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Azeri Press Restrictions Not Making the News

There wasn't much point traveling to Azerbaijan for the freedom of speech demonstration in Baku in June. It was never likely to happen, and in the end, it didn't. The authorities in the Azeri capital don't often give permission for protests these days, and if they do, they tend to specify a remote area of town where any impact on public awareness is minimal.

Nevertheless, there's no problem with freedom of expression in Azerbaijan -- at least according to officials. Seven journalists are currently in jail in the country, most charged with libel. But the authorities say that as long as journalists obey the law and don't misuse free speech to insult officials, they've got nothing to fear.

Not surprisingly, Uzeir Jafarov doesn't agree. He's one of 25 Azeri journalists seeking political asylum in the West. He says his newspapers, Gundalik Azerbaijan and Realny Azerbaijan, which have been highly critical of the government, were effectively shut down when their computers were seized in a raid. The newspapers' founder is serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for libel, and there are rumors that he might also be tried again under anti-terrorism laws.

A spokesman for Azerbaijan's governing party recently said the journalists' bid for asylum was no more than a political show and that supposedly independent newspapers were actually serving opposition parties' interests. But when I met Jafarov and some of his asylum-seeking colleagues, he insisted that the situation had simply become intolerable. "From the beginning we made it clear that this was a protest," he said. "But then officials said, 'Let them go.' They showed they were glad that inconvenient journalists were leaving the country. Of course we don't want to leave forever, but it's impossible to live and work here normally."

Jafarov explained that his colleagues couldn't get work at other newspapers to support their families. One has been working in construction, another as a security guard. The last time they held an unauthorized protest in Baku, they announced a false venue to throw the police off. It only lasted a few minutes before a police car arrived and several demonstrators were dragged away.

All the usual international media-freedom groups have condemned what's going on in Azerbaijan -- and been ignored. The oil-rich republic is seen as an increasingly important source of energy supplies for Western markets, and one of the journalists seeking political asylum told me he believed that oil realpolitik meant that Western governments would not get tough with Azerbaijan over freedom of speech. "Western countries have double standards," he said sadly. "We've lost all faith that they'll do anything to help us."

(The Moscow Times 02.vii.07)

 
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