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Azerbaijan threatens to muzzle independent radio

Foreign licenses, such as the BBC's, could be yanked as Baku tilts away from the West.

By Jessica Powley HaydenContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 2008

Strong leader: A Baku resident drinks from a mug near portraits of the late Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev and his son, current President Ilham Aliyev.

vano shlamov/afp/getty images/newscom

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Baku, Azerbaijan

Recent government threats to stop issuing broadcast licenses to foreign media, including the BBC and Voice of America, is further evidence of crumbling press freedom here and may reflect the country's shift away from Washington in favor of Russia, experts say.

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Earlier this fall, government officials threatened to terminate the licenses of several prominent foreign broadcasters. Although these news organizations could continue to work in other mediums – including the Web, cable, and satellite – radio remains king of independent media in this tiny, oil-rich nation.

The decision would effectively silence foreign media, says Kenan Aliyev, director of Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan. "If we lose FM, we lose 95 percent of our audience."

The popularity of foreign broadcasters has skyrocketed in recent years, and the threats to remove them from the airwaves have sparked grass-roots opposition campaigns on the Web. One listener recently wrote to Radio Liberty, "I was not this upset when my father died."

Although the government defends its decision as lawful, critics call it a political move aimed at consolidating state control over media and silencing criticism.

US diplomats have spoken out against the threat to yank licenses, but Azerbaijan's strategic and energy importance makes the issue delicate, says Sean Roberts, Director of the International Development Studies program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

"It would be naive to expect that [the press freedom issue] will eclipse the rest of America's strategic interest in the country," he says. "The US has already shown a serious commitment to its relationship with Baku: Azerbaijan has oil, borders with Iran, and has demonstrated that it is capable of repelling Russian efforts to make it anti-American."

Publicly, US officials have reproached Azerbaijan, saying relations could suffer if the threat is carried out. "Discontinuing [radio] broadcasts would send a disturbing message," says Robert Wood, deputy spokesman at the State Department.

Behind the scenes, however, top US officials are negotiating with their Azeri counterparts – including meeting directly with President Ilham Aliyev – to keep the broadcasters on the air.