The Milli Mejlis, Azerbaijan’s parliament, adopted the new ‘Law on Media’ on December 28. The law, which came into effect on the first of January after President Ilham Aliyev signed it, is feared to limit press freedom in the country even further.
Media Development Agency
According to the law, only those publications from media outlets that have been registered with the new state Media Development Agency (MEDIA) will be permitted, forming a “media registry”. Media outlets not included in the registry will not be considered a part of the media sector, and journalists and employees from those media outlets will no longer receive their journalistic certificates, or have access to government documents.
Journalists have to fit certain criteria to be included in the registry. Among others, owners of media outlets have to live in Azerbaijan. Furthermore, journalists are prohibited from “propagating superstitions” and “tarnishing a business’s reputation”.
Azerbaijan has long had a poor reputation regarding media freedom: the NGO Reporters without Borders (RSF) ranks Azerbaijan 167th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Independent journalists and bloggers are frequently harassed or jailed on absurd grounds. With this new law, analysts fear the situation has deteriorated even further.
Critics state that this law effectively bans many of the country’s independent media, firstly as many are run by Azerbaijanis who fled the country’s repressive media environment, and therefore cannot be registered at the state agency. Furthermore, as Jeanne Cavelier of the RSF stated, the law is “peppered with imprecise wording and contradictions”. The law therefore gives the government more power to block media as it can more easily find grounds on which to ‘legitimately’ ban news outlets, effectively legalizing censorship.
RSF urged the authorities to revise the bill’s changes to the media law as it was being drafted, and there were protests by journalists. The most recent protest was on the 28th of December, the day the law passed through the third and final reading. Dozens of journalists gathered in front of Azerbaijan’s parliament building in Baku to protest the new media law. At least one journalist was injured during the rally, and police prevented the protesters from displaying their signs. Other journalists, law experts, and media and rights groups have also indicated their concern with the law.
Government-friendly media widely praised the bill, stating that it will “play an important role in eliminating a number of shortcomings that exist today in the field of media”. In the Milli Mejlis critics of the law were determined to be “anti-nationalist forces”, following orders from Armenia.
Others have reacted more neutrally, indicating that rules limiting media freedom already applied and therefore little will change. Multiple journalists have stated that they will continue their work regardless of the law. What will happen to Azerbaijan’s media landscape now is still uncertain. The future will have to show the effects of this law on media freedom.