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"The New York Times" on RFE/RL ban in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan Bars Foreigners From Use of Its FM Band


ISTANBUL — Azerbaijan has begun to enforce a law that bans foreign companies from broadcasting on national frequencies, effectively closing its airwaves to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the BBC.

Foreign companies are still permitted to broadcast on shortwaves, satellite and cable, according to Ali M. Hasanov, an official in Azerbaijan’s presidential administration.

“They can broadcast any way they like, except for on our national FM frequency,” Mr. Hasanov said by telephone from Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.

But Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, or RFE/RL, an American-government-financed radio and television broadcaster with representation in most countries of the former Soviet Union, argues that FM was the primary way Azeris heard its programming, and that taking it away has cut off 90 percent of its audience.

Jeffrey Gedmin, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Prague, said that shortwave and Internet radio would not make up the difference, as Azeris had limited access to both, and said the change had left Azeris “without access to free and independent media.”

The law is several years old, but some aspects came into force at the end of 2008, which is when it began to affect foreign broadcasters, Mr. Hasanov said.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty argues that the change had more to do with its critical stance than with legal reform, and says that shrinking access to news and pressure on the media is becoming commonplace throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Kyrgyzstan took a weekly RFE/RL television show off the air last year, while Uzbekistan aired a documentary identifying its employees and giving their families’ addresses, a risk in a country whose government harasses independent journalists and politicians. A teacher who had been a guest on a Turkmenistan public service program was harassed and briefly jailed last year, Mr. Gedmin said.

“There is a trend against free media,” Mr. Gedmin said in a phone interview from Prague. “They see us as a challenge to their authority.”

What began as a tool for the American government during the cold war, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has become an important source for news in many of the countries of the former Soviet Union since the collapse of Communism. Many leaders of former Soviet countries guard their power jealously, blocking independent news media and political opposition.

RFE/RL has been one of the few surviving independent outlets, in part because of support lent to it by American embassies, which local governments do not want to offend.

But in Azerbaijan, even American government efforts to keep the programming on its FM station on air appear to have failed, and after weeks of negotiations, RFE/RL sent out a press release saying so on Dec. 30.

“This is a move aimed at eliminating plurality,” said Khadija Ismayilova, Baku bureau chief for Radio Azadliq, the name of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan. “We are the only place where the opposition has a chance to present their views, to take part in debates.”


A version of this article also appeared in the International Herald Tribune