Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 232

On December 15, a Baku court found fined the newspapers “Azadlyg” and “Yeni Musavat” guilty of defamation of President Haidar Aliev. Azadlyg is the organ of the Popular Front and Yeni Musavat the organ of the Musavat Party. The court fined the two papers 200 million and 180 million manat (approximately US$50,000 and US$45,000), respectively, also requiring them to publish retractions of and apologies for the defamatory allegations. The Justice Ministry, plaintiff in the case, had asked for a total of 800 million manat in fines from the two newspapers.

At issue were stories published last month by these papers, citing allegations that Aliev had helped organize the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The Popular Front leader and ex-president of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey, who made such allegations last month, faces a separate court case (see the Monitor, December 14). Neither the newspapers nor Elchibey have been able to substantiate the allegations.

The same court is currently considering another defamation case against the “Azadlyg,” “Yeni Musavat,” “Hurriet” and “Mukhalifat” newspapers, also on charges of defamation of the president. These newspapers published stories which cited allegations that Aliev is a camouflaged Kurd. Plaintiffs in this case are several relatives of Aliev. Hearings in the case were adjourned four times since December 3 owing to no-shows by some of the defendants.

On December 14, another Baku court fined “Azadlyg” 500 million manat (approximately US$125,000) for libel, also requiring the paper to issue a retraction on the first page in large typeface. By court order, the cash from the fine will be turned over to an orphans’ support fund. Plaintiffs in the case were sixteen officials at various levels, whom Azadlyg recently accused of having bought real estate abroad from funds obtained through corruption. Unable to substantiate the charges, the newspaper published refutations from the officials while the litigation was in process.

Journalists of some twenty opposition newspapers had participated in an intermittent hunger strike during the second half of November, seeking to stop the libel cases in progress in the courts (see the Monitor, November 24). The hunger strike petered out in early December, when protest leaders held talks with senior presidential political adviser Ali Hasanov. They discussed a possible out-of-court settlement whereby President Aliev would publicly appeal to all the litigating sides to drop mutual accusations. The journalists, however, apparently sought an outright stop of the libel cases by presidential intervention, and regarded the presidential demurral as disingenuous (Turan, Assa-Irada, AzadInform, December 11-15).

The general situation of the non-state press in Azerbaijan, and specifically the libel cases against opposition newspapers, are attracting a good deal of international attention. Human rights and media watch groups, concerned about press freedom, seem less immediately preoccupied with the issue of professional responsibility of the press. The newspaper articles which became the object of litigation are a byproduct of the recent inflamed presidential election campaign, during which the press on both sides seemed oblivious to professional standards.