On 11 August the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the Azerbaijani government's use of tax-evasion charges to harass the Turan news agency, the last independent media outlet based in the country. RSF sees this move as a government attempt to curb independent journalism.
The dispute between government and Turan
Azerbaijani officials began a criminal investigation against Turan on 7 August. Turan denies the allegations and has referred the matter to a Baku economic administrative court, pointing to many irregularities in the investigation, including the fact that officials did not mention a recent audit that was made in response to similar allegations.
“It was just a matter of time before the authorities targeted the last independent media outlet still operating in Azerbaijan,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF Eastern Europe and Central Asia. "These proceedings are designed to cripple a respected news agency financially," Bihr continued. "We call on the authorities to end this systematic harassment of the last independent media voices and to drop the investigation into Turan.”
Turan Information Agency was founded by a group of journalists in May 1990 and was one of the Soviet Union’s first independent news agencies. It remains an essential news source in a country whose regime tightly controls the press and has increased its attacks on journalists in recent months.
Decrease in independent media
The Azerbaijani authorities have clamped down on independent media in the country in recent years, including the closure of Radio Free Europe’s bureau in late 2014. The last opposition newspaper, Azadliq, was forced to stop producing a print edition in September 2016.
The crackdown on media freedom has intensified in the past months. On 12 May this year, a Baku court upheld a decision to block five independent news websites. Individual journalists have also suffered intensified persecutions this year, which is paradoxical considering the Azerbaijani government’s conciliatory gesture to free a number of political prisoners in March 2016.
Victims include Fikret Faramazgoglu, head of the Centre for Journalistic Investigations (JAM) and its website Jam.az. He was sentenced to seven years in prison on 14 June and banned from working as a journalist for two years after his release.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Sources: Reporters without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Radio Free Europe