Open letter to President Hollande on eve of official visit to Azerbaijan

Dear Mr. President,

As you prepare for an official visit to Baku on 11 and 12 May, Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that campaigns for freedom of information, wishes to draw your attention to the elimination of media pluralism in Azerbaijan. The country lies in 160th place out of 180 in our 2014 World Press Freedom Index. In a media sector already largely controlled by the authorities, the crackdown on journalists, bloggers and independent news outlets continues to intensify.

A biased regulatory authority, dubious acquisitions and the manipulation of the advertising market have given the authorities complete control over the broadcasting sector. The main foreign stations such as the BBC and Radio Free Europe have been barred since 2009. A handful of independent newspapers struggle to survive. The main one, Azadlig, is crumbling under the weight of astronomical fines and is close to financial strangulation.

News providers that criticize the government face all kinds of attempts to intimidate them: threats, assaults, blackmail, smear campaigns. Show trials that fail to follow due process or respect defence rights are commonplace. At least 10 journalists and numerous bloggers are in prison because of their activities of informing the public. The health of several of these, such as the editor of the daily Khural, Avaz Zeynalli, is a cause of concern.

On 12 May, while you will be in Azerbaijan, the Baku assize court will be giving its verdict against the journalist Parviz Hashimli, a reporter for the opposition newspaper Bizim Yol and director of the news site, who has been held in custody since 17 September last year charged with arms trafficking with Iran.

This far-fetched charge forms part of a prosecution case that barely hides the political motivation behind the trial. Hashimli, a member of the opposition Popular Front party, also runs the Center to Protect Political and Civil Rights.

On 17 March this year, the noted columnist Tofig Yagublu was sentenced to five years in prison after spending a year in custody. The case against Yagublu, who is also deputy president of the Musavat party, arose from his coverage of a demonstration last year in Ismailly calling for the resignation of the governor, which degenerated into a riot.

Video footage shows he did not arrive at the location until the second day, as the disturbances were about to die down.

The threats that independent journalists face have forced many to flee the country. However, the authorities’ reach goes well beyond the country’s borders. On 18 April this year, the journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov of the independent newspaper Zerkalo was extradited to Azerbaijan from Turkey where he was based. As soon as he arrived, he was accused of spying for Armenia and put in prison.

Mr. President, we urge you to use the opportunity provided by your official visit to raise this matter with your Azeri counterpart, to request the release of the imprisoned journalists and bloggers and to remind him of Azerbaijan’s responsibilities as it prepares to assume the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Although we understand perfectly well the economic and strategic advantages of closer ties with Baku, a frank dialogue between partners should not ignore a basic freedom guaranteed by Azerbaijan’s constitution and international treaties.

We believe that standing up for free and independent media in Azerbaijan is not only consistent with the values upheld by France, but is also indispensible to the healthy development of bilateral relations. The abolition of media pluralism considerably hampers the rule of law and the fight against corruption in Azerbaijan, without which Baku cannot be considered a reliable partner.

I thank you for your attention in this matter. Please accept my sincere regards.

Christophe Deloire
General Secretary, Reporters Without Borders

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