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IPI delegation encouraged by steps to improve media freedom

(IPI/IFEX) - 25 February 2011 - Following high-level meetings with key media stakeholders this week, the International Press Institute (IPI) is encouraged by recent steps Azerbaijan's government and the country's Press Council have taken to improve the condition of journalists in that country.

IPI Director Alison Bethel McKenzie and IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills are currently in Azerbaijan to hold talks with the IPI Azerbaijan National Committee, media representatives and the government about strengthening press freedom.

Dr. Ali Hasanov, head of the public relations department of the presidential administration, said in meetings with IPI that in the last three years the government has done a great deal for the media in the country, such as cancelling accumulated debts media companies owed to Azerbaijan's sole printing house, which is owned by the government, and creating subsidies.

Azerbaijan was admitted into the Council of Europe in 2001, and Hasanov said the government has moved to fulfil several requirements since then, including creating a new media law, removing the need for new media outlets to seek licences and eliminating government censorship. He also said the country is taking steps towards decriminalising defamation, and individuals with whom IPI met said that a proposal to do so is expected to pass in Parliament.

Despite the positive discussions, government representatives indicated that they were unable to comment on the case of imprisoned journalist Eynulla Fatullayev due to the posture of the case in the country's judicial system. IPI stressed its desire to see Fatullayev released from prison as soon as possible, and Fatullayev's father, Emin Fatullayev, told IPI he is hoping his son is included among the list of prisoners granted amnesty each year during the 21 March Novruz holiday.

The founder and editor-in-chief of the newspapers Gundelik Azerbaycan, and Realny Azerbaijan, Eynulla Fatullayev is currently imprisoned on charges of criminal defamation, threatening terrorism and possessing heroin.

He was first incarcerated in 2007 on the defamation charge for an article he wrote in 2005, and the Azeri government later brought the terrorism charge over a March 2007 article. Found guilty on both counts, Fatullayev was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison.

In December 2009, authorities said they found heroin in Fatullayev's cell, and he was later sentenced to an additional two and a half years in prison. However, many believe the charge to have been fabricated to prevent his release in the event that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his rights had been violated.

The court by a 6-1 vote last spring ruled that authorities violated Fatullayev's rights to freedom of expression, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, and it rejected Azerbaijan's appeal in October. However, Azeri authorities have yet to comply with the court's order to release the journalist and an appeals court in Baku rejected Fatullayev's appeal of his drug conviction earlier this month.

In meetings with several senior editors and publishers - including opposition and pro-government entities, as well as public media - Azeri journalists said the media in Azerbaijan continue to face a number of issues, including self-censorship, the lack of an advertising infrastructure and no real mechanism to distribute newspapers outside of the major cities. They also criticised the tenure of relationships between government and media, and called for increased professional standards by engaging in more media training for managers.

Among other initiatives, the Azerbaijani government has dedicated 5 million AZ Manat this year to build housing for 100 journalists from independent media. In total, the government said, it hopes to build enough apartments over the next couple of years to house about 400 journalists.

IPI called on the government to ensure that such subsidies are not used as leverage over journalists who engage in critical reporting, and counseled journalists not to allow the subsidies to hamper their ability to conduct accurate, independent reporting.

Hasanov acknowledged that there are many problems to be resolved in Azerbaijan in 2011, including decriminalisation of defamation, improving the relationship between the government and media, improving access to information and establishing an Ombudsman Institute as part of the 2005 Law on Obtaining Information.

"The time has come for Azerbaijan not to jail journalists for their journalism," he said. "This year we are going to adopt a defamation law and this problem will be solved."

IPI suggested to government officials and others that Azerbaijan has a real opportunity to improve its standing on press freedom issues and to provide a positive example. The government, in the meetings, appeared willing to seize that opportunity.

Umud Mirzayev, chairman of IPI's Azerbaijan National Committee, said: "We highly appreciate the visit of IPI to Azerbaijan. It is a very useful visit from the point of view of the development of press freedom. As the national committee of IPI, we try to cover all the sides of the mass media in Azerbaijan, including organising meetings."

"Of course, as a result of the visit we hope that jointly with the Azerbaijan National Committee a strategic plan can be drafted dealing with the media in Azerbaijan. Among the problems of the media are social issues, polarisation, etc. The government appears willing to tackle these issues. It is encouraging that the government is willing to discuss all issues. It is clear that we do have challenges."

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