On the first week of the new year, residents of Azerbaijan were shocked to discover that the popular weekly TV program “Chto? Gde? Kogda?” (What? Where? When?) was missing from TV schedules. The National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting had finally realized its long-planned campaign to take Russian-language programs off the national airwaves.
Producers of the program, as well as the broader public, were outraged by the move. The show itself, modeled after the Russian version of the same-named game show, is highly popular in the country and is perceived to be intellectual and educational. The format of the game is built around the concept of a team of erudite men and women trying to answer any question posed by viewers, using logic and analysis.
The producer of the show, Balakishi Gasimov, appealed to viewers and President Ilham Aliyev for support. In his open letter, published on Day.az news site on January 7, he argued that the game increases the level of the education among youth and creates favorable conditions for Azerbaijanis to participate in similar games in Russia, thus breaking the stereotype of an Azerbaijani being an uneducated laborer or trader in Russian markets. “If they close this program, what will be next? Russian-language newspapers? Internet sites? The Russian Drama Theatre in Baku? Russian schools?” argued Gasimov.
The cancellation of the TV program marks a strange, but dangerous trend. Recently Elmira Akhundova, a member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, stated that the Russian-language section in public schools must be decreased. Paradoxically, Akhundova herself is a prominent journalist, writing mainly in the Russian language.
Last year, the Russian TV station ORT was closed in Azerbaijan, and negotiations were held between the Russian and Azerbaijani authorities to continue broadcasting the second Russian TV channel in Azerbaijan, RTR, in exchange for the Russian government allowing broadcasts from Azerbaijani State Television on Russia’s airwaves. The talks ended in complete failure, and RTR went dark on January 1, a move described by the Russian ambassador in Azerbaijan Vasiliy Istratov as “a complete surprise.”
Local pundits believe that the decision to close ORT was the Azerbaijani government’s response to gas price hikes last year by the Russian monopoly Gazprom. However, it seems that some government officials have decided to take the move a bit further with their pseudo-patriotic explanations. Although most people agree that there is a need for stronger Azerbaijani-language content in both the media and public schools, they consider the crusade against the Russian language to be too early and too unproductive.
Gasimov received strong support from other prominent members of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia. Day.az quoted Elchin Shikhli, editor-in-chief of Zerkalo newspaper, as saying, “An attempt to take away from a large number of people an opportunity to receive information in their desired language might bring negative consequences.” Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a religious scholar and one of the most popular clerics in the country, issued a press release expressing his deep concern about the closure of the program and hoping that it would soon return (1news.az, January 8). Even opposition political parties hopped on the bandwagon. Isa Gambar, chairman of the Musavat party, known for its nationalistic platform, condemned the cancellation of the program. Some government offices also reacted negatively to the prohibition. Khazar Ibrahim, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, stated that the closure of Russian-language sources will make it more difficult to disseminate information about Azerbaijan to the outside world.
Members of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting found themselves on the defensive. “I don’t understand why an Azerbaijani TV channel must prepare a program in other languages,” said Gafar Jabiyev, member of the Council. The Council also prohibits local TV stations from broadcasting movies and soap operas in the Russian language, which creates major difficulties for them, since they have no capacity to quickly dub foreign language movies into the Azerbaijani language. The prohibition has led to the situation in which most of the TV channels have switched to Turkish soap operas, a controversial move, since the Azerbaijani law on language considers Turkish to be foreign, too.
Eventually, the issue was resolved after personal intervention by President Aliyev, who is believed to be a fan of the game show. In the past three years, Baku has hosted the world championship for “Chto? Gde? Kogda?” President Aliyev has participated and rooted for the Azerbaijani teams. For now, the game show has been given a year-long extension on its license to broadcast the program in the Russian language. The chairman of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting, Nurshiravan Maharramli, once again was put in embarrassing position. In 2006, his decision to close down the independent ANS TV was overturned by President Aliyev. Nevertheless, Maharramli threatened that this extension to the game show’s producers does not mean that the program will permanently remain on local TV channels.