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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Azerbaijan

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Azerbaijan, February 2004, available at: [accessed 21 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In January 2003, President Heydar Aliyev froze the print media's debts to the state publishing house through 2005. But that was the only positive development for the Azerbaijani press in what turned out to be a dismal year.

With Aliyev's health failing as 2003 wore on, he began grooming his son Ilham Aliyev to take his place, a move that drew the ire of opposition parties and newspapers. In August, the president appointed his son as prime minister, clearing the way for a transfer of power during presidential elections scheduled for October. Heydar Aliyev passed away in December.

Before he died, Heydar Aliyev managed to keep tight control of his oil-rich nation, including the press. Defamation suits remained a huge problem for the media in 2003. Dozens of defamation lawsuits were filed against independent newspapers throughout the year, according to IREX ProMedia, a U.S.-based media training organization. In February, libel suits against Yeni Musavat, a newspaper associated with the popular opposition party Musavat, resulted in fines of 100,000 euros (US$127,500) – an overwhelming sum for a paper with assets of one-fifth that amount. In a country where local and federal authorities can easily pressure the judicial system, cases against media outlets rarely end in their favor.

Typically, officials use defamation suits to respond to articles implicating them in corruption, which is rife in Azerbaijan. According to Transparency International, an international nonprofit dedicated to combating corruption, Azerbaijan ranked a dismal 95 out of 102 countries on the organization's Corruption Perceptions Index.

In June, the Azerbaijani National Council for Television and Radio adopted new regulations on the use of the state language in the broadcast media, further restricting the use of Russian – the language most older Azerbaijani citizens use.

More blatant forms of harassment followed when the independent press began to focus on Aliyev's failing health. With the government refusing to release any information, many newspapers questioned the president's ability to run the country – a development that pro-government forces saw as a direct assault on Aliyev. These reports were followed by several attacks against journalists. Police officers also detained and beat reporters from opposition newspapers. Violence against the press only increased as the October 15 election neared.

The severity of the Azerbaijani government's abuse of the press did not go unnoticed by Western observers. In a fairly unprecedented September 10 joint statement, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe criticized the government for its harassment and intimidation of journalists. The statement specifically expressed concern over "recent attacks against journalists," demanded "a thorough investigation" into the attacks, and asked the authorities to "take all necessary steps to guarantee respect for freedom of the media." The international community also called on Azerbaijan to conduct a free and fair election.

In the run-up to the poll, however, opposition candidates were given little airtime on government-controlled broadcast media – considerably less than Ilham Aliyev. During the election, international observers noted many irregularities, including multiple voting and the stuffing of ballot boxes, as well as omissions from voting lists of those known to support the opposition. In the end, officials declared Ilham Aliyev the victor with 80 percent of the vote.

Pressure from the international community, as well as the presence of international observers, had little effect on security forces during the demonstrations that erupted into violence after the election results were announced. Dozens of journalists were severely beaten and/or detained. The government crackdown was not contained to the capital, Baku, where the riots occurred, but spread throughout the country. Local election officials who refused to sign falsified voting tally sheets were threatened or arrested, and their families were also subject to reprisals.

In the weeks following the elections, attacks on Azerbaijan's opposition press intensified. Libel suits resumed, resulting in enormous fines and, in some cases, frozen bank accounts. Arrests and intimidation continued. Rauf Arifoglu, the editor of Azerbaijan's largest opposition newspaper, Yeni Musavat, was arrested in October and held in prison for the rest of the year while prosecutors investigated his role in the postelection violence. Many opposition newspapers were denied access to the state printing house and distribution system.

Despite these hardships, the opposition press continues to publish in Azerbaijan. Yeni Musavat, which already has the highest circulation among newspapers in the Southern Caucasus, increased its numbers even after it was banned from the state printing house and distribution system.

2003 Documented Cases – Azerbaijan

JANUARY 25, 2003

Elmar Huseynov, Monitor

Hasan Zeynalov, head of the Baku-based Representative Office of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an Azerbaijani exclave located between Armenia and Iran, filed both civil and criminal libel lawsuits against Huseynov, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Baku-based, independent magazine Monitor.

Zeynalov filed the suits in response to a commentary written by Huseynov and published in the January 18 edition of Monitor that criticized the prevalence of corruption in Azerbaijan. In the article, Huseynov compared the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and its residents to Sicily and also compared Azerbaijan's government to the Sicilian mafia.

Zeynalov is seeking 100 million manats (US$20,000) in damages from Huseynov in a civil case. Huseynov also faces up to 2.5 million manats (US$500) in fines and six months in jail on the criminal charges. The Sabail District Court in Baku scheduled a hearing on March 4.

Zeynalov filed the lawsuit on behalf of the residents of Nakhchivan. But Rashid Hajili, director of the Baku-based Institute for Media Defense, Education, and Advocacy, told CPJ that the case against Huseynov is flawed because the Azerbaijani legal system does not allow individuals to file lawsuits on behalf of others.

APRIL 21, 2003

Sarkyarda Sarkhanogli, Milliyett
Taleh Abbasli, Milliyett


Police confiscated the entire print run of the April 20 edition of the Baku-based opposition weekly Milliyett from newsstands, according to local press reports and a CPJ source in the city. That edition contained an article titled "Warning to the Dictator," which was accompanied by a photo-collage of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev's face superimposed on the fallen statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Milliyett Deputy Editor Sarkhanogli told CPJ that the Prosecutor General's Office ordered the confiscation of the weekly from newsstands in Baku and other parts of the country and also pressured distribution firms to stop selling the newspaper in Baku subways and other regions around the country.

A group of undercover police officers arrived at the Milliyett office the day after the confiscation at about 4 p.m. and detained Sarkhanogli and Editor-in-Chief Abbasli, telling them they would be taken by force if they did not agree to go with the officers voluntarily, Sarkhanogli told CPJ.

The editors were taken to meet with Deputy Prosecutor General Ramiz Rzayev, who officially warned them against publishing material that would offend the president's honor. "Rzayev and the other prosecutors were yelling at us, telling us we have no right to publish such a collage of a person as old and ill as President Aliyev," said Sarkhanogli.

The journalists were then forced to write an explanation of why they had published the collage and sign a document indicating they had received an official warning, which also stated that the newspaper would be punished if it published a similar image again. "They told us that if we published something offensive to Aliyev again, we would be in deep trouble," Sarkhanogli told CPJ.

The editors were brought back to the newsroom about three-and-a-half hours later. Sarkhanogli said Milliyett was not sold in subway kiosks from April 21 to May 22.

MAY 4, 2003

Yeni Musavat

The offices on Yeni Musavat, a popular opposition daily in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, were attacked in the evening by a group of nearly 30 men who destroyed furniture, windows, and telephone equipment. The perpetrators also assaulted four Yeni Musavat journalists, including Deputy Editor-in-Chief Gabil Abbasoglu. The journalists suffered only minor injuries and returned to work the next day.

According to Alesker Suleymanov, a journalist with Yeni Musavat, and Azerbaijani press reports, the attackers were incensed by a recent series of articles about President Heydar Aliyev's frail health. The reports were published after Aliyev collapsed twice on April 21 while making a speech on live national television.

After the attack on the paper, the police were called to the scene, where they detained four of the attackers, at least one of whom was later released. No one has been charged.

MAY 5, 2003

Yeni Musavat
Bizim Yol
Yeni Zaman

Tagi Akhmadov, director general of Baku Metropolitan, the city's subway administration, issued an unofficial order suspending the sale of opposition newspapers in Baku subway station kiosks, according to local and international press reports. The ban affected five newspapers – Hurriyet, Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Bizim Yol, and Yeni Zaman. Every three months, Baku Metropolitan renews a contract with newspaper distribution firms. In his order, Akhmadov stated that he would renew contracts only with those firms that agreed not to sell opposition newspapers.

That same day, the Prosecutor General's Office issued a statement accusing several opposition media outlets of allegedly insulting President Heydar Aliyev and publishing articles calling for "the creation of chaos among the population and the forceful seizure of power," The Associated Press reported. The ban was lifted on May 22, after several local journalists and press freedom activists threatened to organize a protest in front of the main Baku Metropolitan building, Hurriyat journalist Idzhat Huseynov told CPJ.


Khalig Bakhadur, Azadlyg
Azer Rashidoglu, Zerkalo
Matin Yasharoglu, Zerkalo
Ray Karimoglu, Milli Yol
Mirdjavid Rahimov, Space TV
Khadidzha Ismailova, Echo
Mudfig Abdullayev, Bu Gyun
Hagani Safaroglu, Avropa

Police attacked a group of independent and opposition journalists outside the police headquarters in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku at around 4 p.m. while the journalists were covering the arrival of Popular Front activist Fuad Mustafaev for police questioning, according to local press reports.

Mustafaev was called in for questioning following an argument that broke out on September 6 during a live televised debate on state-run Azerbaijan Television. During the debate, Mustafaev threw a glass at a presidential candidate, Interfax news agency reported.

Police officers, led by Deputy Chief of Police Yashar Aliyev, emerged from the headquarters, dispersed the Popular Front supporters, and then assaulted the journalists. The journalists showed their identification cards, "but the policemen started beating us with fists, throwing us to the ground, and kicking us with their feet," said Kenan Guluzade, a producer with the Baku office of Internews, a U.S.-based media-training organization, who, along with Internews cameraman Manaf Guliyev, filmed the attack. "The police confiscated our digital recording and escorted us to the police station, where the policemen beat us more," added Guluzade. After reviewing the film, the police returned it to the journalists.

Local media reported that other journalists beaten included: Bakhadur, of the Azeri-language opposition daily Azadlyg; Rashidoglu and Yasharoglu, of the Russian-language independent daily Zerkalo; Karimoglu, editor of Azeri-language independent Milli Yol; Rahimov, of the private Space TV; Ismailova, of the Russian-language independent daily Ekho; Abdullayev, editor of the Azeri-language opposition daily Bu Gyun; and Safaroglu, of the Azeri-language independent weekly Avropa.

"There was nothing illegal in the actions of the police," Deputy Aliyev told CPJ. "We are sorry if some journalists accidentally got hit by the police."

OCTOBER 15-16, 2003
Posted: October 17, 2003

Elkhan Kerimov, Turan
Emin Huseynov, Turan
Azer Qarachenli, Avropa

Yeni Musavat

Zagfar Guliyev, Turan
Emin Huseynov, Turan
Ilkin Guliyev, Turan
Fuad Hasanguliyev, Interfax-Azerbaijan
Sabina Iskenderli, Interfax-Azerbaijan
Agil Jamal, Azadlig
Hayal Babayev, Azadlig
Azer Hasret, Confederation of Journalist Organizations
Shirhan Agayev, Prognoz
Sarkarda Sarkhanoglu, Hurriyet
Nabi Alishov, Hurriyet
Adil Huseynov, Hurriyet
Tahir Aliyaroglu, Hurriyet
Tebriz Sadayoglu, Hurriyet
Nidjat Daglar, Baki Habar
Kenul Veliyeva, Baki Habar
Metanet Muslimgizi, Baki Habar
Vasim Mamedov, Baki Habar
Eynulla Umudov, Galanjak Gun
Etibar Savalan, Galanjak Gun
Elza Abishova, Cumhurriyet
Mansura Sattarova, Cumhurriyet
Lala Musa gizi, Cumhurriyet
Afgan Gafarov, Cumhurriyet
Kenan Rovshanoglu, Cumhurriyet

At a rally in front of the Musavat Party headquarters in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, the independent Turan news agency reported that unidentified civilians attacked two of its correspondents – Kerimov and Huseynov. According to Turan, which is based in Baku, the attacks occurred in the presence of police officers.

The rally was one of several organized by the Musavat Party to protest the outcome of presidential elections held on October 15 in which preliminary results showed that Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev, son of the country's ailing authoritarian president, Heydar Aliyev, had taken nearly 80 percent of the vote, and that the Musavat Party candidate, Isa Gambar, received 12 percent of the vote.

When policemen arrived to break up the rally at 1 a.m., several men, wearing black uniforms without any insignia, detained Qarachenli, an editor for the independent weekly Avropa, and took him away, said Avropa editor-in-chief Fakhri Ugurlu.

According to Ugurlu, Qarachenli "called us to say that the police had taken him but then his mobile phone was cut off. We still haven't heard from him, and the police said they haven't arrested him."

On October 16, security forces blocked all access to the Musavat Party headquarters where the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat is based. The newspaper is currently being published from the offices of the opposition newspaper Azadlig, Ugurlu told CPJ.

Later that day, thousands of angry protesters gathered in central Baku and converged on Azadlyg Square where several thousand riot police and soldiers used tear gas, police dogs, water cannons, and truncheons to violently disperse the crowd. Despite presenting their press credentials to cover the protests, dozens of journalists were severely beaten by police and security forces during the riot, which lasted three hours, said local news reports.

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