New Azeri Law Enrages Journalists

Independent media say ban on unauthorised recordings will hamper reporting.

By Seymur Kazimov in Baku (CRS No.532, 19-Feb-10)

Some journalists in Azerbaijan say changes to media legislation could limit freedom of expression.

The amendments - passed by parliament on February 12 after they were approved last March in a referendum on a number of different subjects - forbid reporters from recording anyone’s voice or image without their permission.

The media law changes were little noticed at the time, as most attention around the referendum focused on a constitutional reform allowing the president to run for re-election as often as he wants.

Arif Aliyev, chairman of the New Generation journalists’ union, said the amendments – the tenth alterations to the media law since it was adopted in 1999 - could restrict freedom of speech in the country.

“This is the most negative change that has been made to the law in the last ten years. When this question was raised in the referendum, the government promised it would allow exceptions in some cases - but this law shows that no exceptions were made, and the ban for journalists is absolute,” he said.

“This means that a journalist, even at normal events, cannot film as he wishes.”

He suspected the amended law, which awaits presidential approval, would lead to more criminal cases against journalists.

“Now anyone who wants to can take a journalist to court just for being photographed, for example at the launch of a book. It is laughable,” he said.

Rauf Arigoflu, the editor-in-chief of Yeni Musavat newspaper, agreed, “These amendments were made specifically to create more and more obstacles to the work of the independent and opposition media.”

He said the amendments would also serve to wipe out investigative journalism in the country. He said he would be forced to adapt to the new law and not create problems for his newspaper’s journalists.

Not all media professionals agreed with their protests, however. Vusala Mahirgizi, general director of Azeri Press, a pro-governmental private news organisation, said the changes were fine.

She said that journalists had lost their chance to object when they did not protest at the time of the referendum.

“Then most journalists focused on different issues, such as on the point removing restrictions on the re-election of the president. And I don’t understand why we should now protest against parliament’s decision,” she said.

“The question was raised at a referendum, and the will of the people was expressed ... In the legal sense there are no problems. We are all obliged to respect the law, and not to go outside it.”

Mubariz Qurbanli, a member of the parliament’s committee on legal policy, said the changes were intended to protect citizens’ right to privacy.

“Here we are intending to prevent interference in private life. These bans do not relate to individuals’ social-political activities,” he said.

Bakhtiyar Sadigov, the editor-in-chief of Azerbaijan, the parliament’s own newspaper, agreed with him.

“The changes to the constitution were made by the will of the people. The population voted for these changes,” he said.

“I am personally opposed to having my picture taken without my permission, or with someone interfering with my private life. This is a violation of an individual’s rights.

“Journalists often interfere with our personal lives. We are Azeris, we have our own mentality, and we do not agree with our personal lives being on general display.”

Opposition members of parliament, however, said they did not believe the law would be used purely to deal with privacy.

Igbal Agazade, chairman of the opposition Hope party in parliament, said the law would make cracking down on free speech much easier.

“A few people claim these bans just apply to people’s personal lives, and do not relate to social-political life. But all these assurances are not reflected in the law. It will be a lot easier to keep society under control and restrict information, and that is the point of these changes,” he said.

Seymur Kazimov is a freelance journalist.