media workers are persistently defamed and persecuted

Helen Goodman: Media workers are persistently defamed and persecuted
in Azerbaijan

11:17 29/12/2012 » SOCIETY

TheyWorkForYou.com website has published an article on Azerbaijan by
British MP Helen Goodman. We present it completely.

At the beginning of November, I went to Baku to attend the UN internet
governance forum, and I was taken there by Nominet – I wish to put on
record my thanks for its generosity.

It might seem strange for the United Nations to hold an internet
governance forum in Azerbaijan. The internet is one of the most free
means of communication – it was instrumental in facilitating recent
political uprisings during the Arab spring – but unfortunately the same
cannot be said in Azerbaijan. Before discussing the human rights
situation, I wish to take a moment to describe this country on the
Caspian. It is a very beautiful, wild and mountainous country in the
Caucasus. At no point in its history has Azerbaijan been a liberal
democracy, so unfortunately it has no such traditions to recover. From
1805 to 1991, it was part of the Russian empire, latterly of course in
the Soviet Union. In fact, it was in Baku that the Tsars imprisoned
Stalin. In the last 20 years, the country has prioritised rapid
economic development, based on its substantial oil and gas reserves.
It is, I am afraid to say, the spiritual home of the 4×4, and it has
an unresolved conflict with its neighbour, Armenia.

That context may explain the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, but
it certainly does not excuse it. This year, Azerbaijan has played host
to two major international events. The first, as many people are
aware, was the Eurovision song contest. The second was the UN internet
governance forum that I attended. Those two events should have been an
opportunity for Azerbaijan to step forward and open up. Unfortunately,
the opposite seems to have happened, with the authorities clamping
down even more aggressively on journalists and critics of the regime.

At the moment, Baku is plastered with huge posters of President
Aliyev, whose father – incidentally – was also president. Most people,
when they have photographs taken for political purposes, choose ones
that are flattering. Unfortunately, I found President Aliyev’s
6-foot-wide grin more of a crocodile smile.

The petty reality of life in an autocracy was brought home to me on
the first morning when all the traffic on the motorway was held up for
20 minutes to allow the official motorcade to pass through, but the
problems are far more serious than that. One might expect a Government
who are trying to impress the rest of the world to be on their best
behaviour, but while I was there the authorities continued to jam the
BBC television channel.

While I was there, the authorities continued to jam the BBC television
channel and they held the trial of Avaz Zeynalli, who was accused of
criticising the regime. The evidence was claimed to have been videoed,
but neither the defendant nor his lawyer were shown the film. Finally,
they hacked into the computer of Neelie Kroes’s staff while she
attended the conference.

There is a long history of violence against journalists in Azerbaijan,
which is documented by the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and
Safety, an Azeri non-governmental organisation. According to the
institute, in 2005, Elmar Huseynov, the editor of Monitor, was gunned
down in Baku. In 2011, Rafiq Tagi, a critic of Iran and the impact of
Islam on Azerbaijan, was stabbed and subsequently died. The level of
intolerance is well illustrated by the case of Agil Khalil, who was
assaulted and stabbed after investigating reports of trees being
burned in an olive grove. In April this year, Idrak Abbasov was
attacked by employees of the state oil company of Azerbaijan while
filming the destruction of residential properties near an oil field
outside Baku. He was beaten unconscious and was in hospital for a
month. It is thought that he may have been targeted for exposing human
rights abuses in the run-up to the Eurovision song contest. In fact,
three weeks previously, he had received The Guardian journalism award
at the Index on Censorship freedom of expression awards here in
London. There is then the case of Khadija Ismayilova, who I met at the
IGF. She had previously worked for Radio Free Europe. Her flat was
bugged and a sex video of her, which was filmed secretly, was posted
on the internet.

Amnesty International has asked, in particular, that I raise the case
of Mehmen Hoseynov, who is facing five years in prison. He is accused
of hooliganism for filming a protest on 21 May. Will the Minister
raise his case with the Government of Azerbaijan and call for all
charges against him to be dropped immediately and unconditionally?
Index on Censorship is also concerned about the cases of Minas
Sargsyan, Hilal Mamedov, Anar Bayramli, Jamal Ali and Faramaz
Novruzoglu. I have e-mailed the Minister with the details of their
cases, rather than detaining the House with the long stories attached
to them, so that his office can look into them.

Those cases are not isolated incidents; they are part of a systematic
repression of free speech in Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, defamation is
a criminal offence. Media workers are persistently defamed and
persecuted. Azerbaijan is the top jailer of journalists in Europe and
Central Asia. Index on Censorship estimates that there are currently
70 political prisoners in Azerbaijani jails. Freedom of expression,
assembly and association are limited.

Source: Panorama.am