On December 30 the National TeleRadio Council of Azerbaijan made the long-awaited, hotly discussed, and politically polarizing decision on terminating the license for foreign radio stations in the country. This, most importantly, affected three popular radio stations: Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and BBC, as well as the Russian-language Europa Plus.
The issue had been under discussion for several months already. International organizations, local pundits, and foreign governments have all been advocating for the continuation of the work of these radio stations, calling their possible closure a blow to media freedom and the general state of democracy in the country. Lobbying for these radio stations was done even at high political levels. For instance, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer, while in Baku on November 19, urged the Azeri government to continue the licenses for Voice of America, BBC, and Radio Liberty. Similar pleas were made by the Norwegian ambassador in Baku, the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress, the OSCE office in Baku, the Council of Europe, the special representative of the OSCE on media freedom, and others (www.day.az, December 2).
Although it seemed for a while that the Azeri government would not risk upsetting these reputable international organizations, the decision was nevertheless made, and the activity of the foreign-language radio stations was stopped as of January 1, 2009. Local opposition parties labeled the act an attack against democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of the media. Chairman of the Musavat party Isa Gambar said, “This is the weakness of the authorities. A strong government should not be afraid of the free word and different opinions. Our government tries to limit and suppress free speech in the country” (Yeni Musavat, January 2). Mehman Aliyev, the head of the Turan independent news agency, echoed that point by saying that “Radio Liberty always showed a balanced view toward the political and social issues in the country, and this was not liked by the government” (Yeni Musavat, January 2). The Azadliq block of the opposition political parties even issued a statement condemning the action of the National TeleRadio Council (www.day.az, January 5).
The general perception among the public that the radio stations were closed because of their balanced position on domestic political affairs is disputed by Azerbaijan officials, who have failed, however, to explain to foreign and domestic listeners the real reasons for terminating the licenses. Nushiravan Maharramli, head of the National TeleRadio Council, said that “politics did not affect the decision of the council. We simply make sure that all practices correspond to the national laws.”
Indeed, the law about “National TeleRadio Broadcasting” prohibits broadcasting radio or television programs in foreign languages. Last year the Russian TV stations ORT and RTR, as well as the Turkish TRT channel, were closed for similar reasons. At that time, little was said about freedom of speech and almost no western criticism was heard. Yet, the similar action toward the Western radio stations raised eyebrows in Western capitals. Little has been said about the Russian-language radio station Europa Plus.
The Azerbaijani government has also failed to explain to the outside world why these radio stations had been permitted to broadcast in a foreign language for more than six years despite the law. Ironically, while Western governments often press the Azeri authorities to respect the rule of law in the country, they demand exceptions for their own radio stations when they infringe upon national rules and laws. Such double standards do not enhance the concept of democracy in Azerbaijan.
It should also be noted that broadcasting in foreign languages is only prohibited on FM frequencies. In the words of Ali Hasanov, the head of the political department in the president’s office, “they can continue to operate via cable, satellite, Internet, and on other frequencies” (www.day.az, December 24).
There is no doubt that the above-mentioned radio stations do professional work and highlight important issues for public discussion. The materials they prepare for the listeners are of a higher caliber, and they manage to inform the public about vital events in both Azerbaijan and the broader region. However, operating endlessly against the law does not encourage respect for either the radio stations or the local laws.
The National TeleRadio Council’s decision shows the growing confidence and independence of the Azeri authorities in their relations with the West. Some pundits, however, believe that the issue of the radio stations is not finished yet and that the authorities would be willing to reconsider the question in exchange for Western support in the forthcoming March referendum on changes to the constitution.