There’s no such thing as a regular workday for Aygün, a video journalist living in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.
On this particular morning, she starts her day with breakfast before getting a message from a colleague telling her a group of veterans are gathering downtown. She grabs her bag, camera inside, orders a taxi, and heads to the demonstration. Her plan is to stream the event live, as she’s done many times before. Once she’s finished filming, she waits around. “The police had come, and I was worried the police might detain [the protestors]”, she explains afterwards. If she’s there, she can document the arrests and find out the detained persons’ names. In the past, she’s covered many protests that end with police detentions, and sometimes she’s among them.
Being a journalist in Azerbaijan is not an easy task. The country comes in at 167 of 179 countries in the 2021 Freedom of the Press Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders; in other words, one of the worst 20 countries on the index. Mainstream media in Azerbaijan are under government control, independent journalists are repeatedly detained, and persecution of opposition party members occurs on an almost daily basis. Not only has Aygün been detained, she’s also been physically beaten and had her equipment seized. “[The police] have a rude attitude towards journalists”, she explains.
Inside Azerbaijan, journalists and civil society have faced immense repression by the central government for years. Tactics have included travel bans, office raids, harassment of family members, arbitrary summons to the police department, and threats from authorities. The situation became unbearable for some, who moved to neighboring countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine. However, the Azerbaijani government often finds ways of locating them abroad and continuing to exert pressure on them. One of the most prominent examples of this practice is the 2017 kidnapping and imprisonment of journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, who was smuggled from Georgia across the border into Azerbaijan. He was released in 2020 on the condition he go into exile in Germany.
An attempt to further regulate media
On 12 January 2021, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree introducing reforms in the Azerbaijani media landscape and transforming the former Media Development Fund into the Media Development Agency. The public legal entity was apparently created to support the development of the country’s media, implement media activities, certify print and online outlets and apply administrative sanctions to journalists. The justification for the creation of the agency, according to Aliyev, is to guarantee an independent, media landscape in Azerbaijan free of censorship.
The decree was received with apprehension, and the topic that most caught people’s attention was that it predicted the creation of a law regulating journalism itself. Media experts and journalists viewed the plan with suspicion; a new agency and a new law could mean more restrictions to their work. For months, the law was discussed behind closed doors, despite independent journalists calling for a public discussion.
Their appeal was met with silence. Then, in December 2021, it was announced the draft law was prepared and ready to be discussed at the Milli Majlis, though no detailed information had yet been provided about its content. Azerbaijanis were taken by surprise with the news, since had been no prior announcements that the draft was close to being ready.
At the time, national media experts argued that the draft law contradicted the Code of Ethics for Journalists and the relevant articles of the Constitution on freedom of expression and speech, as well as the country’s commitments to international organizations.
Despite criticism, the draft law passed its second and third reading in the end of December 2021, meaning it was ready to be sent to president Ilham Aliyev for his ratification and further application. Journalists protested at the end of December against the law’s content and secretive drafting and discussion. As is common in Azerbaijan, the police intervened, forcibly removing journalists and reporters covering the protest from outside the parliament and dispersing the crowd.
Their protests, as well as remarks from the U.S. State Department, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Reporters without Borders, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the OSCE Media Freedom Representative went unnoticed. President Ilham Aliyev signed the bill into law on 8 February.
Much of the law consists of rules relating to media outlets and journalists and their definitions. One rule, for instance, is the obligation of having a job contract to be considered a journalist. This is just one of the many rules that journalists would need to fulfil in order to be accepted into the registry, receive a press card, and have access to official events, such as press conferences.
The law also forbids the humiliation of honor and dignity, and tarnishing of a business’ reputation, which will make reporting on topics such as corruption in effect, illegal.
“I hope it will be a law that is not enacted”
For Aygün, the new law has already affected her motivation to work as she cannot predict what will happen if she is detained. “Now, they will be able to reply and say, ‘According to the new law, you are a nobody, you are not a journalist’… it’s more dangerous because we don’t know what [the police’s] reaction will be”. She’s already had policemen tell her work was not permitted because of the new law and believes it will make easier for them to detain journalists.
Her concerns are far from unfounded. During a protest on 15 February, journalists Fatima Movlamli and Sevinj Sadigov were detained by policemen after covering a protest in front of the Presidential Administration. Both journalists were forced into a police vehicle and taken to the police station, where they claim they were beaten. Their detention was allegedly based off of the pretense that Movlami and Sadigov were not registered as journalists, and could therefore not be involved on media activities.
But it’s not as if the repressions and detentions are anything new. Aygün believes the law is simply an institutionalization of practices that have been carried out against media agents in Azerbaijan for a long time: “We are talking about pretty much the same [police] tactics as in the past”, she says. The law, however, could exacerbate the situation even more. In case the police want to apply the law to the letter, she risks not being able to work anymore because she lacks official identification. More severe restrictions could also take place due to the openness of interpretation of the new legislation, such as when covering voter fraud during elections. Those caught by journalists could argue their “honor and dignity” have been harmed.
For now, Aygün tries to stay positive and hopes that the law has the fate of many laws in the country, which exist on paper but aren’t actually applied. “I hope it will be a law that is not enacted”, she says, “But if I’m more realistic, I think it’ll be easier to get detained.”
The International Women’s Day demonstration on 8 March in Baku has repeatedly ended with the police dispersing the crowd and detaining activists. Aygün believe that day will be a “test event” to understand the dimension of the new law and its applicability. Her prediction? Journalists will face a difficult situation with the police.