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"Khural" reporter convicted of slander, sentenced to "corrective labour"; WPFC urges president to free jailed journalists

(WPFC/IFEX) - The following is a 24 January 2008 WPFC letter to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev:

January 24, 2008

His Excellency Ilham Aliyev
President
Republic of Azerbaijan
19 Istiglaliyat St.
370066 Baku
Azerbaijan

Your Excellency:

The World Press Freedom Committee - an organization representing 45 press freedom groups from six continents - congratulates you on your December 28 decision to pardon five journalists who had been imprisoned because of criminal defamation convictions, but also expresses profound concern about the alarmingly high number of incarcerations of journalists in your country, including the recent jailing of Avaz Zeynalli, the editor-in-chief of the Khural newspaper, and one of his reporters, Kamal Huseyn, for alleged slander.

Your decision made possible the release from prison of Samir Sadagatoglu, Rafik Tagi, Yashar Agazade, Rovshan Kiabirli and Faramaz Allakhverdiev. All of them had been convicted of criminal defamation in connection with their duties to keep their readers informed about matters of public interest. Four journalists more, however, still remain in prison: Eynulla Fetullayev, Sakit Zahidov, Ganimat Zahidov and Musfiq Huseynov.

Mr. Zeynalli was sentenced to two years of "corrective labor" and while he serves his sentence, he is to pay 20 percent of his salary to the State. Mr. Huseyn was sentenced to 18 months of "corrective labor" and also to pay 20 percent of his salary to the State. Their alleged "crime" was to publish two articles critical of the job performance of the executive director of your Public Works Department, who felt his "honor and dignity were insulted."

We are astounded by the extreme severity of the sentences imposed on these journalists for fulfilling their professional duty to keep their readers informed. When a journalist is imprisoned and sentenced to "corrective labor," the rights of his or her readers, audience or viewers are also, in a sense, imprisoned and sentenced to "corrective labor." As a matter of fact, these abusive criminal penalties are imposed on the very principles that demand the existence of a free and independent press as part of a functioning democracy.

As we have mentioned to Your Excellency in previous letters, international judicial entities such as the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Commission on Human Rights have expressed that criminal defamation laws, the ones used to imprison these journalists, are in direct violation of the fundamental right to free speech and to a free press, which are also consecrated in your country's Constitution.

Both the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and the recommendations of the UN Commission on Human Rights support the concept that public officials should expect more, and not less, scrutiny and criticism from the rest of society. This acceptance of being a willing target of the media's slings and arrows also implies public officials should restrain themselves from using these laws in order to silence criticism directed at them.

Both institutions also state that criminal defamation and insult laws, in the hands of public officials, can become a potent censorship tool to shield themselves from the scrutiny of the press and the rest of society. As a matter of fact, international human rights jurisprudence recommends that all laws that allow criminal penalties for defamation, particularly those that are applied against journalists and media outlets, ought to be decriminalized in all the countries where they exist, including Azerbaijan. Likewise, they maintain that any fines, even those as a result of civil proceedings, ought to be applied in a sensible way so they do not become intimidatory weapons that impede the necessary flow of information in a democratic society.

We need to restate that the unjust incarcerations of journalists, including Mr. Zeynalli and Mr. Huseyn and the rest of their colleagues, constitute a frontal attack on the very press freedom principles whose respect is essential for the functioning of a democratic society. Therefore, your Excellency, we congratulate you again for your December 28 pardons but also urge you to use the full extent of the executive power's influence to immediately begin the appropriate proceeding in order to free all of them.

Respectfully,

E. Markham Bench
Executive Director
World Press Freedom Committee

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His Excellency Ilham Aliyev
President
Republic of Azerbaijan
19 Istiglaliyat St.
370066 Baku
Azerbaijan
E-mail: [email protected]

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