Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 218

More than twenty journalists of as many opposition newspapers are conducting a hunger strike in Baku to protest what they describe as an official crackdown on the independent press. The journalists regard recent libel suits against their newspapers as an attempt by the authorities to re-impose censorship, which the authorities had abolished in connection with the recent presidential election.

Initiated on November 12 by four journalists of the “Yeni Musavat” newspaper, the protest has since won the support of other opposition newspapers, most of which are now represented in the fasting group by one or two journalists, some of them taking turns. Publishing operations do not seem to be affected. The fasting group has been joined briefly by sympathetic public figures such as the famous singer Flora Kerimova, a political opponent of President Haidar Aliev.

The main newspapers involved in the controversy are “Azadlyg” of the Popular Front (PF) and “Yeni Musavat” of the Musavat party. The PF and Musavat and their respective leaders, Abulfaz Elchibey and Isa Gambar, boycotted last month’s presidential balloting, though campaigning against the incumbent president. The current flare-up is largely a sequel of the inflamed electoral campaign.

The journalists demand, first, an end to libel suits brought against newspapers or individual journalists; and, second, the adoption of a new media law which would bar lawsuits by officials against the media. They also seek an investigation into the alleged beating of four “Yeni Musavat” journalists by policemen during a picket action.

Internal Affairs Ministry Investigations Department chief Nizami Hojaev has won a libel suit against the “Yeni Musavat” newspaper. A Baku court fined the newspaper some 20 million manat (US$5,000) for falsely alleging that Hojaev had been implicated in the 1997 murder of the historian Zia Buniatov. Buniatov was an officially approved nationalist academic whose work focused on Karabakh.

Presidential administration chief Ramaz Mehtiev has sued “Yeni Musavat” for publishing allegations that Mehtiev has kinship ties to Armenians. According to as yet unconfirmed reports, a Baku court has fined the newspaper some 200 million manat (US$50,000) and required it to apologize. During the electoral campaign, some opposition newspapers had liberally alleged that the authorities of Azerbaijan were infiltrated by, or in collusion with, Kurds or Armenians. After the election, the authorities reciprocated by accusing radical oppositionists of working for the benefit of Iran or Russia.

Agil and Jalal Aliev, brothers of President Haidar Aliev, and Rasim Aliev, his nephew, have sued the newspapers “Azadlyg,” “Yeni Musavat,” “Mukhalifat” and “Hurriet” for publicizing “false” and “slanderous” stories which “insulted the honor and dignity” of the Aliev family. The president’s relatives demand that the newspapers publish a retraction of the stories, with an apology. The newspapers had published allegations describing Haidar Aliev as an ethnic Kurd who had been involved in the past in organizing the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in collusion with Moscow’s Near East expert Karen Brutents, an ethnic Armenian. In addition, Jalal Aliev is suing “Azadlyg” for publishing allegations that he and other presidential relatives have bought expensive real estate in Britain.

On November 18, Prosecutor General Eldar Hasanov met with the editors of “Azadlyg” and “Yeni Musavat” and offered an out-of-court settlement: The newspapers would publish an apology to the plaintiffs and get away with a symbolic fine. The editors turned down the settlement, the solidarity hunger strike continued and the court cases ran their course.

Fasters and chief editors of the newspapers have received a sympathetic hearing at Western embassies in Baku. The U.S. State Department and international organizations concerned with freedom of the media–the International Press Institute, Reporters Sans Frontieres, the European Institute of the Media–have called on the Azerbaijani government to respect the freedom of the press (Turan, Assa-Irada, AP, November 16-23).