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Exorbitant fines put Azeri newspaper at risk

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders condemns the Azerbaijani judicial system's determination to bankrupt the country's main opposition daily, Azadlig, by ordering it to pay exorbitant damages in libel cases (see the previous release).

“These disproportionate damages awards against Azadlig are clearly politically motivated and have put its survival in greater danger than ever before,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They directly contravene the international treaties ratified by Azerbaijan and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, of which it is a party.

“In a country where the media is already largely controlled by the authorities, Azadlig's disappearance would have extremely serious consequences. The international community must make it clear to the government that its current crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the October 2013 presidential election is unacceptable.”

In the latest decision against Azadlig (which means “freedom”), a Baku court upheld a ruling on appeal on 19 February under which the newspaper was ordered to pay 32,000 manat (about the same amount in euros) in damages to the owner of a shopping mall.

Four days earlier, the supreme court upheld a ruling ordered Azadlig to pay 30,000 manat in damages to the head of Baku's subway system. No further appeal is possible in this case.

The state of Azadlig's finances is all the more critical because its distribution network, GASID, is heavily in debt.

Defamation is still criminalized in Azerbaijan while civil proceedings often result in astronomical damages awards. Many legal actions have been brought against Azadlig while its online version is often the target of cyber-attacks. Last November, its bank accounts were temporarily blocked.

Azadlig editor Ganimat Zahid was imprisoned for two years on trumped-up charges and at least four journalists are currently detained in connection with their journalistic activities. They are being subjected to appalling prison conditions.

Azerbaijan is ranked 156th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. In the run-up to next October's presidential election, penalties for illegal demonstrations have been reinforced, Internet controls have been tightened and harassment of civil groups is steadily growing.

Read the interview that Azadlig's editor gave to RWB.

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