International interest in Azerbaijan and its vast Caspian Sea oil reserves grew again this year, and its leaders have stepped up efforts to improve the country's image among potential investors. But President Heydar Aliyev's drive to woo the West changed little for Azerbaijan's independent media, which routinely confronted official censorship and harassment.

The Azerbaijani government continues to practice Soviet-style censorship over the print media, although constitutional and legal safeguards exist on the books. Despite a 1996 presidential decree removing military censorship, instituted during the conflict with Armenia over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, journalists and media-watch groups reported that the practice has persisted along with political censorship. The country's 1995 constitution and its criminal code contain provisions that effectively ban criticism of the president and make libel a criminal offense.

On January 25, Azerbaijan enacted a comprehensive law on official secrets, which holds journalists, as well as officials, responsible for leaks of classified material, which it groups into four categories: military, economic, foreign policy, and intelligence. Some subjects that were banned during Soviet times, such as the health of officials, accidents, and environmental problems, are now declassified.

Leading independent and opposition newspapers had dozens of articles, commentaries, and even letters to the editor censored throughout the year, forcing them to fill the blank spaces chiefly with cartoons. The primary targets of censorship were articles about human rights violations in Azerbaijan, interviews or statements by opposition politicians, reviews of the political situation, Armenian-Russian relations, the plight of refugees in Nagorno-Karabakh, environmental damage linked to offshore oil drilling, any information about ex-president Abulfaz Elchibey, and even coverage of President Aliyev's official visit to the United States in July. Earlier in the year, journalists returning from the Nakhchivan region, where former president Elchibey was based, were routinely detained and searched for materials about him.

The government maintains strong control over state television and radio, the only outlets that reach the entire nation. But officials allow one private television broadcaster, Azerbaijan News Service (ANS), to operate and broadcast news almost without censorship, chiefly because the station reaches less than 13 percent of the population. The authorities also do not jam foreign television and radio broadcasts, although they did censor some programs broadcast by the private Russian television company NTV in May, two weeks after NTV began broadcasting in Azeri for viewers in several regions in Azerbaijan. The government said it found some of the NTV programs "harmful to public morals."

Journalists continue to suffer beatings and violent threats, as well as police harassment while on assignment. The number of violent incidents fell when compared with 1996. Local media watchdog groups such as Yeni Nesil, however, attribute the decrease to self-censorship by journalists hoping to avoid such retribution.

In April, Nicholas Daniloff, a former Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report who now directs the journalism program at Northeastern University, undertook a three-month fact-finding mission to Armenia and Azerbaijan for CPJ. The resulting report, "Mixed Signals: Press Freedom in Armenia and Azerbaijan," appears on p. 358. CPJ also issued an open letter to President Aliyev during his official visit to Washington in July, calling on him to immediately lift censorship restrictions on the media in Azerbaijan.

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