by Lady Michelle-Jennifer Santos
BAKU, Dec. 26, 2014 (TSR) – State prosecutors in Azerbaijan on Friday have raided the offices of a U.S.-government funded and propaganda “free independent media”, saying they have a court order to shut down the facility as part of an ongoing investigation into “grave crimes” of “foreign-funded entities.”
According to reports, at least 10 employees of the General Prosecutor’s Office backed by armed police entered and searched Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s local service bureau, Radio Azadliq, in the capital, Baku.
The Prosecutors’ office search started at 10.30 in the morning, local Baku time. According to local media reports, the representatives of the General Prosecutor’s Office brought their witnesses with them.
However, only after RFE/RL lawyer Yalcin Imanov demanded to be present at the ongoing raid that the Prosecutors were allowed to do so, with two other staff members of the offices as witnesses.
The bureaus’ equipment and computers have been confiscated as well as all lines of communications have been shut down.
“All the employees have been withdrawn from the office, the telephone and the Internet are disconnected”, reads the statement posted on the website of the Azerbaijani service of “Radio Liberty” based in the Prague.
“Our equipment and computers are being confiscated. Journalists are being forced out of the office. Our telephone and Internet lines are down,” RFE director Kenan Aliyev told AFP.
“What happens is just part of an overall crackdown on free media in Azerbaijan,” he said.
Jeff Shell, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a federal agency supervising U.S. government-supported media, on Friday strongly condemned the raid and closure of the U.S. – funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty offices in Baku as “an escalation of the Azeri government’s abusive attempt to intimidate independent journalists and repress free media,” AP reported.
The BBG said in a statement that investigators from Azerbaijan’s state prosecutor’s office searched the company safe, ransacked files and equipment, and ordered staff members to leave the building after holding them in a room for several hours without telephone or computer access. Several staff members later were summoned for questioning.
The Prosecutor General’s Office told The Associated Press that the search was conducted to investigate a “grave crime” but would not elaborate.
“We call on the authorities to immediately allow RFE/RL to resume its important journalistic work from Baku, and to release investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova,” Shell was quoted as saying in the BBG statement.
Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL’s editor in chief and co-CEO, was also quoted by AP as saying that the raid was “a thuggish effort to silence RFE/RL.”
Protection from U.S. Psywarfare
The crackdown on RFE/RL bureau was not borne out of a whim by the oil-rich nation in the South Caucusus.
In recent months, Azerbaijani prosecutors have done similar raids on other foreign-funded groups, including the Baku offices of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.
After Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) published a series of investigative reports implicating President Aliyev and his family in an alleged corruption, the parliament in June 2012 passed several amendments to the Law on the Right to Obtain Information, the Law on the State Registration of Legal Entities, and the Law on Commercial Secrets. The changes, which took effect in October, allow commercial enterprises to withhold information about their registration, ownership, and structure, severely limiting the ability of investigative journalists to uncover corruption in the corporate sector and identify the private assets of public figures.
Organisations such as Freedom House have openly and continuously criticized the government of President Ilkham Aliev for cracking down on independent media and opposition activists, such as a recent incident which took place earlier this month.
On December 5, morning, the station’s top Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova was detained for two months. Baku Sabail District Court charged her with incitement to suicide, which critics dismissed as an attempt to gag an influential journalist. If the fault of the journalist is proven, then she can be punished by a term of 3 to 7 years in prison.
According to Freedom House, the political environment in Azerbaijan is dominated by the president and the ruling party – in which the group claim to be contributing to the “conditions for freedom of expression … (which) deteriorated further in 2012, as authorities continued to imprison journalists and bloggers and placed additional limits on access to information“, and goes further to saying that “violence against journalists has not abated, and the media are harassed with impunity”.
“Various other criminal laws, including those pertaining to terrorism, hooliganism, narcotics possession, inciting hatred, and tax evasion, are used by the Azerbaijani authorities to suppress and punish critical reporting“, according to Freedom House.
The group also says:
The (Azerbaijan) government nominates all nine members of the National Television and Radio Council (NTRC), the country’s media regulator. According to a report by the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IGPA), the council is fully financed by the state and shows a clear bias toward state-owned broadcasters in licensing procedures. The process of broadcast licensing is opaque; the NTRC has not published the list of available television and radio frequencies in the past 10 years, contrary to its obligation to do so annually. The British Broadcasting Corporation, RFE/RL, and Voice of America have been off the air since January 2009, when NTRC regulations banned foreign broadcasters from accessing national frequencies. The council also interferes with the editorial policies of domestic media outlets. In May 2012, it banned all foreign television shows from Azerbaijani channels, supposedly to limit excessive foreign influence. The authorities use various other methods to censor the media, even though official censorship has been banned since 1998. For example, legal amendments adopted in 2009 restrict the ability of journalists to film or photograph individuals without their consent, even at public events.
Truth be known, RFE/RL is funded through grants from the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency which answers directly to the U.S. Congress.
The Committee on Foreign Relations in the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of Representatives have jurisdiction over non-military U.S. international broadcasting.
The Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate appropriate funds for U.S. international broadcasting on an annual basis and provide program and policy guidance or direction for the use of appropriated funds.
These Congressional committees also have oversight authority over BBG, which oversees all U.S. civilian international media, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).
RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service was established in 1953.
Since the 90’s, RFE/RL has been responsible for assisting various coups throughout Europe. The US and Israel has used Azerbaijan as a staging ground for spying on Iran as both countries have common borders and common ancestry.
According to Wikileaks, the disinformation and psywarfare by U.S. funded RFE/RL media targeting President Aliyev and Azerbaijan has been going on for a years.
Wikileaks disclosed a classified and ‘secret’ diplomatic cable dated August 6, 2008 from the US Embassy in Baku to the US State Department reflects the results of the meetings held between the senior level US State Department Delegation and the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. The US diplomats held preparatory talks with the Azerbaijani president on the eve of the US vice-president Dick Cheney’s visit to Azerbaijan in early September of 2008. The parties discussed broad range of issues, but the most controversial part of the discussion was on the US focus on democratization issues in Azerbaijan.
The cable sheds light into how Azerbaijani president Aliyev was plainly disconcerted by the US media demonisation and disinformation.
The president highlighted the number of media outlets and publications in Azerbaijan as evidence that Azerbaijan “does not have restrictions on the media”.
Aliyev refuted media disinformation about him and Azerbaijan, saying the information in the US on this issue “is not right.”
“He said he was surprised to hear that at the recent Helsinki Commission hearings in Washington, it was reported that if someone in Azerbaijan criticized him, that person would be arrested”, the cable said.
“This is provocation and disinformation … I am criticized daily, and in ways that go beyond ethical rules. Those who criticize “are still walking” around Baku”, Aliyev noted.
The Azerbaijani leader said he is trying to install the Internet in every school, and has no plans to limit it.
He cited that Radio Liberty activity shows the level of media freedom. However, the broadcasts showed 90 percent of the coverage was mostly personally “critical” of him with limited opportunities for their “party” to respond.
“They can reflect what they see, but we ask that they be objective. Insulting me personally is not fair or friendly,” Aliyev said in the cable.
The president also refuted allegations and said “we do not believe that the level of democracy in Azerbaijan is lower than that of any other country of the region.”
The “assumption” that democratic reform is weaker in Azerbaijan than in Georgia or Armenia “was always in the air in Washington, and the Secretary of State made it public recently,” Aliyev noted.
“It is a classification of democratic development we do not agree with and we cannot accept,” especially in light of the crackdowns in Georgia and Armenia, including killings of protesters, closure of media outlets, arrests of oppositionists, and the declaration of state of emergency, according to Aliyev.
“We never did anything like that and we are considered less democratic,” he opined.
Aliyev also paraphrased Secretary Rice’s recent comments in Prague about “oil rich dictatorships with 18th century systems enjoying only temporary success,” which he said were made in response to a question about Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which does not reflect realities.
“These kinds of statements are not helpful; we do not understand why they are happening. They are not in line with our relations and they do not reflect Azerbaijan’s realities,” he said.
President Aliyev was displeased with the hypocrisy saying “major events in Georgia or Armenia draw little US criticism, while minor events in Azerbaijan draw major US government reaction”.
“CNN called me a dictator, but not Sargisian or Kocharian, and they killed people. Such statements also create a negative image of Azerbaijan,” he argued.
“People in Azerbaijan watch these reports and they raise questions. When they come from CNN or Radio Liberty people think they reflect the US government’s views”, Aliyev explained.
“It is one thing for NGO’s to criticize, another thing for the State Department to do so”, he said.
The crackdown is a manifestation of oil-rich Azerbaijan’s patience over U.S. double standards, constant interference and funding to destabilise countries running very thin and reconsiders its relations as it nears the ‘red line’.
Lady Michelle-Jennifer Santos is the Chief Visionary Founder and Owner of the The Santos Republic.