The law provides for freedom of speech and press and specifically prohibits press censorship. However, the government often did not respect these rights. The government continued to limit freedom of speech and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and were beaten and imprisoned. Although the government released 15 individuals widely considered to have been imprisoned for having exercised freedom of speech or the press, international observers reported that at least six remained imprisoned at year’s end (see section 1.e.).
Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for freedom of speech, but the government restricted this right regarding subjects it considered politically sensitive. For example, while authorities permitted three opposition-organized protests in March and April, the protests were permitted only in a remote location, inconvenient to public transportation and seven miles outside of the center of Baku. Authorities routinely denied other requests to hold public meetings. During the weeks leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest in May, they prevented youth and opposition activists from holding peaceful demonstrations in Baku and detained those they suspected of participating in such activities. During the year the incarceration of 19 persons who attempted to exercise freedom of speech raised concerns about authorities’ use of the judicial system to punish dissent. In a November open letter to President Aliyev, democratic reform advocate and former prisoner of conscience Emin Milli wrote that many citizens did not exercise their right to freedom of expression online or offline due to fear of reprisal for criticism of government policies.
The government attempted to impede criticism by monitoring political and civil society meetings. During a media freedom seminar sponsored by a local NGO during Eurovision festivities in May, individuals believed to be planted by the government regularly interrupted speakers expressing criticism of authorities and engaged in long speeches denouncing those who spoke critically of government officials and practices.
Freedom of Press: A number of opposition and independent media outlets operated during the year. The print media expressed a wide variety of views on government policies. Newspaper circulation rates remained low, not surpassing 5,000 in most cases. Credible reports indicated that opposition newspapers were available outside of Baku only in limited numbers due to the refusal of a number of distributors to carry them. Opposition newspaper Azadliq faced closure due to financial strains reportedly caused by fines imposed in defamation cases, by the unwillingness of companies to advertise in the newspaper, and by the takeover of its distributor’s kiosks. The broadcast media adhered to a progovernment line in their news coverage. Foreign broadcasters, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM frequencies.
A local NGO monitoring media freedom stated that six journalists were in prison or facing criminal charges at year’s end. For example, Khural editor Avaz Zeynalli and journalist Aydin Janiyev, whose reporting exposed corruption within the government, remained incarcerated. Blogger and photographer Mehman Huseynov, whose photographs of police obstruction of opposition protests during the Eurovision festivities gained broad international exposure in May and June, was detained and charged with hooliganism on June 12. While he was released the following morning, the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, remained pending. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International characterized the charges as clear retaliation for his journalism.
Violence and Harassment: A media-monitoring NGO reported 71incidents involving verbal or physical assaults on 67 journalists during the year, compared with 90 such incidents in 2011. On May 31, days after the Eurovision Song Contest, when media reporting of human rights abuses proliferated in online media, Presidential Administration spokesman Ali Hasanov called for a show of “public hatred” against opposition media.
The government used the media to harass and discredit those with dissenting views. In March, for example, three newspapers widely believed to be state-controlled press outlets--New Azerbaijan, Voice, and Both Sides--published criticism of investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova and her family. Ismailova’s work linked the president’s family to corruption. Days before the publication of the derogatory articles, unknown persons attempted to blackmail Ismailova by threatening to publish a surreptitiously obtained video of her intimate life. After Ismailova refused, the video was posted on the Internet. The case provoked strong international and local condemnation, with many citing it as a clear attempt to intimidate a journalist. The Presidential Administration criticized the invasion of her privacy, and an official investigation into the case, which a local NGO criticized as biased, continued at year’s end.
On April 18, journalist Idrak Abbasov sustained serious bodily injury by security forces of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan as he attempted to film home demolitions on the outskirts of Baku. The government’s ombudsman for human rights, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch urged authorities to conduct a prompt investigation. Following the investigation, authorities concluded no wrongdoing had occurred.
There were reports of police officers’ harassing, and in some cases physically harming journalists trying to cover the pre-Eurovision protests (see section 2.b.). There were no indications that authorities held any police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists in recent years.
Journalists and media rights leaders continued to call for accountability for the November 2011 killing of Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, issued a fatwa, and the 2005 killing of Elmar Huseynov.
Lawsuits suspected of being politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. The majority of independent and opposition newspapers remained in a precarious financial situation and continued to have problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines. Most relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing.
The government prohibited some state libraries from subscribing to opposition newspapers, prohibited state businesses from buying advertising in opposition newspapers, and pressured private businesses not to advertise in them. As a result paid advertising was largely absent in opposition media. Political commentators noted that these practices reduced the wages that opposition and independent outlets could pay to their journalists, allowing progovernment outlets to hire away quality staff. In addition international media monitoring reports indicated intimidation by officials of the Ministry of Taxes further limited the independence of the media.
Local observers reported the demolition of newspaper kiosks by local authorities resulted in a large decrease in the distribution of opposition newspapers. Observers reported that the kiosks built to replace them distributed a small number of progovernment newspapers and served more as convenience stores than newsstands.
Censorship or Content Restriction: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive.
While there were no restrictions on systems to receive satellite broadcasts by foreign stations, the National Television and Radio Council required that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast entire news programs of foreign origin.
Libel Laws/National Security: Libel remains a criminal offense. The law allows for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel. Administration officials stated publicly in 2009 that this provision would be removed from the criminal code, and subsequently courts overturned the conviction of two journalists for libel. According to a local media rights organization, during the year claims totaling approximately 5 million manat ($6.3 million) were brought against newspapers or their owners, with judgments totaling $200,000 awarded.
Publishing Restrictions: The editor of opposition Azadliq newspaper reported difficulty and uncertainty in printing due to debt owed by the newspaper to a government-run publishing house. The newspaper was in turn owed money by the newspaper distributor Qasid, which local observers suspected might be owned by members of the government.
The government generally did not restrict access to the Internet, but it required Internet service providers to be licensed and have formal agreements with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies. According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 70 percent of the country’s population used the Internet during the year.
There were indications that the government monitored Internet communications of democracy activists. In November the Expression Online Initiative, a consortium of domestic NGOs, issued a report that described the most significant threat to freedom of expression online as the targeting by authorities of individuals who expressed critical opinions on the Internet. Such opinions included calling for protests, exposing official corruption, or criticizing the president and his family. Individuals who engaged in this activity risked imprisonment or other forms of retaliation. According to the report, Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan, five cyber activists remained in detention or imprisoned and another faced criminal charges in connection with their exercise of freedom of expression online.
There were occasional reports of denial of service attacks on opposition Web sites. For example, the Web sites of the opposition newspaper Azadliq and news portal site Contact suffered denial of service attacks. In the exclave of Nakhchivan, Web site blockages were reportedly more common.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. For example, during the year authorities denied further attempts by two students expelled for participating in 2011 protests, Tural Abbasli and Elnur Majidli, to reregister at Baku State and Western Universities, respectively.
Some domestic observers raised concerns that the government’s selection of participants for state-sponsored study abroad programs was biased and took political affiliation into account. The government denied the allegation and claimed its selection process was transparent. Opposition party members continued to report difficulties in finding jobs teaching at schools and universities. Most known opposition party members teaching in state educational institutions were fired in previous years.
NGOs reported that local executive authorities occasionally prevented the expression of minority cultures, for example, by prohibiting cultural events. In the months preceding his arrest, Hilal Mammadov, the editor in chief of the Talysh newspaper Tolishi-Sado, was reportedly contacted by authorities and forbidden to organize Talysh cultural events.