Ukraine's Strategic Partners: Situation in the National Media: Azerbaijan Compared to Ukraine (3)

Natalya Belitser,
expert, Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy
exclusively for the BlackSeaNews

Part 1. The Information Dimension of Strategic Partnerships
Part 2. Azerbaijan in Ukraine’s Information Space

Before discussing the topic of the Ukraine’s image in the information space of the Republic of Azerbaijan, it is worth first to consider the general condition of the Azerbaijan’s mass media in comparison with that in Ukraine. This is particularly important in order to assess the radical changes that took place in both countries after the outbreak of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war.

Without laying claim to a comprehensive, scientifically based content analysis, for the purposes of this article, we have monitored popular Azerbaijani websites, including,,, Meydan.TV,, and others. This set somewhat reflects the spectrum of the Azerbaijan’s Internet resources: from the opposition to those that can be called “conditionally independent/neutral” and to the openly pro-government and the Ministry of Defense-affiliated The list contains also the main “mouthpiece of the authorities” —, which is a source of all official documents on Ukrainian-Azerbaijani relations and covers different events, visits, statements, speeches, etc.

To my mind, the persistent struggle for freedom of speech and the press in Azerbaijan, in particular in the legislative field, deserves special attention and solidarity from the Ukrainian media community (which, unfortunately, is not observed). Therefore, it seems appropriate to briefly outline the key points related to this struggle.

Today, Azerbaijani media experts assess the situation as bad with a tendency to further deterioration — the conclusions further confirmed by the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index. According to the PFI, Azerbaijan is one of the worst performing countries, ranking 167th out of 180 in 2020, unlike neighboring Georgia and Armenia that ranked 60th and 63rd, respectively. In the May 3, 2022 Index, Azerbaijan ranked 154th — between Belarus and Russia and lagging behind many countries in Africa and Asia. Over the past year, the situation has hardly changed, with Azerbaijan ranking 151st, i.e., remaining among the countries with the worst media freedom landscape.

It’s noteworthy that all critical materials on the mass media situation, as well as on human rights (also covered by the Meydan.TV), can be found on the news agency website, while other Internet resources either avoid the political component of media problems, being concerned mainly with the low quality of domestic journalism, or whitewash the actions of the executive and legislative authorities, protecting them from opponents within the country and/or from the negative comments of international monitoring agencies. And while only media outlets loyal to the government are funded by the state Media Development Agency, Mehman Aliyev, the head of, calls the resource «the first and last independent news agency in Azerbaijan» (likely an unfair exaggeration). All of the above should be taken into account, especially when analyzing the changes that have taken place in the coverage of Ukraine and the Russian-Ukrainian war since February 24, 2022.

Characterizing the information space of Azerbaijan, let’s recall that after the accession to the Council of Europe (CoE), there have been positive changes in national legislation. In particular, the Law on Access to Information (2005) and the new Law on Television and Radio Broadcasting (2006), that met the CoE commitments and standards, were adopted. These laws were drafted and promoted with the active participation of both local and the CoE/OSCE experts.

However, the following years saw a decisive attack on freedom of speech, evidenced by the ban on broadcasting of leading international radio stations such as Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and the BBC. The decision (effective January 1, 2009) was made by the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting, citing a 2002 law that stated that national FM and medium wave frequencies belonged to the government and thus, couldn’t be used by foreign broadcasters. The OSCE Freedom of Expression Representative Miklos Haraszti said at the time that the Azerbaijani authorities' decision appeared amidst deteriorating security for journalists facing persecution, and that it meant virtually «complete monopolization of the airwaves by voices friendly to the government». Indeed, soon after, many «disloyal» journalists were subjected to brutal pressure, police violence, and arrests, often on charges of violating the Criminal Code.

A case in point is the arrest of Radio Liberty journalist Khadija Ismayilova who investigated corruption by the family of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, for which she was "retaliated" by being sentenced to 7.5 years of imprisonment.

Remarkably though, after considering her appeal, the Supreme Court changed her sentence to 3.5 years of probation, after which the journalist was released. This episode demonstrates that no matter how authoritarian, Aliyev's regime is certainly no match to Putin’s where opposition journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza has been recently sentenced to 25 years in prison just for publicly criticizing the president and his policies, or with Belarus, where such an outcome is hardly possible.

Nevertheless, oppression of media freedom in Azerbaijan is quite real, including at the legislative level.

On December 26, 2016, President Aliyev signed a law according to which insulting the head of state in social networks has become a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment for up to 3 years. In 2017, the Law «On Information, Informatization and Information Protection» was amended to provide ample opportunities for blocking Internet resources.

In the same year, at the request of the Ministry of Justice and on the basis of court decisions, access to several news websites was restricted for reasons of «national security, territorial integrity, public order» etc.

Journalists who considered the decisions to be a violation of Articles 10, 18 and others of the European Convention on Human Rights and Freedoms, filed complaints with the ECHR that in December 2021, for the first time, recognized Azerbaijan's violation of the right to receive information.

The fiercest fight against the oppression of freedom of speech and information space in Azerbaijan erupted due to the non-transparent campaign for the preparation and adoption of the new draft law «On Media» that started in the spring of 2020 without any public involvement, hastily passed all three parliament readings at the end of 2021 — the first one on December 14, 2021, and the third on December 30 — and ended with the President Aliyev’s signing of the law on February 8, 2022. Contrary to the current legislation, the draft law was not published on state websites in time and therefore remained unavailable even for informal discussion that began only after obtained its unofficial copy on December 10, 2021.

It turned out that according to the new law, political parties and religious structures are not allowed to create or own TV channels, news websites or news agencies, while media outlets not included in the officially introduced but not made public Register wouldn’t be able to receive accreditation.

During public discussions of the draft law, the participants noted numerous shortcomings of this document and came to the conclusion that it is designed to establish final state control over various types of media, in particular, by restoring and legalizing censorship, also poses a serious threat to freedom of speech and the press and is a violation of national legislation, including the Constitution, as well as Azerbaijan’s international obligations (for a detailed analysis of the draft law, see 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8).

On December 15, 2021, a critical Assessment Document was distributed, which was subsequently signed by more than 170 Azerbaijani media professionals. Then, as a result of intense joint work of media experts, journalists and lawyers, amendments and proposals to 40 articles of the draft law’s (out of 78) were developed and on December 27, submitted to the relevant committee of the Milli Majlis (Parliament of Azerbaijan) for consideration, The journalists have been supported by human rights groups and a number of opposition political parties.

Some international organizations also joined the protest campaign; the US State Department expressed its concern, too. In January 2022, there were numerous calls for President Aliyev not to sign the law. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović sent him a letter asking to return the document to parliament for revision and amendment, while the reporter of the PACE Monitoring Committee, Stefan Schoenack, asked the Venice Commission to review it and not recommend for the signing. On February 2, Piero Fassino, Chairman of the PACE Monitoring Committee, sent an official request to the Venice Commission.

However, despite all the calls and warnings, on February 8, the president did sign the «regressive» law. The negative conclusion of the Venice Commission was ready only in June 2022 and therefore, could no longer influence the political decision of the Azerbaijani authorities. The December 8, 2022, call of the CoE Cabinet of Ministers to revise the law and bring it into line with the CoE standards is also unlikely to change the situation.

As of January 2023, more than 200 media outlets had applied for registration, of which 160 were approved, in addition to 180 registered journalists. Dozens of media entities and journalists have been denied registration for «technical reasons»; unregistered journalists are not allowed to attend even open parliamentary sessions, while in the regions their activities have been openly obstructed.

Media outlets not included into the register were informed that they will be prosecuted in courts. After repeated refusals to register his websites, a journalist filed a lawsuit against the Media Development Agency (created by presidential decree on January 12, 2021). At a court hearing on March 30, 2023, he submitted a request to verify the compliance of the new media law with the country's Constitution. Another lawsuit alleging the law's unconstitutionality was filed in early May 2023.

Thus, Azerbaijani civil society actors have done everything in their power to defend freedom of speech in their country and stop further attacks on it. Alas, all those efforts have not been successful.

The afore-mentioned course of events is a sad example of how democracy loses in a peaceful struggle against an authoritarian regime, and international institutions are unable to prevent such outcomes.

Nevertheless, Azerbaijani media professionals do not give up and continue to resist. For example, on February 6, 2023, representatives of independent media, journalist organizations and freelancers came together to discuss the problems arising from the application of the media register; they agreed to prepare a new version of the law and start collecting signatures for the revision of the current one.

On March 3, journalists and civil society activists held a zoom conference that discussed the issues related to the functioning of the Register and the practice of implementing the law provisions, reiterating the need for its revision. In addition, Azerbaijani journalists are trying to fight for freedom of speech and the right to access information not only via appeals to the ECHR, but also by using the national judicial system.

To be fair, the government initiatives contain a number of norms (to be included, in particular, into the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Tax Code) that are aimed at strengthening the role of media in public life and ensuring access to information. However, independent media experts are rather skeptical about the possibility of observing these regulations in real life.

On February 9, 2023, the anniversary of the law “On Media” entry into force, Reporters Without Borders marked the infamous date, calling for a complete revision of the law. Isn't it time for representatives of the Ukrainian media community to also support their Azerbaijani colleagues? I believe that their experience is worthy of attention not only of the domestic media, but also of our lawmakers, lawyers, and human rights defenders, because there are certain analogies with the processes taking place in Ukraine.