A New Draconian Media Law In Azerbaijan Gives The Government The Power To Decide What's News

Journalists hounded and harassed to the point where many have fled the country. Independent or opposition media shuttered or blocked online. Nearly all news media reaching the public controlled by the government.

For years, media experts and others have been warning about Azerbaijan's dire media landscape. And now they say it could get even worse.

Despite protests from many of the remaining independent reporters in the country and criticism from the West, including the Council of Europe, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev approved a new law on the media on February 8.

The legislation, passed by the country's largely rubber-stamp parliament in late December 2021, places fresh restrictions on the owners of media operating in Azerbaijan as well as journalists, who will be required not only to register with the authorities but to abide by other new rules, including one on the "objective" interpretation of facts and events.

Natiq Mammadli, department director at the state's Media Development Agency, which was involved in crafting the law, has said it is merely aimed at modernizing the country's media legislation as well as improving the professionalism of journalists.

Media rights activists, as well as Azerbaijani independent journalists and media, aren't convinced.

"We're indeed very concerned with the application of this law we publicly denounced several times," said Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in e-mailed remarks to RFE/RL.

According to RSF and other media experts, Aliyev has waged a campaign against his critics, with independent journalists and bloggers jailed on dubious grounds if they do not first yield to harassment, blackmail, or bribes.

Worsening Situation

Many of the country's journalists operate outside the country, having fled persecution. A crackdown after 2020 parliamentary elections largely boycotted by the opposition, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and the short war in 2020 in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory disputed with neighboring Armenia, have all conspired to create a worsening situation and more censorship for journalists in Azerbaijan, RSF has said.

In the most recent RSF index, Azerbaijan ranked 167th out of 180 countries. In the post-Soviet space, only Turkmenistan ranked lower.

On December 26, 2014, Azerbaijani police raided and sealed RFE/RL's Baku bureau citing charges that were thrown out by an Azerbaijani court. The bureau remains closed and local RFE/RL correspondents continue to be harassed by Azerbaijani officials.

Fatima Movlamli, a freelance journalist covering a protest of mothers of sons killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, was arrested and beaten in detention by police in Baku on February 15, becoming apparently the first reporter to fall victim to the new media legislation.

"The police [said] she had no right to work as a journalist since she was not included in the register created by the new media law," Cavelier said.

By registering, journalists are forced to hand over to authorities information and details that will ultimately make their tracking and possible future detention easier, Cavelier explained.

"All those who'll be registered take the risk of facilitating their repression by the authorities because they have to give them personal details like their addresses, details of their bank accounts and work contracts; those who won't be registered are liable to find their activities even more restricted," Cavelier said.

Azerbaijani media outlets that have based themselves abroad to avoid harassment, such as Meydan TV, which is based in Berlin, will find it much harder to operate, RSF has warned. If they are not registered as media outlets in Azerbaijan, it will be illegal for their correspondents to work there.

Those registered and allowed to report inside Azerbaijan will also face scrutiny to report "objectively," as defined by the Aliyev government.

"I'm especially appalled by the fact that journalists will have to comply with the 'objective' interpretation of the facts -- without any definition of an objective interpretation. It will be an additional pretext to put independent or critical journalists in jail," Cavelier said.

'Turning Into North Korea'

Independent journalists inside Azerbaijan protested the changes that have been reportedly in the works since the start of 2021.

"From today onward, the media [in the country] can be considered dead," said freelance journalist Nurlan Libre, as he placed a symbolic headstone in front of the country's parliament building during a protest on December 24, 2021, that was quickly dispersed by police.

"This is censorship, this is authoritarianism. It is against our constitutional rights. This means turning the country into North Korea," he added in a Facebook video on the protest.

In a rebuke of the legislation on February 10, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, noted that the Azerbaijani parliament had passed it "With no formal opportunity for the public to discuss and comment on the draft." It noted that any journalist with a criminal record would be excluded from the new reporter registry.

"Given the country's long track of imprisoning journalists on fake charges over the years, this specific precondition will eliminate a significant number of independent reporters and legalize censorship," the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said.

To no avail, Dunja Mijatovic, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, called on President Aliyev on January 25 to use his authority to return the legislation to parliament for revision, "in order to bring it in line with international and European standards on freedom of expression and media freedom."

Media owners will also face new requirements, as outlets must now be owned by Azerbaijani citizens permanently residing in the country.

'Death Of Independent Journalism'

If outlets are found to have accepted foreign funds or have a director who does not meet the requirements of citizenship and education, they could be suspended for two months, or even shut down if violations are repeated.

The restrictions apply to print, online, and broadcast entities, as well as any individual or group that mainly publishes "audiovisual material" online.

Targeting foreign funding or foreign ownership is not unique to Azerbaijan. Russia's "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires NGOs that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as "foreign agents," and to submit to audits.

RFE/RL has been targeted by the controversial legislation, with 18 Russian-national journalists on the government's "foreign agent" list, and facing over $13 million in assessed fines.

To rule on who is and isn't abiding by the new restrictions will be the Azerbaijani courts, as well as a new seven-member Audio Visual Council.

Appointed by the president, the council will rule on cases involving individuals or organizations that publish "audiovisual material" online.

Cavelier echoed the fears of others that the new draconian measures could be the final nail in the coffin of independent journalism in energy-rich Azerbaijan.

"So this law may mean the death of independent journalism, which is already in hard difficulties in the country because of the ongoing repression," she said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service