Press Day: Baku claims complete press freedom, indicators say otherwise

Hasan Bey Zardabi

Hasan Bey Zardabi

On the 22nd of July, Azerbaijan celebrates National Press Day. 141 years ago, on the 22nd of July in 1875, educator Hasan Bey Zardabi published the first Azerbaijani newspaper - “Ekinchi” or “The Ploughman.” 

In celebration of the day, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, signed a bill allocating three million AZN to allow for “the continued improvement of living conditions for workers of the national press”, Trend News Agency reported. 

However, conditions for journalists in the country are hardly improving. According to the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Azerbaijan was rated was one of the countries with the least amount of press freedom, placing at 163 out of 180 countries analyzed. Other countries where the press is similarly controlled include the Islamic Republic of Iran (169), China (176), Saudi Arabia (165) and Sudan (174). 

2016 World Press Freedom Index: countries in black ranked lowest on the list

2016 World Press Freedom Index: countries in black ranked lowest on the list

Currently, more than 11 bloggers and journalists are in prison, and the murder of at least two journalists have yet to be solved. 

But the condition of the press in Azerbaijan was not always so dire. 

By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, newspapers in Azerbaijan were excitedly spreading ideas of independence and freedom from the Russian Empire. Despite persecution by the czarist authorities and then later by the communists, the publication of Azerbaijani media continued in the territories of neighboring countries. In the years of the Soviet regime, publications such as “Istiqlal” (Independence), “Azeri Turk”, “Yashil Yarpaq” (Green Leaf), “Odlu Yurd” (Fiery Yurt), “Bildirish” (Proclamation), “Eni Kafkaziya” (New Caucasus) were published in Turkey. 

Ekinchi newspaper, an issue from 1875

Ekinchi newspaper, an issue from 1875

The press in Azerbaijan enjoyed a brief period of freedom towards the end of the 1980s, when perestroyka and the gradual weakening of the Soviet regime in Azerbaijan allowed for the birth of newspapers such as “Azadliq” (Freedom). 

Today, Baku officially claims that the freedom of the press is inviolable - but it would seem that this concerns only pro - government mass media outlets, for whom every year subsidies and millions of manat provide for salaries, the purchasing of equipment and other needs. 

News.az reported that at an event held for National Press Day titled, "Media Coverage of Family, Women and Children Affairs: Achievements and Prospects", chairman of the Press Council of Azerbaijan, Aflatun Amashov, said that: "the Azerbaijani press has played a special role in strengthening the national and spiritual values and preserving the purity of the Azerbaijani language since the publication of newspaper 'Ekinchi'".

Opposition and alternative media face persecution and remain excluded from the market.

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