The Pen Is Mightier Than These Legal Swords

Despite their best efforts to keep such discussions under wraps (or just suppress them altogether), a confusing web of stories have emerged this week regarding what is arguably the Azerbaijani government’s worst human rights violation: the restriction of the foreign and domestic press.

As I’ve previously discussed, Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Azerbaijan as the 160th least free country (or 20th most restrictive, depending on how you look at it) in their World Press Freedom Index. (For perspective, Burma, Russia, Singapore, and the Central African Republic were more highly ranked.) The Azeri government is notorious for silencing dissent by passing laws that ban certain kinds of speech, or detaining journalists for months if they are thought to be writing pieces that might undermine the government.

Of course, this “criticism of government” (read: repression) extends to discussion on sensitive topics to the Azeri government, such as Nagorno-Karabakh. On April 10th, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced new policies for foreign “mass media representatives” that had, in fact, been approved and gone into effect a week prior. The Ministry’s new policy dictates the following:

“The Foreign Ministry will revoke the accreditation of foreign mass media representatives in case they violate the rules of accreditation, work against the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan, visit Azerbaijani territories occupied by the Republic of Armenia, without the consent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or disseminate distorted or false information or this information is approved by the court decision.”

Hmm. What types of reporting could possibly fall under this law?

It certainly has nothing to do with another story from the 10th, in which Baku declared New York Times reporter Seth Kugel an official persona non grata for his “distortion of the real situation in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan” and “showing a clear disrespect to the readers of the newspaper.” Earlier this week Kugel, a writer for the NYT’s “Frugal Traveler” column, published an article about his trip to Nagorno-Karabakh from February.

The spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hikmet Hajiyev, expressed his disappointment at Kugel’s “failure to mention that such transnational crimes as human trafficking, production and sale of drugs, illicit arms trafficking, training of terrorists are organized in these territories,” and his enmity towards the New York Times for publishing a “biased” article that paints Nagorno-Karabakh as a pleasant “tourist trap.” Because Kugel visited Nagorno-Karabakh without explicit approval from Baku (yet another Azeri law), he is now blacklisted (which may or may not actually mean anything). While I’ll let you be the judge of whether Kugel’s piece is “offensive,” it’s worth noting that Hajiyev is overall correct – but he should probably save his displeasure for something more threatening.

All of this follows another article where Baku did, in fact, permit a foreign reporter – BBC journalist Rayhan Demytrie – to visit Nagorno-Karabakh and report on the “struggles and hopes” of the people living there. Yerevan, which has similar rules for reporters, did not approve the request. Hajiyev released a statement, this time praising Demytrie and the BBC’s professionalism, although he did note that “some points in the prepared video reportage are controversial.” Her video report on the “frozen” conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can be found here.



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