IRFS Statement on yet another Serious Criminal Proceeding against Independent Azerbaijani Media Outlet

Baku/14.08.17/Turan: The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) condemns the authorities of Azerbaijan for launching a politically motivated criminal case on charges of tax evasion against Turan information agency and calls for an immediate end to illegal activities aimed at destroying one of the country's few independent media outlets.

The Ministry of Taxes has demanded that the information agency pay an unjustified tax debt in the amount of 37,000 AZN (22,000 USD), simultaneously initiating an unscheduled tax audit of its activities. In its turn, having viewed the actions of the Ministry of Taxes as illegal, the Turan agency has filed a lawsuit with the court seeking annulment of the decision to start a criminal case and recover the debt and also suspension of the initiation of an unjustified audit.

The monitoring of the situation over the past five years clearly shows that it is not the first time the Azerbaijani authorities use fiscal mechanisms to exert pressure on independent media and NGOs. In particular, the Khural, Gundam Khabar and Azadliq newspapers, the Azerbaijani Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Meydan TV and Kanal13 have all become the victims of trumped-up tax-related charges. Leading human rights organizations have also faced similar absurd tax evasion accusations in mid-2014. Almost on all occasions, such inspections ended with the arrests of the leadership and partial or sometimes complete suspension of the activities of the media outlets or NGOs.

"The fact that today the authorities - who, through their relatives, control almost all lucrative sectors of the national economy and channel billions of dollars annually to foreign offshore accounts, depriving the state treasury of tax revenues - accuse an independent media outlet, which objectively and impartially informs the local and international public of what is happening in Azerbaijan and in the region on a daily basis, of tax crimes is nothing more than a political cynicism," IRFS CEO Emin Huseynov said. "The mere fact that, according to Panama Leaks publications, current Minister of Taxes Fazil Mammadov is personally involved in the creation of dummy companies in offshore zones for the members of the ruling family to avoid taxation in Azerbaijan speaks of the high-ranking corrupt officials' intention to destroy unwanted independent media using their official position. At the time when Azerbaijan topped the shameful list of world record holders in terms of the level of the shadow economy which is 67% of the country's GDP, the authorities should have started urgent reforms in the country in the field of transparency and accountability rather than start persecuting the media that exposes and points out the serious problems associated with corruption," summed up Huseynov.

IRFS calls on the authorities to immediately stop the criminal prosecution of the media and NGOs on fabricated tax and other politically motivated charges, release all arrested journalists (as well as bloggers, writers and poets) from prisons, and enable the media and NGOs to carry out their functions without hindrance.

IRFS also calls on the leading member states of the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union to exert pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities and begin to apply serious sanctions against high-ranking officials who stand behind attacks against freedom of speech in Azerbaijan. -06D-

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