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Freedom of expression situation is "alarming", say international rights organisations

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 26 March 2012 - This report is a publication of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA), a coalition of international organisations working to promote and protect freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. It examines the freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan from the time of the IPGA's joint mission to the country in September 2010 to March 2012.

The current state of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan is alarming, as the cycle of violence against journalists and impunity for their attackers continues; journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and political and civic activists face increasing pressure, harassment and interference from the authorities; and many who express opinions critical of the authorities – whether through traditional media, online, or by taking to the streets in protest – find themselves imprisoned or otherwise targeted in retaliation.

Issues examined in this report include: impunity for violence against journalists; political use of the law to silence freedom of expression; restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly; pressure against NGOs, human rights defenders and lawyers; restrictions on the right to freedom of information; the situation of freedom of expression online; state control of the media; ethics, professionalism and self-regulation of the media; and Azerbaijan's efforts to promote a positive image abroad despite the freedom of expression problems in the country.

To address these problems and improve the freedom of expression climate in the country, the IPGA has developed a series of recommendations for the Azerbaijani authorities. These include: immediately releasing those imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression; seriously investigating and prosecuting all acts of violence against journalists; and decriminalising defamation, among many other recommendations outlined in this report.

The IPGA's concerns are currently of particular international relevance as two major international events will take place in Azerbaijan this year: the Eurovision Song Contest and the Internet Governance Forum. In light of these events – particularly Eurovision – the Azerbaijani government is working hard to promote a positive international image of Azerbaijan. But at home it continues to engage in a crackdown on freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms. This report aims to bring these concerns to the light at an opportune time for international engagement with the Azerbaijani authorities on these issues.

Engagement, however, should not stop with these events. One question that often comes up in discussions with Azerbaijani journalists, human rights defenders and political activists is: what will happen after Eurovision? Those working to tell the truth about Azerbaijan in this brief period of international media scrutiny fear reprisal when this international attention has gone. This is a valid concern as some of these individuals have already begun to be targeted by the authorities. The IPGA hopes that this report will prompt the international community to redouble its efforts to monitor the freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan and hold the authorities accountable for their actions – both immediately and in the long-term.

Click here to read Running Scared: Azerbaijan's Silenced Voices

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