US embassy cable - 08BAKU969

AZERBAIJAN'S 2008 ELECTION: MEDIA FREEDOM ENVIRONMENT CONSTRICTING

Identifier: 08BAKU969
Wikileaks: View 08BAKU969 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Baku
Created: 2008-10-10 13:55:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PREL PGOV PHUM AJ
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
VZCZCXYZ0032
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHKB #0969/01 2841355
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 101355Z OCT 08
FM AMEMBASSY BAKU
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0159
INFO RUCNCIS/CIS COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 3063
RUEHYE/AMEMBASSY YEREVAN PRIORITY 1535
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO PRIORITY 0820
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEHVEN/USMISSION USOSCE PRIORITY 1131
RHMFISS/CDR USEUCOM VAIHINGEN GE PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L BAKU 000969 
 
SIPDIS 
 
FOR EUR/CARC 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/10/2018 
TAGS: PREL, PGOV, PHUM, AJ 
SUBJECT: AZERBAIJAN'S 2008 ELECTION: MEDIA FREEDOM 
ENVIRONMENT CONSTRICTING 
 
REF: BAKU 00524 
 
Classified By: Ambassador Anne E. Derse for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). 
 
1.  (C) Summary:  Media contacts state that media in 
Azerbaijan has worsened under a "personally insecure" 
president, who has condoned a clampdown on influential, 
critical media outlets.  They point to a number of factors 
behind the gradual, but steady, decline in media freedom 
since Ilham Aliyev took office in 2003, including:  GOAJ 
harassment of journalists, the judiciary's lack of 
independence, a limited advertising market that is dominated 
by pro-government publications, self-censorship, and a lack 
of professionalism in Azerbaijan's media industry.  President 
Aliyev in July approved a new program to develop the media 
(septel) designed by media representatives.  Some observers 
are skeptical of a government role in such an effort; 
Azerbaijan's leadership has requested U.S. assistance in 
organizing and implementing the fund.  The development of the 
media as a strong institution of Azerbaijan's democracy is a 
long-term effort and requires sustained U.S. support.  End 
Summary. 
 
2.  (C) This cable is part of a series on the broader 
political environment before the October 15 Presidential 
election.  The Embassy met with seven media professionals to 
hear their perspectives on the overall media environment, 
including Shelly Markoff (IREX chief of party), Khadija 
Ismayilova (Radio Liberty Baku bureau chief), Rashid Hajili 
(Media Rights Institute director), Mehman Aliyev (Turan News 
Agency director), Emin Huseynov (Institute for Reporters' 
Freedom and Safety director), Osman Gunduz (Multimedia 
Information Systems & Technologies Center director), and 
Elnur Baimov (www.day.az editor-in-chief). 
 
Media Freedom Declining 
----------------------- 
 
3.  (C) The consensus among media professionals is that media 
freedom declined in Azerbaijan under President Ilham Aliyev. 
Media professionals we spoke with unanimously agreed that the 
media was more free and robust in the late 1990s during the 
later years of former President Heydar Aliyev.  Reflecting a 
common theme, Ismayilova told us President Ilham Aliyev is 
insecure and cannot tolerate criticism, which distinguishes 
him from his father.  President Heydar Aliyev regularly 
engaged directly with local journalists, while Ilham Aliyev 
does not.  At the same time, the media representatives claim 
President Aliyev and other government insiders perceive that 
the political cost of clamping down on the media is minimal, 
as the GOAJ increasingly judges that Western states need 
Azerbaijan as much or more than Azerbaijan needs the West. 
The GOAJ also appears to see minimal domestic costs for 
keeping the media on a short leash, as there is little in the 
way of public clamor for a more vibrant media. 
 
4.  (C) The GOAJ's answer to the problem of developing 
Azerbaijan's media is a state program on supporting the 
media.  In a September 11 meeting with the Ambassador, 
Presidential Administration Public Policy Chief Ali Hasanov 
discussed the GOAJ's plan for supporting the media.  On July 
31, President Aliyev signed a "concept paper," drawn up by 
Azerbaijan's Media Council and editors-in-chief of various 
Azerbaijani newspapers.  Hasanov said that the purpose of the 
GOAJ's program would be to support development of the media 
as an independent institution that could work freely and 
independently in a commercial environment.  Hasanov 
acknowledged government support for commercial operations of 
media outlets would be difficult to manage, and noted he was 
open to U.S. assistance on developing the media development 
program.  Having recently returned from a trip to the U.S., 
where he met with DRL A/S Kramer and EUR DAS Bryza and 
attended the Democratic National Convention, Hasanov appeared 
to have a fresh attitude toward cooperating with the media. 
 
5.  (C) President Aliyev in August also unveiled a new state 
program providing direct grants to some 35 media outlets. 
The one-time grants are the initial phase of the broader 
state program to support development of the media that 
Hasanov raised in his meeting with the Ambassador.  Local 
 
opinion is divided as to whether the program reflects a 
serious effort by the GOAJ to support the development of the 
media or a move designed primarily to deflect western 
criticism of Azerbaijan's media environment. 
 
Television:  Most Popular and Controlled Medium 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
 
6.  (C) Following a broad post-Soviet trend, the majority of 
Azerbaijanis get their news from television.  Well-educated 
Azerbaijanis, however, increasingly complain that the 
state-dominated television channels are uninteresting and 
lack substantive political discussion.  For years, ANS was 
the leading beacon of semi-independent television 
programming; it overwhelmingly was the most popular station. 
In late 2006, the National Radio and Television Council 
(NRTC) forced ANS off the air for several weeks, with the 
NRTC claiming ANS was violating the national media law.  All 
seven media professionals interviewed argued that ANS 
editorial line has become considerably less aggressive since 
it was temporarily shut down; in previous meetings, ANS chief 
Vahid Mustafayev conceded that the station more cautiously 
approaches stories at this time, arguing that Azerbaijan is 
at war and even democratic countries suspend liberties during 
time of war. 
 
7.  (C) Experts agree the GOAJ is most concerned with 
controlling the editorial line of television because it 
remains the most influential source of information.  In an 
indication that the GOAJ has largely succeeded in influencing 
television's editorial line, Hajili observed that harassment 
of journalists has almost entirely focused on print media 
journalists, vice television journalists.  One potentially 
positive development in the overall trend of declining 
television freedom is the public television station (ITV), 
which, while clearly a state-run channel, has begun to air 
more nuanced, less blatantly pro-government programming. 
Several experts suggested the station had some degree of 
independence and the station chief has sought to introduce 
some limited political discussions, although experts were 
divided over the station's relative degree of political 
independence and the station's level of professionalism.  ITV 
recently aired the U.S. Presidential debates, dubbed in 
Azerbaijani.  The Foreign Minister, who has taken the lead in 
promoting a modern media by instituting the first-ever 
regular weekly ministerial press conferences at the Ministry 
of Foreign Affairs (MFA), said MFA is now working with ITV to 
introduce a limited "Meet the Press" type discussion program 
on foreign affairs.  A Fulbright Fellow with 20 years 
experience on the McNeil-Lehrer show is assisting in 
developing the program. 
 
8.  (C) A local study monitoring the media in the run-up to 
the Presidential election, which is funded by the Council of 
Europe, concluded in its initial report that the media -- 
particularly television -- provided a limited spectrum of 
political views and actors.  A respected local NGO (New 
Generation) focusing on the media climate conducted the study 
using quantitative analysis.  Their Oct. 6 report noted that 
TV channels in the Sept. 17-Oct. 2 campaign period paid 
little attention to election activity, particularly that of 
the opposition.  While Public TV and ANS were able to devote 
more attention to opposition candidates (14 percent for 
Public TV, 24 percent for ANS), AzTV, Khazar and ATV focused 
on the ruling party and its candidate for 99 percent of their 
election coverage. 
 
9.  (C) One election-related media issue is candidates' 
access to television.  The election code, which was revised 
in June, no longer permits the major state-owned television 
channel (AzTV) to provide free air time to presidential 
candidates.  Instead, ITV is supposed to provide free air 
time to candidates.  According to ODHIR, the points of 
concern are that AzTV currently has a greater geographic 
reach than ITV and that AzTV may be exempt from providing 
balanced news coverage for the candidates.  (NOTE:  The ITV 
director told ODHIR that ITV reaches 85 percent of 
Azerbaijani territory, in comparison to AzTV, which reaches 
all of Azerbaijan.)  CEC Chairman Mazahir Panahov told OSCE 
Ambassadors that ITV will provide three hours of free air 
 
time per week to candidates.  (In the 2005 Parliamentary 
elections, AzTV was required to provide six hours of free air 
time - reftel.)  This free air time has been employed in the 
form of moderated discussions between the candidates or their 
proxies. 
 
Radio: Most Underused Media 
--------------------------- 
 
10.  (C) Radio Liberty, BBC and VOA Azerbaijani services 
provide more news for radio listeners than the rest of the FM 
and AM dial combined.  Radio Liberty, which produces 10 hours 
of local news programming daily, dominates the radio market, 
but just over 2 percent of Azerbaijanis say they get their 
news from radio.  While RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin heard 
complaints from the government about imbalance during his 
spring visit to Baku the TV and Radio Council has repeatedly 
assured the Embassy that license renewals -- due in September 
-- are not a problem.  By all standards, Radio Liberty,s 
election coverage has been the most vigorous of any media in 
Azerbaijan, though the ruling party's representatives have 
often declined invitations to participate in debates with 
opposition candidates and surrogates. 
 
Print Media: A Thousand Flavors, But Who is Reading? 
--------------------------------------------- ------- 
 
11.  (C) According to an Internews media study, more than 
1,900 newspapers are registered in Azerbaijan.  The vast 
majority of these are not news-focused publications, but 
instead small newspapers or newsletters with a run of several 
hundred copies that provide information for specific 
organizations, government ministries, or individuals.  The 
Embassy estimates that in Baku there are fewer than 25 
newspapers that would fit the western definition, and just a 
dozen of them have circulations larger than 2,500.  Even the 
most popular dailies have print runs of only 6,000-9,000 
copies, this in a city of more than two million.  Even those 
figures are inflated, according to a report this week. 
 
12.  (C) The commercial model under which newspapers are 
operated as commercial businesses and rely primarily on 
advertising revenue is totally absent in Azerbaijan, leading 
to a distortion of the very nature of media.  In general, 
most newspapers fall into the partisan categories of 
"pro-government" or "pro-opposition."  While the government 
papers tend to be a chronicle of GOAJ activities, opposition 
papers often are a sea of sensationalistic stories designed 
to gather attention rather than accurately report the facts. 
Both are essentially fully-funded branches of either the 
government or the opposition.  There is virtually no 
commercial advertising.  The two most popular opposition 
dailies, Azadliq (Freedom) and Yeni Musavat (New Equality) 
are paid for entirely by the opposition Azadliq political 
bloc and the Musavat political party, respectively.  They do 
not seek to hide their political affiliations and run photos 
of their leaders on the front page of every issue, whether 
they have done anything newsworthy or not. 
 
13.  (C) On the other hand, Huseynov and other commentators 
told us that print media has a greater degree of freedom 
relative to television and interesting, critical articles can 
still be found.  Most experts agree that the Russian-language 
daily Zerkalo is the most respected and independent 
newspaper.  Many independent media experts also argued the 
GOAJ controls the distribution of newspapers through 
unofficial economic monopolies, and it can accordingly 
"punish" print outlets by tightening their distribution reach 
as well as their advertising revenue. 
 
Internet:  Bright Spot to Meet Growing Demand 
--------------------------------------------- 
 
14.  (C) The internet is the freest source of information 
inside Azerbaijan, and it appears to be growing as the medium 
of choice for educated Azerbaijanis who can afford regular 
access, according to most experts.  Multimedia Information 
Systems & Technologies Center director Osman Gunduz told us 
Azerbaijanis favor online news over traditional print 
newspapers, as approximately three times the number of 
 
Azerbaijanis look to the internet instead of print media as 
their primary news source.  (Gunduz estimated there are 
approximately 150,000 Azerbaijanis using the web as their 
primary information source, compared to 40,000 who read 
newspapers as their primary source of news.)  While the 
internet can be a reliable source of information about the 
outside world, there are a limited number of websites 
providing reliable Azerbaijani domestic news. 
 
15.  (C) Gunduz said there is no official GOAJ censorship of 
the internet, although in practice, GOAJ insiders can shut 
down individual websites.  Gunduz told us internet access in 
Azerbaijan is granted through Delta Telecom, which provides 
access to smaller, local internet provider companies.  Gunduz 
said Delta Telecom is an economic monopoly connected to the 
Presidential Administration, and that it also serves as an 
informal mechanism for shutting down select internet sites. 
Gunduz said Vahid Akhundov, the head of the Presidential 
Security Service (PSS), is linked to the owner, but we have 
also heard that the nephew of Deputy Head of the PSS Baylor 
Eyyubov -- who reports to Akhundov on paper, but unofficially 
is rumored to hold the real reins of power within PSS -- runs 
Delta Telecom. 
 
16.  (C) The most popular news website in Azerbaijan is 
www.day.az.  The primary site is in Russian, although there 
is an English-language mirror site at www.today.az.  The 
articles tend to be tightly drafted factual reports on a 
range of political, economic, and social topics, vice 
investigative journalism.  While the website tends to avoid 
examining politically-sensitive topics like corruption, the 
articles feature comments from a broad spectrum of 
pro-government, independent, and opposition actors. 
Editor-in-chief Baimov told us there are approximately 25,000 
daily readers and the site receives about 300,000 daily hits. 
 
 
Major Problems in the Media Environment 
--------------------------------------- 
 
17.  (C) Several long-term, mutually-reinforcing factors have 
eroded the media freedom environment in Azerbaijan.  Critical 
print journalists have been beaten, imprisoned, or harassed. 
The pattern appears to be GOAJ insiders targeting journalists 
who are perceived as critics of the government's policies or 
of certain officials, or those who go too far in 
investigating an elite's financial fiefdoms.  Kompromat -- 
the widely-known Russian term for acquiring derogatory 
information on someone that could be used as blackmail -- is 
a key driver in Azerbaijan's political economy, wedding 
elites in a complex interaction of distrust and 
collaboration.  In what can be called a "culture of 
kompromat," investigative journalism touching on an elite's 
personal financial interests quickly crosses a redline. 
According to a wide range of government and civil society 
contacts, print media outlets are frequently controlled 
behind the scenes by oligarchs or GOAJ officials and are used 
to advance personal financial and political interests. 
18.  (C) Another challenge is a string of dubious court 
proceedings initiated against journalists who are often 
charged with libel.  Ismayilova argued that the executive's 
control of the judiciary, which prevents journalists from 
having a neutral outlet for legally addressing the incidents 
of harassment and intimidation, is a core problem.  Experts 
also argued that the cumulative impact of multiple attacks 
against journalists is greater than the sum of the individual 
episodes, generating a climate of fear of criticizing members 
of the elite.  Since 2006 there have been 11 journalists 
arrested and imprisoned for reasons considered by domestic 
and international observers to be politically motivated. 
Five of these journalists, all convicted of libel, were 
released by presidential pardon in December 2007 while two 
were released after their cases were overturned on appeal. 
The pace of libel cases filed by government officials has 
diminished in the pre-election period.  Of the four remaining 
imprisoned journalists, three are prominent opposition 
journalists convicted of terrorism, hooliganism, and 
narcotics possession whose cases have been raised to the GOAJ 
by the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and the USG.  Embassy 
officials have received indications from the GOAJ that these 
 
three journalists may be released after the election.  The 
fourth case involves due process violations concerning the 
airing of video footage of alleged bribery on national 
television, and his release is not considered imminent. 
 
19.  (C) Local experts repeatedly cite lack of a local 
advertising market as a key compounding factor that limits 
the degree of media freedom.  Aliyev and others opined that 
the economic basis of independent media outlets is steadily 
constricting.  Over the past few years, limited advertising 
dollars increasingly have migrated to television and print 
media outlets that are perceived as "pro-government," leaving 
opposition or independent outlets with limited means.  Aliyev 
told us the advertising market for television is rapidly 
growing (tripling over the past three years), but remains 
"stagnant" for print media.  Ismayilova and Markoff said 
banks and mobile telephone providers are major sources of 
advertising dollars, but these companies are linked to elite 
insiders, who selectively back pro-government media outlets. 
Experts said that opposition-oriented publications often run 
on a shoe-string budget, which leaves them open to writing 
sensationalistic stories with limited or no sourcing, or 
vulnerable to corruption and influence from shadowy 
"patrons."  Media experts note the urgent need to assist both 
print and television outlets to learn how to run them 
commercially as businesses, a strategy that could work if 
businesses are permitted to make their own decisions about 
where to spend advertising dollars without government 
influence, they say. 
 
In the Context of the Upcoming Elections 
---------------------------------------- 
 
20.  (C) In the days before the October 15 presidential 
election, most experts we spoke with thought the GOAJ might 
grant more political space to the press.  These experts 
argued that President Aliyev feels confident of winning the 
election and that from the GOAJ's perspective, more harm than 
good could be done in having to deal with a high-profile 
media rights issue while there is increased international 
scrutiny of Azerbaijan's pre-election political climate. 
Most commentators agreed that if there was a more relaxed 
environment before and during the election, it would likely 
be "business as usual" after the election. 
 
21.  (C) These analysts argued that the problems with media 
freedom are part of a broader trend, with several noting a 
domestic parallel between Azerbaijan and Russia.  Ismayilova 
said the GOAJ is "eliminating platforms of discussion" and 
replacing them with GOAJ-orchestrated forums. 
 
Ideas to Support Media Freedom 
------------------------------ 
 
22.  (C) When asked for recommendations on how to promote 
positive changes in the media climate, Ismayilova suggested 
U.S. support for a South Caucasus television station, which 
would be admittedly expensive, but central to opening up an 
alternative information source for populations eager for 
information and promoting regional integration.  Other 
experts suggested the U.S. increasingly focus its assistance 
on internet news and radio broadcasting over the internet, 
since it is relatively cheap and Azerbaijanis increasingly 
are looking to the internet for their information.  Aliyev 
also stressed the need for more systematic interaction 
between state officials and journalists and more training for 
spokespeople.  Finally, Husyenov suggested that U.S. 
officials should encourage the GOAJ to privatize the state 
media agencies, appealing to Azerbaijan's stated desire to 
modernize its political institutions. 
 
23.  (C) COMMENT:  The development of the media as a strong 
democratic institution in Azerbaijan is a long-term task, 
requiring consistent effort by the government to create the 
legal, economic and political conditions for a free press to 
develop, and an effort by the media to develop the 
professional standards needed.  Support for independent media 
and professionalization of journalists has been the top 
priority of the Embassy's public diplomacy programming in 
recent years.  Projects have ranged from journalism training 
 
 
at the Georgia Institute for Public Affairs and the newly 
created American-Azerbaijan Journalism Academy, to financing 
an innovative NGO media monitoring project that rates the 
professional and ethical performance of daily newspapers. 
The Ambassador and other Embassy officers also regularly 
press the GOAJ to remove the legal prohibition against libel 
from the criminal to the civil code.  There is still much to 
be done, as standards remain low, and improving the work of 
journalists must be accompanied by the GOAJ loosening control 
of media institutions and allowing normal interaction with 
advertisers.  Only a financially independent media -- free of 
government, political party, and financial "patrons" 
influence, and one fully trained in professional journalistic 
ethics -- will be able to play the Fourth Estate role so 
important in vibrant democracies. 
DERSE 

Latest source of this page is cablebrowser-2, released 2011-10-04