Azerbaijan threatens to muzzle independent radio

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

vano shlamov/afp/getty images/newscom
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.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

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.

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.

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.

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."

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