RSF: Azerbaijani regime goes after media channel in exile

Source: Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is outraged by the aggressive attempts of the Azerbaijani regime to hinder the work of the Berlin-based media channel, Meydan TV. The Azerbaijani police have tried to intimidate contributors to this channel, who are based in Azerbaijan, through arrests and hours-long interrogations. The case of the 19-year-old Meydan TV contributor, Shirin Abbasov, has caused an outcry. The reporter initially disappeared without a trace, and it has since been reported that he is being held in police custody.

“Meydan TV is one of the few sources of independent news in Azerbaijan and was publicly a thorn in the regime’s side during the parliamentary election in November,” said the RSF Executive Director Christian Mihr. “Essentially because Meydan TV is being broadcast from abroad, the channel relies on bold journalists in Azerbaijan who report about the conditions within their country without censorship. Because of the blatant attempts to intimidate Meydan TV reporters and their families, we cannot take seriously Azerbaijan’s efforts to produce a better international image of their country.”

Meydan TV Director Emin Milli told RSF: “We will not stop with our independent reports. We will continue our work as well as continue to experiment with innovative formats and promote citizen journalism with new projects.”  Milli founded Meydan TV in Berlin in 2013.  The media channel reports on politics, culture, and business in Azerbaijan and has quickly gained popularity. Meydan TV’s YouTube channel has been viewed approximately 12 million times and has collected 21,000 subscribers since its inception in April 2013. 

Systematic arrests and interrogations

All of Meydan TV’s reporters in Azerbaijan are now facing pressure after attacks against the channel’s editorial staff and threats against Milli.  On September 16, the 19-year-old Meydan TV contributor, Shirin Abbasov, went missing on his way to university.  The next day, his family learned that the Ministry of the Interior's notorious General Directorate for Combating Organized Crime was holding their son.  The journalist was not allowed to contact his attorney and was sentenced on September 17 to 30 days in administrative detention for disobeying the police.

Abbasov was one of four Meydan TV journalists denied exit from Azerbaijan after the European Games in June 2015. He criticized the government for the expensive sports event, which the regime used to burnish its international image. Abbasov also reported about the show-trial of the well-known human rights couple, Leyla and Arif Yunus, as well as the sentencing of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. 

Pressure on journalists’ families

Five other Meydan TV contributors have been interrogated by the police in the past few days in connection with protests in Azerbaijan’s fourth largest city, Mingachevir.  Back then, protestors demanded the resignation of the local police chief, after a man died in police custody on August 20th.  On September 16 , the police unit responsible for combating organized crime detained Aytaj Akhmedova, a Meydan TV contributor, and asked questions not only pertaining to the coverage of the Mingachevir protests, but also about Meydan TV’s activities, its management and salary structure.

On September 18, officials raided the apartment of Meydan TV contributor Javid Abdullaev and seized his computer and cameras.  On the same day, photographer Ahmed Mukhtar, whose brother collaborates with Meydan TV, was arrested.  Additionally, Aytaj Akhmedova and journalist and Meydan TV editor Gunel Movlud have reported increasing pressure on their families. Multiple people have lost their jobs, and some have been threatened with prison sentences. 

Meanwhile, presidential advisor Ali Hasanov explained on Monday (September 20) that the state was simply implementing new regulations regarding accreditation for foreign media employees. The regulations were passed in March of 2015.  Accreditation, however, was not discussed with any of the interrogated journalists. 

Coordinated effort against Meydan TV

Threats against Meydan TV Director Emin Milli from the Azerbaijani Sports Minister during the European Games in June indicate a coordinated effort against Meydan TV. Sports Minister Azad Rahimov sent a message to Milli, saying that the state will “catch and punish” him in Germany or anywhere else for “organizing a world campaign against Azerbaijan.”

Milli spent 16 months in an Azerbaijani jail for his critical reporting, was released in November 2010 and left the country shortly afterward. In July 2015, 23 of his relatives were forced to sign a letter to President Ilham Aliyev, where they distanced themselves from his “anti-Azerbaijani behavior” and disowned Milli. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry doesn’t see any reason to encourage independent media in Azerbaijan. “Your project doesn’t comply with the human rights policy of the Azerbaijani government,” the government replied when Milli requested project funding.

There are currently at least eight journalists and four bloggers in jail due to their work in Azerbaijan. Independent journalist Rasim Aliyev died on August 9 after he was ambushed and beaten. Azerbaijan is ranked 162 out of 180 countries for press freedom.