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In letter to US State Department official, IRFS warns of mounting pressure against media and increasingly dangerous work environment for journalists

(IRFS/IFEX) - The following is a 2 November 2007 IRFS letter to U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried:

November 2, 2007

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20520

I have been informed that you will be visiting Azerbaijan at the beginning of next week, and would like to draw your attention to the mounting pressure against the mass media here, and the increasingly dangerous work environment for journalists. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this past April, during a forum on journalism, "There is no more important pillar of democracy than a free and active press." However, in Azerbaijan press freedom is practically non-existent.

At present, there are seven wrongfully imprisoned journalists in Azerbaijan, all of whom have been imprisoned on the basis of lawsuits put forth by government officials and/or the state itself. These seven people are not criminals, but rather people that the government seeks to silence. Faramez llahveridyev, Rovshan Kebirli and Yashar Agazadeh have been imprisoned through Azerbaijan's criminal defamation law, while Rafig Tagi and Samir Sadagetoglu were imprisoned on absurd allegations of inciting regional hatred, just because Tagi espoused his personal opinion that Christian values are superior to Islamic values. Sakit Zahidov was imprisoned on a spurious charge of possession of heroine, even though the days he was imprisoned he passed an express drug urine test and during his trial doctors from the Republic Narcotics Dispensary admitted in court that reports they filed that said Zahidov was in the first stage of drug addiction were based only on 10 minutes of visual observations; NO lab tests were performed. And Eynulla Fatullayev was convicted just this past week on an absurd charge of terrorism and inciting interethnic hatred, based on an article he wrote speculating what would happen in Azerbaijan if the U.S. and Iran went to war. Fatullayev is recognized by Amnesty International as a political prisoner, while Zahidov is listed by the organization as a probable political prisoner. In addition to this, three months ago, Azerbaijan's special services carried out an operation to entrap Azerbaijani journalist Mushfig Huseynov, which ultimately led to Huseynov's imprisonment. Huseynov is now accused of taking a bribe, the journalist's presumption of innocence has been violated and a campaign of black PR against both Husenyov and the entire Azerbaijani independent press has begun.

Most recently, an opposition journalist in Nakhchivan, Hakim Eldostu Mehdiyev, was beaten and subjected to torture by staff members from Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry for writing about social problems. Then, one day later, because the journalist reported this incident, he was imprisoned. In the wake of this journalist's arrest, his relatives also faced repression. Specifically, a small store and teahouse owned by them were shut down by law enforcement officers and to this day their operations have not been restored. Although Mehidyev has been released from prison, he continues to face threats and pressure and may be forced to seek asylum because state law enforcement agencies are taking no actions to investigate this incident, protect his and his family's safety or to bring to criminal responsibility those responsible for his beating, subjection to torture, and subsequent unjustified arrest.

We also must note that all TV channels in this country are under the government's control and they play a major role in carrying out propaganda for Azerbaijan's incumbent government. It is impossible to open a truly independent TV station in this country, and the government has a monopoly over the Internet. In addition to this, the courts, which are not independent institutions in Azerbaijan, have imposed crippling damages in civil defamation suits (over 700,000 AZN this year alone as of 1 July), and the government continues to manipulate resources to pressure independent and opposition media outlets.

Taking into consideration all that we have noted above, we ask that you discuss the deteriorating press freedom situation in Azerbaijan with all of the government officials that you meet during you visit to here, and, more specifically, we request that you call on the government of Azerbaijan to:

- seriously investigate and criminally prosecute those who are responsible for attacks, murders and other human rights violations against journalists
- decriminalize defamation
- impose a moratorium on lawsuits by government officials against the press
- annul all of the fines that have been instituted against mass media institutions
- foster the creation of an unrestricted advertising market for all mass media institutions
- fulfill international obligations in the areas of press freedom and human rights

As you are probably aware, your attention to this matter is particularly crucial in light of the upcoming 2008 presidential elections.

In closing, I leave you with the words of famous American politician Thomas Jefferson - "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."


Emin Huseynov
Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety

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