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CAPSULE REPORT: "Freedom of expression is in the worst state ever," says IRFS

(IRFS/IFEX) - The following is an IRFS letter to OSCE Chairman-in-Office and Finnish Foreign Minister Ikka Kanerva:

1 February 2008

Baku, Azerbaijan

OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister of Finland Mr. Ikka Kanerva,

Over the last four years, the freedom of expression and human rights situations have deteriorated on an almost daily basis in Azerbaijan. At present, freedom of expression is in the worst state ever since Azerbaijan gained its independence.

By keeping the impoverished advertising market under its control, the government has financially ruined the independent and opposition print media. Over the last eight years profits from advertisements in the print media has been halved, even though the GDP and the state budget have increased five-fold. Last year, the advertising market for the print and internet media did not exceed US$2 million. On top of this, during the same period advertising profits for television and radio stations unofficially under the control of the government didn't even exceed US$25 million. This is shameful evidence that all business sectors in Azerbaijan are monopolized.

In addition to this, the institution of unwarranted huge fines against the opposition adds to the effect of annihilation via financial means. The court fines adopted against the opposition newspapers "Azadlig" and "Yeni Musavat" alone exceed US$1 million.

In the last year, the government has, in a deliberate manner, begun to intensely apply the method of conducting inspections on opposition and independent mass media institutions to look for possible violations. In this manner, "Gundalik Azerbayjan" and "Realny Azerbayjan" Chief Editor Eynulla Fatullayev was imprisoned on fabricated tax evasion charges, as well as charges of terrorism and incitement of ethnic hatred.

"Ganun" Publishing House, which publishes opposition and independent newspapers, and "Bizim Yol" have also recently been subjected to tax inspections.

Last year, Azerbaijan was listed among the top five imprisoners of journalists, along with China, Cuba, Eritrea and Iran. As last year drew to a close, five journalists were released through a pardon decree, but another four were not. This is an obvious sign of the government's intention to continue its oppression of journalists. By imprisoning 10 journalists on spurious charges, the government seemed to be imitating terrorists that capture innocent people to realize their own dirty plans.

According to international and local organizations, among these dirty plans is falsification of the 2008 presidential elections. The most dangerous time for journalists is during elections. For example, in the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections, "Monitor" Journal Editor-in-Chief Elmar Huseynov was shot to death in the doorway of his own apartment. At present his murderers and the people who ordered his murder walk freely. During 2006 and 2007 an innumerable number of attacks and plots were carried out against journalists. This week "Gundalik Azerbayjan" Editor Uzeir Jafarov received over 500 death threats to his mobile telephone, while "Azadlig" Newspaper reported that the life of one of its reporters is in danger.

In the last four years, over 50 opposition journalists have been beaten by law enforcement officers while covering protest actions. To this day, not a single person responsible for this has been punished. In fact, law enforcement agencies are trying to conceal these incidents.

Therefore, we appeal to you, Mr. Kanerva, the OSCE Chairman Chairman-in-Office. We ask you to discuss the problems we have noted above during your meetings with Azerbaijan's leadership over the next few days, and we ask that you call on Azerbaijan to fulfill its obligation to the OSCE. We also ask that you call for the release of imprisoned journalists Sakit Zahidov, Eynulla Fatullayev, Mushfig Huseynov, and Ganimat Zahid, all of whom have been imprisoned on spurious charges (possession of narcotics, terrorism, taking a bribe and hooliganism). In addition, please discuss President Ilham Aliyev's 2 July speech to police. In that speech, Aliyev guaranteed police that they will never be punished for using unlimited force against citizens (including journalists), despite international call to end to such practices. IRFS believes that Aliyev's speech, as the nation's leader, only serves to promote the use of force by law enforcement officers against dissidence. Therefore, considering that the run-up period to the election is vitally important to Azerbaijan's political life, we ask you to call on the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan to make a speech noting that it is unacceptable to use force against journalists and citizens, and to persecute journalists through the courts and law enforcement agencies.

Respectfully,

Emin Huseynov, Chairman
Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety
Baku, Azerbaijan

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