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Azerbaijan Orders Independent Broadcaster to Shut Down

Azerbaijan's government has shut down the country's first independent television and radio broadcaster.

The National TV and Radio Council Friday said it had decided not to extend the license for Azerbaijan News Services (ANS).

A spokesman for the broadcaster said the station had not received any official notification prior to the government's move. Both its television and radio broadcasts were ordered off the air by 3 p.m. local time Friday.

In a statement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed deep concern at the government-forced closure of ANS. The agency's office in the Azeri capital, Baku, said the broadcaster has always been widely considered by international observers to be the most objective in the country.

ANS had planned to celebrate its 15th anniversary on Sunday with a gala concert when it was pulled from the air.

Besides carrying its own programming, ANS-TV rebroadcasts television programs from Voice of America. ANS radio also broadcast programs from the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Last month, the Baku government threatened to bar local broadcasters from airing the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty and the BBC. Authorities contend it is illegal for local media to carry foreign programming, but media rights advocates disagree.

Pressure on independent media and attacks on opposition journalists are commonplace in the oil-rich Caspian Sea country.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement in September voicing concern over a spate of criminal trials against opposition journalists. The statement said at least five Azerbaijani journalists and several newspapers are facing criminal and civil defamation charges. It said some of the defendants have already received harsh sentences.