Statement

European Broadcasting Union: ARTICLE 19 presses for media freedom in Azerbaijan

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ARTICLE 19

02 May 2012

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Statement delivered by Rebecca Vincent at the European Broadcasting Union's workshop on media freedom in Azerbaijan.

I am pleased to be here today on behalf of ARTICLE 19, which leads the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA), a coalition of international organisations working to promote and protect freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.

ARTICLE 19 and other members of the IPGA share deep concerns regarding the alarming state of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. The situation is continuing to worsen in the run-up to the Eurovision Song Contest as the authorities seem determined to silence all critics—whether journalists, bloggers, activists, or ordinary people taking to the streets in protest. As highlighted in the IPGA’s recent report, Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices, IPGA members are particularly alarmed by the continuing cycle of violence against journalists and impunity for their attackers, and by the detention and imprisonment of journalists and others in connection with exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The EBU indicated that it has organised today’s workshop to explore ways in which it can support media freedom in Azerbaijan. ARTICLE 19 believes that in order to do so, the EBU must start putting its words into actions, such as those expressed in its 2010 Declaration on freedom of expression, media independence and democracy.

In the declaration, the EBU called for respect for freedom of expression in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. It condemned arrests, harassment and intimidation of journalists and called on authorities to investigate all cases of violence against journalists and bring the perpetrators to justice. The EBU further called on authorities to respect the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights; to prevent the abuse of laws to silence criticism; and to avoid undue regulation and interference with freedom of expression. In the nearly two years since this declaration was issued at the 64th EBU General Assembly, notably held in Baku, the Azerbaijani authorities have failed to implement any of the above.

As noted in the IPGA’s report, freedom of expression is particularly restricted in broadcast media in Azerbaijan, as the state dominates broadcasting through regulations, direct ownership, or indirect economic control. Azerbaijan’s regulatory authority, the National Television and Radio Council (NTRC), lacks independence. It is fully funded from the state budget and all of its nine members are directly appointed by the president. The NTRC has demonstrated a clear bias in favour of the state in the allocation of broadcast licenses. A ban imposed by the NTRC in 2009 preventing foreign entities from accessing national frequencies effectively took the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America off the air, eliminating the only independent news sources for many Azerbaijanis.

We want to specifically highlight the problems with the Azerbaijani public service broadcaster, Ictimai, which we believe is failing to meet the EBU’s conditions for active membership. As our colleagues from the Sing for Democracy campaign can attest to from their monitoring of Ictimai’s programming, the broadcaster is not providing “varied and balanced programming for all sections of the population” as required by the EBU. Rather, Ictimai has demonstrated a clear bias in selecting its programming, failing to cover significant newsworthy events that reflect negatively on the authorities, and instead providing coverage that is disproportionately favourable to the government and the ruling party.

In light of the alarming freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan, ARTICLE 19 calls on the EBU to:

  1. Call on the Azerbaijani authorities to reverse the ban prohibiting foreign entities from broadcasting on national frequencies and issue a public statement denouncing the ban.
  2. Call on the Azerbaijani government to establish an independent broadcasting regulatory body in line with international standards.
  3. Monitor Ictimai’s programming to assess whether the broadcaster is complying with the EBU’s conditions for active membership. If, as ARTICLE 19 and its national partners believe to be the case, Ictimai is not complying with the requirement to provide “varied and balanced programming”, we call for the EBU to negotiate with the Azerbaijani authorities a reform program, with clear benchmarks and EBU technical support, towards the establishment of a truly independent public service broadcaster. Should Ictimai continue to fail to comply with the membership requirements, we call for the EBU to initiate disciplinary action against Ictimai, including potentially suspending its membership.
  4. Play a more visible role in promoting media freedom in Azerbaijan by:
    - Organising a discussion similar to this one in Baku, where more local stakeholders will be able to take part;
    - Ceasing its policy of silence on the serious freedom of expression violations taking place in Azerbaijan, commenting publicly when such violations occur in the run-up to and beyond the Eurovision Song Contest; and
    - Issuing a strong statement as an outcome of this workshop.