At the end of August 2017, news broke that Azerbaijani law enforcement authorities arrested Mehman Aliyev, editor-in-chief of the Turan Information Agency, Azerbaijan’s sole remaining independent media outlet. The controversy quickly took over the airwaves, with widespread international coverage and with global governments showcasing their support and sympathy for Aliyev.
Despite a strong economic presence in the energy industry, due to its vast petroleum and natural gas reserves in the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan’s GDP still has an annual growth of less than 1%. Due to this stagnation and its fragile economy, Azerbaijan has seen a large bout of political disillusionment. The Freedom House classifies the republic as “not free.” On a scale of 1, meaning most free, to 7, meaning least free, Azerbaijan scores a 7 on political rights, a 6 on civil liberties, and an overall 6.5 freedom rating. In addition to this, the country is notorious for its lack of freedom of the press, with Reporters without Borders ranking it at 162 out of the total of 180 countries.
With 10 in every 158 imprisoned, journalists in Azerbaijan often refrain from criticism of the government and its policies, in fear of retaliation. Since 1992, there have been more than five journalists killed in the country, and over a hundred imprisoned. There have been numerous cases of violence against and torture of journalists aimed at discouraging them from reporting anything that may potentially be in opposition to the government of President Ilham Aliyev who, along with his father Heydar Aliyev, have been in power since before Azerbaijan became independent. Press houses and media outlets in the country have been shut down, what with Mehman Aliyev’s arrest this year.
The problem that arises while discussing Azerbaijan’s issues of freedom of press and corrupt government is the close connection between the two. Aliyev’s arrest was owed to his attempts to expose a money laundering scheme involving Azerbaijani politicians and their pay-offs to foreign parties in aiding the country’s government. With an ongoing economic crisis, the Azerbaijani people are getting poorer and poorer, whilst politicians are getting richer and richer. The restrictions placed upon the Azerbaijani media make it difficult for the citizens to have access to credible information: in an article for the Guardian in September 2017, Azerbaijani journalist Khadjia Ismayilova wrote that “The lack of independent media and civil society secures absolute impunity for corruption.” This lack of accountability and appropriate punishment allows the government to behave in any manner they deem appropriate.
In addition to this, government officials laundering money invest it in companies in foreign equities, rather than in Azerbaijan’s own dwindling healthcare and public education systems. As Azerbaijanis crumble, their politicians enjoy luxurious lives with ample financial security.
The Azerbaijani government’s global reputation as a suppressor of the press has led to its widespread criticism from organisations like Freedom House, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and even governmental departments, such as the US Department of State, the UK Government, and the Council of Europe (CoE). At a time like this, however, it is perhaps wise to ask: will press releases and universal humiliation help alleviate the issue at large, or worsen it?
With a lack of independent media outlets and a general censure on freedom of speech, it can be argued that the Republic of Azerbaijan is hardly a republic at all, but merely a continuation of its past totalitarian regime, where freedom of speech and barring of commentary on the government were little to none.