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Media face threats from revised law

(IRFS/IFEX) - The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) is concerned about the proposed changes to the Azerbaijan Republic Law on Mass Media to be discussed in an extraordinary session of Mill Mejlis (parliament) on 19 June 2009. IRFS considers that several of the changes are intended to strengthen government control over the print media and limit freedom of expression.

According to the proposed changes, a clause will be added to Article 14 that will make it possible to ban founders of mass media for a period of five (5) years. This seems disproportionate to the violation, and neglects to take into account that Azerbaijan's courts issue politically motivated and unsubstantiated decisions against the mass media and violations committed by mass media may have nothing to do with the founder(s).

There is also a proposal to alter a clause about the liquidation of media convicted of writing "biased articles" three times within two years. While this version will replace a version with language about three violations within one year, that clause was just added several months ago to the mass media law and needs to be removed entirely. In addition, it remains unclear what "biased articles" means.

Another area of concern is the proposal to remove a clause in Article 14 which reads: "State organs, municipalities, political parties (only for print media), public unions, departments, enterprises, and organizations, in collaboration with citizens residing permanently in the territory of Azerbaijan and others have the right to found mass media." While it appears this activity is not currently banned elsewhere, meaning it would remain legal even without this clause, it does call into question if the ability to create mass media will eventually become very restricted. Currently, opening broadcast media in Azerbaijan is basically impossible, but the print media has always been a liberal area where all people and groups have typically been able to contribute.

In parallel with the proposed changes to the Azerbaijan Republic Law on Mass Media, a change has also been proposed to the Azerbaijan Republic Law on State Fees to add a 1000 AZN fee (approx. US$1,240) for creating print mass media. This is a steep price that will prevent some people from opening new print media.

IRFS calls on Azerbaijan's Milli Mejlis and the government of Azerbaijan not to accept the proposed changes to the media law, and to instead work towards further liberalizing the media sphere in Azerbaijan, particularly in the area of broadcast media, and decriminalizing defamation.

IRFS calls on the international community to continue pressuring Azerbaijan's government to ensure freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, to decriminalize defamation and to fulfill Azerbaijan obligations to the international community in the area of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

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