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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.

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The move to silence foreign broadcasters is the latest in a series of attacks on free press here. Ten journalists were imprisoned in 2008, many on charges of criminal defamation. Emin Huseynov, a journalist and media advocate, was hospitalized after the police detained and severely beat him. Authorities have never investigated the incident.

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In its yearly press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 150 out of 173 nations. Even Russia, not known for liberal media policies, fared better with a ranking of 143.

Should Azerbaijan pull the licenses, Azerbaijani citizens will have almost no access to uncensored media, says Charles Rice with the International Center for Journalists. Unlike the local and state-owned media, the foreign stations "are not afraid to speak out about issues, including corruption and bribery that would never see the light of day otherwise," he says.

The foreign broadcasters have a long history of covering events no one else will. More than 100 Azerbaijanis were killed in 1990 during the country's fight for independence from the USSR.

"Without Radio Liberty, the world would know nothing about the Soviet invasion," says Khadija Ismayilova, the station's bureau chief in Azerbaijan.

Some experts say the dispute may indicate a struggle within the Azerbaijan government as some officials seek closer ties to Russia. The conflict in Georgia this past summer struck fear in many post-Soviet nations of resurgent Russian power.

Leaders throughout the region now must contemplate the meaning of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's vague yet aggressive assertion that Moscow has "privileged interests" in countries "with which we share special historical relations."

Then again, the ruling elite might just be trying to play both sides. "The post-Soviet states that have been the most successful internationally ... have found ways to court both Russia and the US," says Professor Roberts.

US officials are now using the prospect of a new presidential administration as a negotiating tool. The State Department has encouraged Azerbaijan to send "positive signals" to President-elect Obama.

That chance may come Thursday when the Azerbaijan National Television and Radio Council convenes to address the issue. Radio Liberty's Ms. Ismayilova is cautiously optimistic. "At the end of the day it's about the mission. We'll find a way to continue."