How Azerbaijan’s new media law aims to restrict independent journalism

What restrictions will the new media law place on journalists in Azerbaijan?

On 30 December 2021, a new media law was passed in Azerbaijan amidst protests by independent journalists who, while the draft law was still under discussion, declared that it would seriously restrict the work of the media. Before the bill had its third reading in the legislature, independent journalists held a demonstration in front of the parliament building protesting the passage of the bill in its current form. It was nevertheless passed without almost no, and no significant, amendments and signed into law by the president on 8 February.

Why are independent journalists unhappy with the bill, why weren’t they allowed to take part in discussions about it, and how exactly will it affect their work? Meydan TV explains with the help of well-known Azerbaijani journalists.

Mehman Aliyev, head of the independent news agency Turan, was among those who called for the release of the text of the new law “On Media” when it was still under discussion. He says that the law actually intends to “bring the information society under control.”

The law ‘On Media’ is a blow against the information society as a whole, i.e. against information initiatives, against information activists, and it encompasses the entire society,” says Aliyev.

The bill that wasn’t there

In an interview with Meydan TV, Aliyev said that when the bill was first mentioned in the press, he appealed for a copy of the text but never received it.

On 12 January 2021, the president issued an executive order according to which the law “On Media” was to be drafted in two months. Several months passed, however, and the demands for the text of the bill to be released were denied.

According to Aliyev, in May of last year after his appeal, representatives of the relevant agencies met with him but it turned out that “there was no bill.”

“We [editors] said: ‘people are saying that discussions are underway, so show the bill to us, too, and we’ll also discuss it with our editorial boards.’ Then they admitted that the bill still wasn’t ready and that it would be drafted by the fall. September came around but no one showed us anything, and then suddenly in December the bill was introduced for discussion in parliament. They gathered representatives of friendly media outlets to create the illusion of a discussion. In fact, it was a presentation. And they did it in a rush at the end of the year because everyone was busy with other problems, international organizations were on vacation, etc. They held some meetings for the sake of appearances.”

Media law specialist Alasgar Mammadli recalls that during the period in question he met with representatives of the Media Development Agency and he was told that the bill didn’t exist.

Mammadli said that after the bill appeared at the end of the year it “very rapidly passed in three readings in parliament.”

The Media Registry

One of the most controversial aspects of the new law is the creation of a Media Registry, financed by the state, aimed at systematizing the information about journalists and media organizations.

In order to register, journalists are required to have received a higher education, to have a minimum of three years of experience in journalism, a clean criminal record, and a tax ID number.

Journalist Khadija Ismayil believes that the register is not intended to expand opportunities for journalists, but rather to exert more control over them.

“Government representatives say that Italy also has a similar register. And that’s actually true. I looked into its history. First of all, in Italy the register was introduced under Mussolini. Can you imagine what kind of experience we’re borrowing? And secondly, the Italian register is not discriminatory against journalists. But with our government I have no such confidence. The register hasn’t even been created yet and the police are already telling some journalists that they haven’t registered so they aren’t considered journalists.”

According to Ismayil, young freelance journalists without three years of experience will not be able to register and will therefore face restrictions.

She also believes that higher education should not be a requirement to be a journalist. Mehman Aliyev agrees that in current conditions such a requirement is absurd. He suspects that the Media Register will cause the most problems for independent journalists.

“They won’t register them, so that they can say: ‘you’re not allowed to work,’ and then they’ll order all agencies to avoid contact with unregistered journalists, to refuse to receive them,” says Aliyev. “That’s already a restriction. For example, if some citizen wants to get some information and write about it, they’ll tell them: ‘you’re not a journalist, you’re not on the register so we won’t give you any information,’ or: ‘you don’t have any right to produce information.’”

Journalist Samira Ahmadbayli believes that the new law will completely restrict the work of independent media and journalists:

“According to the new law, people who are not included in the Media Register won’t be admitted to state functions and won’t be able to work in the provinces, conduct surveys on the street, or cover demonstrations. Pro-government media’s coverage of the problems of ordinary citizens related to state agencies isn’t objective, anyway. They pretend not to notice protest demonstrations at all. It’s precisely the few independent media outlets and journalists that have been the voice of ordinary citizens, despite thousands of obstacles and difficulties. But once this law enters into effect, that won’t be possible anymore. Independent media and free speech have always faced a lot of barriers, they’ve been under pressure, but thanks to the new law all those obstacles will be legitimized. Before, if a journalist’s camera was snatched while covering a protest demonstration or they themselves were taken to a police station, they could at least lodge a complaint, but now the police will be justified in doing that because the journalist isn’t in the register.”

Alasgar Mammadli says that a six-month deadline was set, ending in August, for the creation of the register and for the new law to fully come into effect.

Why did they ignore the discontent?

According to Mammadli, it is ridiculous to attempt to regulate the media sphere without the knowledge or participation of the people who work in it.

Nevertheless, although editors and experts were given the chance to offer suggestions, they were not taken into account.

“The bill was passed in its first reading on December 20 and in its third on December 30. During the public discussions we proposed over 40 amendments and changes. But except for a few minor details, the bill was passed almost exactly as it was when it was introduced to parliament.”

In December 2021, civil society representatives called to halt parliamentary discussions of the bill.

Their appeal stated that the bill threatened to restrict freedom of speech, that it was rushed into parliament without being released beforehand for public discussions, and that it needed to be revised by a broader group of stakeholders.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil is convinced that the Azerbaijani government did not hold discussions of the bill because it has no time for civil society.

“Generally speaking, in Azerbaijan there is no culture of discussing bills with the public. The government simply doesn’t consider it necessary to discuss anything with the public. The government doesn’t do that, which we have seen in the case of other laws, as well.”

Is online media the target?

According to some analysts, the new law is primarily aimed at online media, which are considered relatively free in Azerbaijan.

According to Mehman Aliyev, the law “On Media” will not have a serious effect on traditional media, but its provisions offer opportunities to pressure any media outlet, shut it down, or bring a lawsuit.

“The authorities have already brought traditional media under control, there are only a handful of independent ones. The authorities are much more concerned with social media. When I talk about media I mean any producer of information. It doesn’t matter what kind of information you produce – on political, economic, or social topics – it all falls under this law. All this has been done to bring the information society under control.”

Aliyev noted that his demand to define the term “platform,” which appears in the law, was left unanswered:

“They say that this doesn’t concern social media, but it does, very much so. If they call it a platform, then the law applies to the owner of any platform. In international terminology, a platform is a site, an account on Facebook, YouTube, etc. All that is considered a platform. And the law says that a platform must be licensed… And so from the beginning I have been saying that in the future – not right away, but in the future – they’ll start to gradually make the concepts ‘platform’ and ‘license’ stricter, and they’ll be able to put pressure on any citizen.”

Khadija Ismayil says that the target is all media, but that freedom of speech remains only on the internet.

“On TV there is no freedom and there aren’t any independent or opposition newspapers being printed, so the internet is all that’s left, and that’s why it attracts so much attention. There are already very tight constraints on traditional media. And with the help of the new law they can kill online media, too, just like they already destroyed traditional media.”

The journalist believes that the purpose of the law is not to facilitate, but to restrict the work of journalists.

“The law was written and passed with precisely that goal and the reaction to it was certainly ignored. That is to say, the goal was not to make our work or lives easier, but to tighten the constraints on us even more.”

Perks and privileges

The new law also includes certain perks and privileges for journalists, which experts consider “carrots” on the backdrop of the “sticks” described above.

The law states that journalists who have received an official press pass can visit museums, galleries, and other cultural events for free; receive accreditation from state agencies and NGOs; and be given unfettered access to significant events.

There are other perks and privileges as well for media outlets and individuals on the Media Register.

According to Mehman Aliyev, state agencies should not issue passes to independent media. He considers special privileges offered to journalists unacceptable, as well.

“Around the world, journalists are given free admission to museums. With my press pass from the Turan news agency I visited the Louvre, one of the world’s major museums. They looked at my pass and said: ‘you’re a journalist, please come in.’ Why is a state-issued press pass any better than mine?”

Khadija Ismayil is convinced that a true independent journalist should not wish for or expect any privileges.

“Journalists don’t need anything at all from the government, for money or for free. Journalists need to be able to work without government interference. I’m talking about real journalists. Usually, a museum ought to be interesting so that journalists come and cover their expositions. The organizers of expositions and the management of museums invite journalists to cover events that they hold. If I want to go to a museum, I’ll find the money for it. The main thing is that the government should not interfere with my work or with my ability to earn that money honestly.”

Samira Ahmadbayli sees this as a bribe for journalists.

“These are all petty bribes, right down to the distribution of apartments to journalists. Although the distribution of apartments to journalists – in the third such building which was built by God knows what machinations – was halted after the liquidation of the president’s Media Support Fund and the criminal prosecution of its management. But a lot of our “colleagues” are still hoping for these apartments. But for journalists no “carrots” are acceptable, however large or small. You can’t trust a journalist who would agree to such a thing.”

The Press Council’s “Code of Professional Ethics for Journalists of Azerbaijan” states: “Journalists shall not accept any personal, political or financial inducements that may impact their ability to provide the public with accurate information; shall not receive expensive gifts; and shall not induce others to serve them for free. Journalists shall not use his/her access to editorial documents and information as a means of obtaining personal gain, especially in respect to information about business performance and financial markets.  Journalist shall avoid covering stories where he/she has a direct personal interest, or should at least declare such personal interests where it is relevant.”

The new law incentivizes crimes against journalists

Media experts are particularly concerned by the fact that, thanks to the new law, it will be possible to avoid prosecution for illegal acts committed against journalists because of their work.

Mehman Aliyev believes that the law should clearly state what punishment awaits someone who uses violence against a journalist who is doing their job.

“It ought to say what the punishment is for using violence against a journalist, and measures ought to be taken immediately. They shouldn’t wait for someone to have to say something to somebody, to register a complaint – measures must be taken as soon as they become aware of an incident. Every citizen has a constitutional right to receive and distribute information, and that right should be affirmed in the new law. Any citizen may take a video or write a text. This should have been about establishing and protecting the right of citizens to produce information, including journalists.”

Khadija Ismayil noted that article 163 of the Criminal Code makes it a crime to impede a journalist engaged in lawful professional activities, punishable by a fine of AZN 500-1,000 or a sentence of up to one year of manual labor.

“That article should be made harsher. I mean, it would be good to make the punishment harsher. And to start enforcing the article. Because we face these situations daily. State representatives, civil servants, and even ordinary people try to prevent journalists from carrying out their professional duties, and we have never heard of that article being enforced against any of them.”

Alasgar Mammadli says that if a crime is committed against a journalist who is not in the register, then the perpetrator will not be held responsible:

“If a person is not considered a journalist, then for impeding their work this article won’t be enforced, this restraint won’t operate. In that sense, this will further complicate the position of many independent journalists.”

Mammadli says that their proposal to scale back the law’s requirements for being recognized as a journalist were also rejected:

“In that scenario, of course, the law would guarantee the safety of every journalist.”

Mr. Mammadli stressed that since people who are not on the register will not be considered journalists, then people who impede their work will not be punished:

“Quite the opposite, interference will be incentivized and justified. ‘You did the right thing, they were asking for it, I mean they’re not a journalist, you can’t give them information.’ Or you need to take their camera and break it. That already happens all the time: when a journalist is gathering information, the police or the holders of the information make unfounded demands, without any right to do so, to see their ID. They ask why they’re filming and why they made the request and they make other inappropriate demands. And now there will naturally be more and more of those kinds of demands.

Samira Ahmadbayli pointed out that for a journalist to be included in the register, the media outlet where a journalist works must also be registered:

“It is extremely doubtful that independent media like Meydan TV, Radio Liberty, the Turan news agency, or Azadliq newspaper will be able to register. And that means that all the journalists who work for those outlets will remain outside the law.”

Ahmadbayli recalls cases in which pressure was put on journalists after the passage of the new law, as well as earlier events and attitudes towards independent media:

“Since the passage of the new law, a few journalists (Sakhavat Mammadli, Fikrat Faramazoghlu, etc.) have already been fined for various offenses. Before this law appeared independent journalists and media outlets faced pressure, too. Beginning in the 2000s, the media advertising market was monopolized and media outlets lost some of their financial independence. Outlets which couldn’t earn money by producing information either fell by the wayside or sold out to the authorities. Since 2015, a number of local and international NGOs have faced persecution and the work of most of them has been halted. At the same time the offices of Radio Azadliq and IWPR were closed, a criminal case was brought against Meydan TV, and the websites of Radio Azadliq, Meydan TV, and Azadliq newspaper were blocked within the country. In 2005 the journalist Elmar Huseynov was killed. Then there were the murders of Rafig Taghi and Rasim Aliyev. Many journalists have been subjected to violence and arrests. A few days ago someone put a knife to Aytan Mammadova’s throat and threatened to kill her child. In Azerbaijan, for a long time they have been using any means necessary to strangle freedom of speech, and I understand that this will continue for a long time to come. And the law “On Media” is a part of that process. We will see a lot more instances of pressure put on journalists.”

Describing the situation that foreign media find themselves in, Alasgar Mammadli compared the new law “On Media” with the prior law on media and said that norms restricting the activities of foreign media in Azerbaijan existed earlier, too:

“In our country, foreign media outlets can’t carry out their work freely, but only after receiving accreditation from the Foreign Ministry. Those same provisions are preserved in the new law and journalists accredited with the Foreign Ministry can be included in the register. In order to create a media outlet in Azerbaijan, not only do you have to have Azerbaijani citizenship, but you have to live here. In addition, foreign media cannot hold more than 25% of the founders shares. The Foreign Ministry gives journalists accreditation and information about them is presented to the Media Agency, which in turn creates the conditions for these media outlets to be able to work comfortably in Azerbaijan, enjoying the privileges mentioned above.”

Khadija Ismayil points out that the restrictions on financing media from abroad came on the backdrop of existing restrictions on the advertising market:

“Only 25% of the financing can come from foreign sources and donors and that establishes serious constraints. Especially considering that independent media have no access to the advertising market in Azerbaijan.”

Ismayil mentioned one other part of the law which creates impediments to journalism, calling it absurd:

“More than anything it upsets me that when reporting on operations carried out by law enforcement agencies, you have to submit the report for approval to the very same agencies. That’s absurd. The world has never seen such an absurd rule. It’ll be put into effect for the first time in Azerbaijan.”

With the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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