At its regularly scheduled November 24 meeting, the National Radio and Television Council (NRTC) of Azerbaijan decided to suspend the broadcast license of ANS TV, the first private television station in the country, and its radio station ANS-CM.
Council chairman Nushiravan Maharramli stated that the decision to close ANS came because the channel had violated provisions of the law on broadcasting, ignored previous warnings regarding these legislative violations, and failed to pay outstanding fines (Echo-Az, November 25).
The NRTC also announced that the frequencies used by ANS TV and ANS radio would be put for up an open tender. ANS is not likely to be approved for bidding.
Maharramli said, “Throughout its existence, ANS was sanctioned 11 times for various violations and fined two times. The company had initiated legal action against the NRTC two times and lost it both times” (Zerkalo, November 25).
According to Maharramli, the main reason why the ANS license was suspended was the company’s unlicensed radio broadcasts in Sheki, a region of northwestern Azerbaijan, in the run-up to the November 2005 parliamentary elections. “When we tried to ask questions about the illegal operation of the radio broadcast [in Sheki], ANS responded by saying ‘It’s not the NRTC’s business’!” (Zerkalo, November 25).
ANS president Vahid Mustafayev said that ANS has been developing over the course of 15 years and last year alone paid more than $2 million in taxes to the national budget. While acknowledging some problems, Mustafayev noted, “We have had a problem with licensing for three years, but we hoped this issue would be resolved by January 1, 2007” (Zerkalo, November 25).
ANS has had well-known conflicts with certain government officials. The most significant one was a controversial standoff between Mustafayev and the brother of the late president Heydar Aliyev, where both sides exchanged mutual accusations in the press and on television. At the time, President Ilham Aliyev had intervened and showed his support for the company, which soothed tensions.
After that experience, this time Mustafayev was careful not to overreact to the NRTC ruling and tried to appeal to President Aliyev first. In an interview with the press, Mustafayev disassociated himself from calls for public protests and said that the company would initiate legal actions and try to resolve the issue through the courts (Echo-Az, November 25).
He stated that he had personally appealed to President Aliyev and hoped that president would resolve this problem soon. “The decision does not bring pride to the state, but only damages its international image,” concluded Mustafayev (Zerkalo, November 25).
On November 29, President Aliyev gave an interview to the state-run AzTV1 in which he said that he had supported ANS in the past, but he stressed that it is important for the company to act within the laws.
According to Aliyev, “In today’s world no one could limit the activities of media, and there is no such goal…Some may think that being head of a TV company gives them certain privileges, but it is wrong. There are government agencies and their legitimate demands should be met. If that happens, ANS may restart its activities” (Day.az, November 29).
Following President Aliyev’s interview, the NRTC chairman made another statement on November 30, saying that ANS would be allowed to participate in a tender to obtain a broadcasting license for frequencies that became available as a result of the company’s suspension. The tender will last from December 5 to January 5, 2007 (Day.az, December 1).
The closure of ANS also coincided with a decision by the State Committee on Real Estate to close the building where the opposition party newspaper Azadliq was headquartered. The newspaper was offered two alternative locations for its new offices. However, the management of the newspaper turned down the deal, stating that the paper does not have sufficient funds to pay a monthly rent of $250 for the new office (Echo-Az, December 1).
The OSCE and U.S. State department have already expressed their concern regarding the closure of ANS. Ambassador Maurizio Pavesi, Head of the OSCE Office in Baku, was “perplexed as to why the decision [on closure]…came into force immediately” while “the usual recourse to appeal seem[ed] to have been overlooked” (OSCE Press Release, November 24).
For many in Azerbaijan, the decision to close ANS TV came as a surprise. ANS was one of the few private TV stations in the country whose broadcasts were considered to be impartial. But more importantly, the station holds a special place in Azerbaijan’s recent history.
It was established in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its birth was closely associated with the emergency of independent Azerbaijan. The channel’s president was one of the first journalists to cover the Karabakh war, along with his brother, Chingiz Mustafayev, who died during the war and is regarded as a national hero.
The station’s fate remains uncertain. Whether the reason behind the suspension is legal, economic, political, or geopolitical, it remains to be seen if ANS can recover from this setback and win back its lost frequencies in the upcoming tender.