In Azerbaijan, journalists unite in saying ‘we do not want licensed media’

Image by Pinho. Free to use under Unsplash License.

The campaign #IcazəliMediaIstəmirik (#WeDoNotWantLicensedMedia) was started in February 2023 by a group of independent journalists in Azerbaijan. United under this hashtag, the journalists are protesting the new Media Law, which came into force last year, as well as the Media Registry, an electronic information resource managed by Azerbaijan's Media Development Agency created in January 2021. With this new campaign, journalists are demanding that the government repeal the law, alleging it violates Azerbaijan's Constitution and removes the requirement for registration with the Media Registry. The journalists argue the registry could silence Azerbaijan's remaining independent media platforms and further erode an already restricted media environment.

In order to register, there is a list of criteria that journalists must meet. For instance, they must have obtained higher education; have no previous criminal record — which is virtually impossible among independent or opposition journalists as they often get questioned or harassed by the police and, in some cases, served time in jail; they must have a labor contract with a publisher, which is problematic for independent journalists and freelancers. Meanwhile, outlets must produce a minimum of 20 stories a day; the founders must come from Azerbaijan and be based in the country — also a challenge because there are a number of news outlets, whose founders are based abroad, who have left the country due to mounting pressure. 

The timing of the campaign

The Media Registry system became operational in October 2022. According to the Media Law, both print and online media must apply to the Media Agency within six months after the media registry is established. The deadline expires this month. According to a statement by the Media Agency, 200 media outlets and 180 journalists applied to the media registry. Of these applications, 160 media outlets were registered, while the remaining 40 media outlets were denied registration. On January 12, 2023, the Executive Director of the Media Development Agency, Ahmed Ismayilov, said the agency plans to take those media outlets that failed to register with the agency to court. The courts will decide whether to allow them to continue their work, added Ismayilov. As for the journalists who refused to register, he said, they won't be considered journalists — though it is currently unclear what the official consequences of this might be.

These statements prompted a group of journalists and media practitioners to launch the “We do not want licensed media” campaign. Journalist Aynur Elgunesh explained in one interview that first it was the law itself that defined what makes a journalist, now, the Media Agency boss threatens journalists with restricting their professional activities lest they fail to or decide not to register. Elgunesh is just one of many other journalists who have joined the campaign.

“How come there is no registry for medical employees, construction companies, and so on? This is laughable,” said journalist and director of Turan News Agency Mehman Aliyev while speaking at a press conference organized by the campaigners in response to Ismayilov's earlier statements about compulsory registration. Journalist Khadija Ismayilova, also attending the same press conference, said she found it funny that Ahmed Ismayilov [not related to Khadija Ismayilova] “will decide whether or not I am a journalist.”

In response to the campaign, Ahmed Ismayilov backtracked from his previous threats about possible court proceedings. Instead, he reportedly said, the registration was voluntary. However, it remains to be seen whether this claim holds true — particularly given Azerbaijan's poor global media freedom index rating. “President Ilham Aliyev has wiped out any semblance of pluralism, and since 2014, he has sought ruthlessly to silence any remaining critics,” read the Reporters Without Borders 2022 country report, which also ranked Azerbaijan 154th out of 180 countries in the global index published last year. According to Eurasianet reporting, “This naked attempt to co-opt would-be critical journalists is reminiscent of a state program introduced in 2013 to provide free apartments to journalists from both government-loyal and opposition-leaning outlets.”

Journalist Ulvi Hasanli, who heads the online news website Absaz media, recently said in an interview with Turan News Agency that “the goal was to completely get rid of independent media” in Azerbaijan. This view was also reiterated in an “Assessment Document” signed by a group of journalists and released in January 2023. “We, the signatories of the document, clearly see that the media law and the media registry provided for by this law open wide opportunities for restricting freedom of expression,” read the document.
However, some say the new law isn't just about silencing media. According to Elgunesh, the law, the registry system, and the power vested in the Media Development Agency strip away people's access to independent, objective news, exposing them instead to oversaturated newsfeeds with primarily irrelevant or non-local news. One of the requirements introduced by the law and needed for the registration is a minimum of 20 stories produced and published daily. “In a small country like Azerbaijan, producing 20, ‘special’ news items on daily basis is virtually impossible, especially when press statements, president's speeches or addresses are not considered ‘special’ news. And yet, [the agency does not mind] when a local media outlet takes any story from a foreign media, translates it and then publishes it as is. Which makes no sense, because it is not an original story, it has been taken from a different outlet. [This approach to news] creates news pollution and prevents people from accessing real news. This is what we are trying to explain to the people having started this campaign. That if we get shut down, it is their problems that won't get coverage,” explained Elgunesh.
In June 2022, the Venice Commission said in its joint opinion, together with the Directorate General of Human Rights and Rule of Law of the Council of Europe, after reviewing the-then draft bill on Media, that “the Law attempts to regulate almost everything related to the media sector in Azerbaijan, including on-line media,” and has “a problematic focus on restricting the activities of the media rather than creating the necessary conditions enabling the media to do fulfill their ‘public watchdog’ role.”
In a separate legal assessment of the Law on Media and its impact on online media platforms, Azerbaijan Internet Watch, a platform that monitors information controls in Azerbaijan, wrote, “The overall analysis of the law reveals that its main purpose is to regulate online media and journalism the way authorities regulate print media, ignoring the features and needs of ICT-based online media. The new law gives the power to suspend and/or terminate the activities of online media and impose severe sanctions.”

State response

The lawmakers, however, think differently. One member of parliament, Sahib Aliyev, claimed that the recent campaign was orchestrated by Western powers. “Otherwise, why would the head of EU mission to Azerbaijan Peter Michalko meet with independent journalists,” said Aliyev, referring to an alleged meeting between Michalko and a group of independent journalists. Except, Michalko never met with the group of independent journalists. In an interview with Turan News Agency, journalist Ulvi Hasanli said that, although there was a meeting with the delegation and other diplomatic missions, Michalko was not in attendance. Earlier, the campaigners were accused of “working for Iran,” in an attempt to play off long-running tensions with the Tehran government.
And yet, the journalists are determined to keep their campaign for as long as it takes, for the government to scratch the bill or accept the list of recommendations independent journalists and media experts offered at the time when the bill on media was still being discussed in the parliament.

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