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New Media Law Casts Shadow Over Azeri Media

FILE - Police officers restrain a protester during a rally of journalists against a new media bill, in front of the Parliament building in Baku, Azerbaijan, Dec. 28, 2021.
FILE - Police officers restrain a protester during a rally of journalists against a new media bill, in front of the Parliament building in Baku, Azerbaijan, Dec. 28, 2021.

Azerbaijan's journalists are used to working in tense conditions, but a media bill passed into law earlier this year has many of them on edge.

Lawmakers have not yet established penalties to accompany the law, but critics say provisions, including a media registry, will make working more difficult, especially for freelance or independent reporters.

Journalists in Azerbaijan have always faced obstacles, says Nigar Mubariz, who contributes to several media outlets. But now, she says, they have to be more vigilant.

"The places I work for have not censored me even after the law was passed. Unfortunately, we are accustomed to working in tense conditions. But now this tension has increased and we have to protect our rights," she told VOA.

Mubariz believes the media registry will make it hard for some journalists to gain access to official sources because freelance reporters like her may not be considered journalists.

Other parts of the law set up to address objectivity and bias could also be used to restrict critical reporting.

"This law not only hinders the work of journalists, but also prevents the public from accessing accurate information," Mubariz said.

She added that the new law "directly contradicts" Article 50 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to seek and disseminate information.

Restricting the media's work is damaging both to journalists and their audiences, Mubariz said, adding that it "hinders the coverage of future problems in the country, socio-political processes, and the provision of accurate information to society."

Azerbaijani lawmakers have defended the new ruling as a way to improve relations between media and the state, and say the bill was widely discussed, including with journalists.

"The law protects media independence, freedom of speech and does not impose any sanctions or restrictions," Aydin Mirzazade, a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, told VOA earlier this year.

He also dismissed claims that it contradicts Azerbaijan's constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The law adds to an already restrictive environment. Azerbaijan has a poor press freedom record, ranking 154 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, where 1 is freest, says Reporters Without Borders.

The watchdog says "media laws have become increasingly repressive" in the past two decades and authorities imprison and harass independent and critical journalists.

Despite those challenges, the country's media are involved in reporting on and exposing big issues. Investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova was part of the global coverage of the Pegasus project last year, which examined how spyware targeted politicians, civil society, and media workers, including Ismayilova.

Period of change

Some journalists are adopting a wait-and-see approach: working as usual while waiting to see how authorities plan to enforce the law.

Freelancer Parvana Gurbanli says she just follows the existing rules for international and professional media.

"I want to continue to operate on this principle. But I don't know how successful I will be after the enforcement of the law," she said. "I think that if all independent journalists continue at the same pace, the new law will lose its force over time."

Gurbanli believes that the law violates conventions on freedom of expression and the right to information and worries that the media registry could concentrate journalism in the hands of the government.

"These media outlets and all their employees will be included in the media register. Under the new law, independent journalists will not be considered journalists," she said.

Farid Gahramanov, who works for the independent Turan news agency, said questions remain over how the registry will work.

The government media regulator is expected to oversee the operation but, Gahramanov said, "There is no clarity on this issue."

"The question is how soon will the agency include a given media outlet in the register? In what cases can there be refusals? How should they be justified?" he said.

Gahramanov believes the obligation to register could result in self-censorship, saying "The danger of breaking the law will force [journalists] to be loyal."

Potential benefits that some officials say will be extended to press card holders could also be problematic, Gahramanov said.

"To ensure objectivity and impartiality, a journalist must be independent of the state, political institutions and business organizations. Their only privilege should be [to be] able to access information quickly," he said.

Gahramanov believes that the best way the state can help journalists is by strengthening security.

"This means swift investigation of crimes against journalists, toughening of penalties for crimes against media representatives," he said.

This story originated in VOA's Azerbaijani Service.