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WAN-IFRA calls for greater media freedom in Azerbaijan

(WAN-IFRA/IFEX) - Baku, Azerbaijan, 24 September 2009 - The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) today called on the Government of Azerbaijan to introduce "drastic reforms" to create full media freedom in the country, as a delegation from the organization ended a three-day mission to the capital, Baku.

Noting a "pervasive climate of intimidation and fear" in the media environment of this Central Asian Republic, WAN-IFRA called for:

- The immediate release of five editors, journalists and bloggers from prison;
- An end to physical assaults and other forms of intimidation against media employees, including judicial harassment;
- The prosecution of those responsible for violence against journalists;
- The decriminalization of libel and defamation;
- An end to widespread State ownership of print media and the government domination of broadcasting.

In a statement concluding the mission, during which members met which met with publishers and editors, diplomats, representatives of human rights and civil society organisations and a senior government official, the WAN-IFRA delegation declared:

"Almost two decades after the end of the Soviet era and the advent of democracy in Azerbaijan, we find few if any signs of the emergence of the stable, strong, independent and free press which is fundamental to the functioning of a fair and free society, with accountable government and other public institutions. In its place, we observe a handful of non-governmental media trying to survive in a pervasive climate of intimidation and fear, financially crippled and with insignificant audiences. Drastic reforms are clearly required."

Three senior journalists are currently serving long jail sentences on charges ranging from 'hooliganism', terrorism, incitement of ethnic hatred, tax evasion and bribery, and two bloggers are being tried on similar charges. The delegation was refused permission to visit imprisoned journalists. "The reality of the offenses with which these and other journalists have been accused is suspicious to say the very least,"said WAN-IFRA. "It is very hard indeed to conclude otherwise than they have, in fact, been punished for being consistent critics of the government."

"Physical attacks against reporters are also frequent and, again, the circumstances in which they take place make it very difficult to disassociate them from what is apparently a consistent campaign of intimidation."

In a meeting with Ali Hasanov, an official of the presidential administration, the WAN-IFRA delegation called for a reprieve of the jailed journalists and the bloggers under trial. Mr. Hasanov told the group that serious measures were being taken by the Government to improve the situation of the independent press:

- A fund to accelerate private media development;
- The decriminalisation of libel and defamation;
- Encouragement of greater professionalism in the journalistic profession;
- The gradual phasing out of newspapers published by state agencies;
- Measures to boost the underdeveloped advertising market;
- The introduction of a fair and transparent tender system for government advertising contracts.

"You can expect to see huge progress for the media in the next three years," said Mr. Hasanov. But he denied that the Government is "part of the problem". He contended that Azerbaijani journalists were far more critical of government and its officials than were journalists in most European countries.

He added that there had been only two attacks against journalists in the last three years and that, in one case, the journalist admitted the attack was not related to his work.

"Violence against media in not a trend," he said, "and has in fact greatly declined."

The WAN-IFRA representatives welcomed Mr. Hasanov's statements about proposed government measures to improve conditions for the independent press. "We look forward very much to seeing the developments promised by the administration and will be watching the situation closely. We offered our support to the implementation of the various media development initiatives under way."

The delegation, composed of Timothy Balding, co-CEO of WAN-IFRA, Bengt Braun, Senior Ambassador and Chairman of the WAN-IFRA Fund for Press Freedom Development, and Mira Milosevic, Deputy Director of Press Freedom, concluded:

"Azerbaijan will not be able to take its place among the world's modern, democratic and free nations without profound change in the media landscape. A strong, free press, able to do its job without fear and persecution, is one of the hallmarks of any civilized, democratic nation."

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