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IRFS condemns decision to cease FM broadcasts of foreign radio stations, calls for decision to be reversed

(IRFS/IFEX) - The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) resolutely condemns the 30 December 2008 decision of Azerbaijan's National Television and Radio Council (NTRC) to cease the FM broadcasts of Azerbaijan's three foreign radio broadcasters, Radio Free Europe (RFERL), Voice of America (VOA) and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), as of 1 January 2009, and also condemns the government of Azerbaijan for embracing this decision.

On 30 December the NTRC issued a decision that, according to the Law on National Tele-radio Broadcasts, broadcasts by foreign radio stations on FM radio are illegal, but these stations will be allowed to continue their activities within in the country on AM radio, internet, cable and satellite.

IRFS notes that cable is practically non-existent in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan's internet infrastructure is monopolised by the government, thus these means cannot be seen as reliable ways to access the broadcasts of foreign radio stations. Regarding satellite broadcasts, at least 50 percent of the people who listened to RFERL, VOA and the BBC did so while in transit in taxis, buses and the metro, however these people will now be deprived of these broadcasts because portable satellite receivers are not financially attainable for most citizens of Azerbaijan, nor is there any promotion of portable satellite radio receivers or service providers. All of these broadcasting methods can only be regarded supplementary, they cannot be regarded as primary means of broadcasting. The only thing left is the Azeri government's absurd decision to permit each foreign radio station to broadcast for one hour per day on AM radio. At present, RFERL, VOA and the BBC broadcast 24 hours a day and the one hour they are being offered on AM radio represents a severe reduction in their broadcasts. In addition, it is widely known that in Azerbaijan, approximately 95 percent of the radio receivers in cars, on telephones and so on only receive signals for FM radio. AM radio signals are mainly received in Azerbaijan only on very old radios or very new radios that are more expensive.

The national tele-radio companies operating in Azerbaijan are under the unofficial control of the government and operate on the orders of the government. Azerbaijan's Public Radio serves the government's interests, not the people's. RFERL, VOA and the BBC were the lone electronic broadcasters airing people expressing alternative ideas. In addition, RFERL, VOA and the BBC were widely seen as a crucial window to the rest of the world that will now be closed to many people in Azerbaijan.

IRFS considers the decision of the NTRC and government of Azerbaijan to cease the broadcasts of foreign radio stations on FM radio to be illegal and a move that is not in the interest of the Azeri people. IRFS is certain this decision is a political move that was made to protect the interests of Azerbaijan's corrupt officials and the ruling party. It should be kept in mind that the BBC, RFERL and VOA are the only radio stations that are capable of providing Azerbaijan's population with objective information about a referendum to be conducted in Azerbaijan on 18 March 2009. This referendum is related to the widely criticised attempt by the Azeri government to eliminate the limit on the number of terms someone can serve as president of Azerbaijan.

In addition to the unacceptable decision to cease the broadcasts of VOA, RFERL and the BBC on FM radio, there are still wrongfully imprisoned journalists in Azerbaijan. This is a clear reflection of the Azeri government's lack of tolerance for press freedom. These problems damage Azerbaijan's international image and show a continuing deterioration of the situation of democracy in Azerbaijan.

IRFS calls for the decision of the Azeri government and NTRC regarding the FM broadcasts of VOA, the BBC and RFERL to be immediately annulled and for the government of Azerbaijan to create conditions for these three radio stations to not only continue their operations as they have, but to expand their work. IRFS also calls on the international community to condemn the decision of the Azeri government and NTRC. If conditions for VOA, RFERL and the BBC are not sustained in Azerbaijan, IRFS considers the situation in the radio sector wholly inadequate for the Azeri population. In such a case, IRFS suggests creating television versions of the Azeri-language programmes that were formerly broadcast on FM radio by VOA, the BBC and RFERL, and having these broadcast on "TURKSAT" and "HOTBIRD" (like the live debates broadcast in the Russian Federation by RTVI and EXO MOSKVI). Because at least 50 percent of the Azeri population has the means to receive such satellite TV broadcasts, this would allow the population to continue to listen to VOA, RFERL and the BBC, and to still receive professional and objective news in Azerbaijan.

Updates alert on the government's decision to cease foreign FM radio broadcasts: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/98145

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