Last year, some signs of hope have emerged

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- Khalid bey, how do you assess the activity of civil society in 2019? What steps have been taken this year for the activities of civil society? In general, did any successful steps be taken in civil society activity in comparison with previous years?

- In general, it is difficult to assess the state of civil society. If we evaluate the condition of media and civil society institutions, which are the main components of it, there is plenty of problems that have been hampering the activity of civil society for 6-7 years. These problems remain the same. Media policy is inaccurate, and the pro-government media does not give the public confidence in the least, but as the head of state has said, groups and officials have turned it into a means of conflict. The state of the few free independent media and journalists that the public relies on is not pleasing. There is no favorable environment for their independent activities. They are deprived of their financial resources, are barely able to survive. The NGO environment is also not different than 1-2 years ago. Reactionary innovations, brought to the legislative base regulating these areas 6-7 years ago, still remain the same. As if neither the government nor those in this field need to go back to the issue. Of course, when looking at the whole year separately, here may have been events that could be evaluated as positive. However, such events were not able to positively influence the overall environment.

- What are the obstacles to the normal functioning of civil society? And what steps should be taken to overcome these barriers?

- Since 2013, the activities of civil society organizations have been paralyzed. At that time, criminal cases were filed against independent NGOs, and the case is still open. The legislation has been changed, the legal ways to access foreign grants, which are the main sources of funding for NGOs, have almost completely been closed. NGO registration has also become impossible, and necessarily any state body should guarantee the registration. At least the problems listed should be solved as soon as possible for positive improvements. A glance at the civil society organizations should be changed. It is not necessary to meet independent bodies and public figures, their critical approaches, reports, recommendations inhospitably; on the contrary, it is necessary to take into account, to discuss, to take possible steps.

- One of the highlights this year was the decree on deepening judicial and legal reform. Have any positive improvements seen in the judicial area since this decree?

- In general, the adoption of such a document was a good event. However, we must remember that such documents have been adopted in the past too. There is a real need for changes in the judicial system. Because deficiencies in this area stand at the root of all the fundamental problems that exist in the country. Every time such a document is adopted, there emerge fragile hopes in the public. How activities, which are stated in those documents, are executed plays a key role in getting off the ground of hopes. As far as the execution of the document is concerned, in my opinion, we cannot find and say any examples that will please everyone. Reforms in this area should primarily involve the judiciary. What has changed compared to 2-3 years ago? Are there made any decisions liked by the public in a politically motivated case? Courts have been remembered, as before, by affirming the prosecution's presentations, especially in cases of public interest. In general, the experience of previous years has remained the same. I do not think that the cardinal step, which everyone sees and is pleased with, is taken in some of these areas except for a slight increase in the salaries of court officers and judges that reforms and changes go through these steps. Therefore, I do not think that there are grounds to say that the expectations of the reforms have been satisfied.

What steps should be taken to ensure that the courts operate independently and fairly beyond what is envisaged in this decree?

The main condition is the full independence of judges. As long as the judiciary is not independent and their selection procedure is under the control of another governing body - the executive, reform orders and change initiatives will not produce the results we desire. The area of ​​control of the judicial system also requires reform. This system must be rid of the dependence of the judicial council. The judicial system should be governed not by any influenced body by the executive, but by a body formed from within the judiciary. The procedures for meeting the financial needs of the court system and judges also need reform and change. One of the most important issues is staffing. Reforms that produce the desired results cannot be hoped for with a staffing system that has been sitting for 10 years. Personnel standing at the highest level of the judicial system must be replaced, changed. If the decree on reform is issued, the government and the head of the state are focused on it, then there are very serious problems. Those who are at the top of the judiciary have been managing this area for 10 years. They are also ones who created the current troublesome situation. Reform of the judicial system does not seem possible with them. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out personnel reform.

- This year, as well as last year, pressures on lawyers have been seen in social media and media articles. What can you say about the activities of the advocacy institution this year?

- In fact, the central law office has periodically become the main topic of conversation running out the year. In my opinion, the reactions from the local and international community over the past year regarding the law office and the status of advocacy have been greater than the accumulation of such reactions over the last 10-15 years. There is new leadership, expectations are higher, and the reactions occur due to this. But the main reason is the pressures on lawyers who persist in their independence. During the year, such lawyers have been under pressure, many were dismissed, or in other words, were punished. Generally, complaints from prosecutors and the Penitentiary Service regarding lawyers were generally provided, and lawyers were punished. At the same time, there was no indication that a representative of a state body would be investigated on the basis of a lawyer's complaint. All of these, such approaches are conditioning concerns.

In general, we can say that there has been considerable change in the advocacy after the first change of heads of central law office since the Soviet era. First of all, the changes in the material and technical sphere are noticeable. The law offices are significantly different than before. State support was also provided to the law office. The central law office has brought the practice of a lawyer's trademark, one of which is sold to lawyers for 10 manats. Any of the same or similar stamps are on sale at “Azerpost” for 20-30 gapiks. International events organized by the law office are adjusted. Football competitions are being held among lawyers. We have not observed this before, I cannot say that it is a negative or positive situation. In sum, I would like to emphasize that all changes are artificial. The previous representation of the representative office has been updated. The contents of this institute remain the same. The previous shabby facade of advocacy has been updated. The contents of this office remain the same. 1-2 years ago, there were about 20,000 practical lawyers who could provide legal services in the country. Now, this service is given to the monopoly of 1,500 lawyers in 10 million Azerbaijan. And not all of them are actively involved in advocacy. Lawyers’ path, whose right to freedom of expression is expressed in many ways, to advocacy has also a serious problem. The key to becoming a lawyer is not to have the necessary knowledge and skills but is the opinion of one or more people. Therefore, it is not possible to explain the status of this institution, and this institution and the procedures for becoming a lawyer should also be reformed.

- With what was this year remembered in the media industry? Could it mean that the pressures on media have slowed down or increased more? It is said that at least one breath has been created for the media this year. What do you think? Is there any breath in the media?

- Almost every year there has been some kind of tragedy in the media, which is a sign of frustration and further aggravation. For example, the arrest of investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, blogger Mehman Huseynov, the death of a journalist, the closure of some media, or heavy oppressions had turned into a negative event that characterized a year. In my opinion, for the media as a positive of last year, it is possible to show that such bleak and shocking events did not occur. But it should not be understood that everything is on the way, and all problems are solved. Last year, journalists have been arrested on suspicious charges, information collecting journalists have been subjected to pressures too. It should be noted that more than five journalists are currently in jail.  The accusations against almost all of them are questionable. Five arrested journalists in Azerbaijan have been declared “political prisoners” by local and international organizations. Journalists who have been involved in professional activity in the past year have been repeatedly attacked. Such attacks were rarely investigated fairly. At the same time, I want to emphasize that in previous years, such investigations were at a zero level. Media legislation is problematic. Laws that protect journalists are not working. Television and radio media continues to be fully controlled by the government. The breath you mention in Azerbaijan is largely played by internet media. But this media is also not free from attacks. Azerbaijan is ranked in the sphere of restrictions on the Internet in the same area as China, Russia, and Iran. Azerbaijan is one of the countries with the worst legal mechanisms and judicial practice for blocking. Against this background, I can say that after years of hard times, in 2019, as in all areas, there has been a fragile expectation in the media. There are also some things that we can take apart to meet these expectations. The head of state expressed concern about the state of the media. There have been some positive developments, including the restoration of the Press Club to a certain extent. However, these are not enough to save the media from a difficult situation. It is necessary to meet fragile expectations, to do more, to take all necessary steps for a free media environment.

- What further steps should be taken to ensure that the media is free, independent?

- It is needed to make serious changes in media policy. Serious research on the Azerbaijani media should be taken into consideration, experts, who know the causes of the current problematic situation and who have knowledge and skill to be able to think about the solutions to these problems, should be involved in this work. The dependence of media from the state should be eliminated, and mechanisms for its editorial and economic independence must be put into action. The question of advertising must be solved. Without this, it would be impossible to have free media. There are long-awaited steps in the media rights field that need to be taken without hesitation. The legal framework must be continuously updated and improved. Real steps should be taken to improve the judicial practice regarding the information ombudsman, the decriminalization of defamation, the freedom of expression. This situation has been going on for years. Last year, there was a glimmer of hope, which must be sustained, and the barriers to independent activity, discussions, and training of experts and organizations should be removed.

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